Dave Barry is so over-the-top funny that he’s made a career out of making people laugh. He’s published 27 nonfiction books (with such titles as “Stay Fit and Healthy Until You’re Dead”) and 13 novels (most of them, surprisingly, for children, with author Ridley Pearson).
A Florida resident for more than 30 years, Barry’s new book is “Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27, 240 pages; on sale Sept. 6). The dedication reads: “To my fellow Floridians: Don’t ever sober up.”
In his introduction, Barry offers reasons why Florida consistently draws so many new residents. One of them is, “The weather is warm.” He notes, “Almost any day of the year I could walk out my front door naked and be perfectly physically comfortable until the police tasered me.”
He goes on to give a “history” of Florida (“In 1845, Florida became the 27th state in the union, choosing Tallahassee as its capital, which got a good laugh from the other states because Tallahassee is located in Alabama.”)
The heart of the book is Barry’s visits to “weird” places around the state, “must-sees” that include the Skunk Ape Headquarters in Ochopee; the Spongeorama sponge factory in Tarpon Springs; Cassadaga, a town of mediums and spiritualists; and The Villages, a community for seniors in mid-state Sumter County, population 157,000.
Barry wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor column for the Miami Herald from 1983 till 2004. “Dave’s World,” a CBS sitcom based on two of his autobiographical books, starred Harry Anderson as Dave and aired from 1993 to 1997. His first novel, “Big Trouble,” was made into a 2002 movie starring Tim Allen and Rene Russo.
Barry writes two nationally syndicated columns each year, a zany holiday gift guide and a bizarre year-in-review roundup. Both have appeared in The Sacramento Bee.
Barry and his wife, Michelle, live with their daughter in Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami. Visit him at davebarry.com.
Q: In your book, you call Florida the weirdest state of all. What makes it so?
A: It’s the people from other places – maybe California, even – coming here and being weird, more than it’s home-grown weirdness, though we do have that. People from everywhere are greatly attracted to this state, and when they get here they behave however they want and immediately establish themselves as completely new human beings. California used to have the national reputation for weirdness, but we’ve pretty much iced the gold medal on that. We’re all festering in the sun and humidity, so everybody is too hot to do anything about it.
Q: Which cities are the weirdest?
A: Let’s not leave out stupid. Miami, Key West and Orlando. Where else but Disney World can you waddle around, gnawing on a smoked turkey leg while wearing mouse ears on your head? You can’t do that in most cities. People would shoot you.
Q: What’s the attraction for you?
A: I’m a humor writer in need of material, and this is a very target-rich environment. Beyond that, I love Miami because basically you are living in a Latin country that uses American currency and (is governed) by some American laws. It’s crazy and sometimes dangerous, but always interesting.
Q: As “romantic gestures,” you write, you bought your wife a sea sponge at a sponge factory, and a T-shirt at the Skunk Ape Headquarters, which is devoted to finding the legendary Bigfoot of the Everglades.
A: Yes, but I’ve noticed she’s not wearing the Skunk Ape T-shirt – I think it’s her size – and I’ve not seen her use the sponge, even though (the saleslady) said it’s “the Cadillac of sponges.” You try to be thoughtful, but I don’t think I won her heart with those.
Q: How does she put up with your sense of humor?
A: She gets asked that question at least once a day. I learned long ago that we weren’t going to have a successful marriage if I kept trying to make her laugh. Every now and then I will unleash a witticism in her direction, but as a rule I’m just a regular human at home.
Q: You’ve defined your sense of humor existentially as “a measurement of the extent to which we realize we are trapped in a world almost devoid of reason. Laughter is how we express the anxiety we feel at this knowledge.” Is it the laughter that keeps you from deep depression?
A: For me, it’s more a matter of insecurity rather than depression. Everybody who does humor started when they were like 4, so the other kids would like them. And in the end, it’s really why they still do it. With me, it’s like, “Can I still make people laugh?” If I can’t, then I’m worthless! I’m always looking for the next line.
Q: Beyond the humor in “Best. State. Ever.” you show a lot empathy for The Villages retirement community.
A: Whenever I go to a place that’s an obvious target, I don’t want to take the obvious shots. I did expect to be much more mocking of The Villages, but I’m 69 years old, part of its demographic. (Its residents) have a point: We live in a world where the 18-to-35 demographic is worshiped and older people are considered idiots. I totally get why the residents say, “Hey, we’re gonna dance and drink and have a good time. Too bad if you don’t like it.”
Q: You certainly appreciated one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, Weeki Wachee Springs, where mermaids still perform underwater shows for tourists.
A: It took me back to my youth, when my dad would drive the family down to Florida (from small-town New York). There was no Interstate 95, and we’d be on some little road and stop to see places that usually had water-based (amusements), sometimes alligators lying in the muck doing nothing. That was Florida before Disney World, the vibe where Florida came from. (The state) was one big roadside attraction. It’s kind of still there at Weeki Wachee.
Q: Do you have a favorite Florida go-to?
A: We like Sanibel Island (on the Gulf Coast) a lot, and Key West. I even like Orlando when I have my grandson with me. One of my favorite things is going over to Key Biscayne on a weekday when nobody’s there and buying a Cuban sandwich at the Oasis, a little shack in a gas station parking lot. Then sitting on a beach eating lunch and watching the waves come in. I love that still.
Q: You ran for president in 2000 and 2004. Your constituency misses you.
A: I used to think of myself as the joke candidate, but this year I think I would be Abraham Lincoln. If the people of California will get behind my presidential candidacy, I will appoint everybody to the Supreme Court.