You see a book in your local bookstore; it’s by Dave Barry. What’s your first thought?
Not surprisingly, a recent, scientifically randomized poll showed that 97.38 percent of those in that situation thought: “Silly.” Unfortunately, despite an exhaustive search of Wikipedia and About.com, I couldn’t verify that figure — it just stuck in my head, honest — so, with apologies, this paragraph will remain linkless. However, I will verify that my second thought was: “Is he still funny? Does funny wear out?”
I gave Dave another chance since, after all, he actually won the Pulitzer Prize for Silliness once — well, no, I made that up, just like the figure above. Barry’s Pulitzer was for Commentary at the Miami Herald, presumably because there’s no actual prize for Silly Commentary. The stuffy Pulitzer folks dressed the writer’s award up as follows back in 1988: "For his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns."
Barry’s newest book, a collection of previously unpublished pieces, is called Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer Is Much Faster), and it is dressed up as advice to his daughter and grandson about happiness.
The unhappy comic
He starts by debunking the assertion that money can’t buy happiness (though, he points out, so much is needed to do so that you’d have to be “one of those 23-year-old Internet billionaires that everybody would like to punch in the mouth”). Next he declares that, despite a good life, he is not happy, despite a career “that consists of being paid to write pretty much any random idiot thing I want.” This sentence is followed immediately by his first signature Barry line: “You can put suspenders on a salamander, but it still won’t make waffles. See what I mean?”
In other words, roughly 550 words in, we’re off and running. He’s still funny.
Barry’s ostensible subjects run the gamut from B (Beckham and Brazil) to R (Russia), which certainly seems like some sort of improper gamut, but that might make Barry momentarily happy. In reality, many of his subjects are excuses for the author to talk about his own life experience in his own inimitable way, involving insistent self-deprecation and totally unexpected juxtaposition.
The temptation here is to simply fill up the rest of the page with quotations, but I won’t, even though Barry is perhaps the only living writer who can make me laugh so hard I weep.
Oh, all right — from his experience as a high school long jumper: “I possessed essentially the same natural leaping ability as the Lincoln Memorial.” And as an early adopter of new tech: “I have been buying GPS units since the days when they had tiny black-and-white screens that said only: YOU ARE PROBABLY IN EITHER NORTH OR SOUTH AMERICA.” No, it’s not Evelyn Waugh — thank some god — but you won’t care unless droll is a very important word to you. Yes, for a man his age (68), Barry occasionally uses childish phrases (“stupid idiot”) that he tries to make humorous by repetition, but largely, he’s living proof that there are some people who are just born funny.
Let’s return to “serious concerns,” however. Does anything in the book rise to the level of that Pulitzer award language? Sure, check out the parody of 24/7 cable news channels reporting on a “developing” story. Also, breathe in the chapter on the Greatest Generation as the real fun generation. But keep in mind, generally, that expecting high seriousness from Barry is like finding Don Trump’s Mexican Restaurant.