WHEN DAVE BARRY announced that he would be suspending his syndicated column for at least a year, it created a humor vacancy at hundreds of newspapers around the country. This has led to a feeding frenzy in which every two-bit humor writer is angling for a piece of Dave's action.
I, for one, find this opportunism disgraceful. This is a principled position that I hope newspaper editors will remember when they decide whether to pick up my column at the surprisingly affordable prices offered by The Washington Post Writers Group.
I admit I am a little nervous about going national. I have performance anxiety. Fortunately, Dave Barry is one of my oldest and closest friends, and he graciously agreed to help me out. This is a verbatim transcript of our conversation.
Me: This page is reserved for a National Treasure, a status I have somehow not yet attained. What is the secret of being a National Treasure?
Dave: Well, I'd say the number one thing, Gene, is talent. It takes more talent than you have. Maybe you could pay people to read your column. Put a $5 bill in the page. You might try that.
Me: As your first editor, I was there at the beginning of your career as a humor columnist. Would it be fair to say that without me, you would currently be pushing a broom at Jiffy Lube?
Dave: Yes. As I recall, you found me writing with a piece of coal on the side of the refrigerator carton I was living in. You looked at it and said: "Hey, this isn't bad. It could use some editing, though. More poop jokes, maybe . . ." Even after you hired me, I remained in the carton, because you didn't pay me. "Trust me, Dave," you said, "exposure is what you're after."
Me: What was the single most valuable lesson you learned from me? Please don't worry about seeming too complimentary or even fawning.
Dave: I would say the idea of putting humor into my column. In the beginning I would write something like, "He was really fat, as fat as a really fat guy," and you would say, "Dave, you should try to make some sort of joke out of it." That really turned things around. Also, I learned it is very important not to pay too much attention to editors, no matter how sure they are of themselves. I know that, as a writer, you can relate to that -- the horror of having an editor who thinks he knows everything about humor. As a writer, you can appreciate how obnoxious it would be to have an editor like that.
Me: Could you tell the readers what happened when you and I once decided that we men were perfectly capable of enjoying a festive day at the beach with our then-infant children, without the accompaniment of our wives?
Dave: Yeah. We did really well, except that we forgot to bring any bathing suits or towels, or anything to eat or drink, or any sunscreen or diapers. My son, Rob, and Gene's daughter, Molly, were about 5, and Molly's brother, Danny, was 2. They were at the beach in street clothes. And I do remember that we lost Molly. In a way, it was not our fault, because Molly had to pee, and neither of us wanted to go into the ladies' room. The ladies' room was not a big building, maybe 20 feet square, but Molly disappeared in there for about 40 minutes, and when she finally came out, she said she couldn't find the toilet. By the time we got home the kids had blisters, and we got in trouble.
Me: Do you, as I do, stand staunchly against the regrettably common practice of wearing mirrors on the top of one's shoes so one can look up women's skirts?
Dave: Yes, I think that with modern advances in miniaturizing cameras, there is no need to use primitive devices that leave no recorded images for downloading onto the Internet. I just don't know what people are thinking.
Me: You say your column might return in a year. If it does, obviously, every single newspaper in America that has chosen to run my column will cough me right up like a too-hot hunk of shish kebab. Wouldn't that be a terrible shame?