Dave Barry’s Mix of Over the Top Humor, Seriousness Reflects ‘Insanity’ of Miami

February 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Humorist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss his new novel, "Insane City," where pre-wedding antics meets sober topics like immigration. Barry describes his writing process, his affinity for P.G. Wodehouse and why his home city of Miami is a target-rich environment.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, switching the tone just a bit for a conversation with humorist Dave Barry.

Barry is well-known for his long-running newspaper column about all things wacky and wonderful in Miami. And Miami is the setting for his new novel, which includes a bachelor party run amuck, a wedding that’s interrupted by the arrival of a boat of Haitian refugees, a large python snake, some Russian gangsters and, well, a lot more. The book is titled “Insane City.”

Dave Barry joined me in our studio last week. Here’s our conversation.

David Barry, welcome.

DAVE BARRY, Author: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Insane City,” that would, of course, be Miami.

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DAVE BARRY: That’s my town.

JEFFREY BROWN: Once again giving you a cool all kinds of material.

DAVE BARRY: Why else do we have Miami, if not to give me material?

No, I moved there in 1986 from the United States.

And I have never lived in a more target-rich environment for a humorist.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it about Miami that keeps giving?

DAVE BARRY: People — I mean, first of all, the people are weird. People come from everywhere. People — just weird people are attracted to Miami. And they come there not for serious reasons, usually.

They come there to be criminals. That would be our elected officials for the most part. They come there to party. And then the wildlife is weird. The weather is weird. It’s just this festering stew of weirdness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, amid the weirdness, though, part of the fun mayhem here, then you bring in this raft of Haitian refugees arriving in the midst of a lavish wedding, right? Now, that part, at least migration is not funny, in and of itself.


The goal there was, I wanted to give the hero of the book, a guy named Seth, who is kind of a slacker who is getting married, something that he had to be responsible for. He’s been a guy who sort of drifted through life. And he accidentally, on the night of his bachelor party, gets very, well, wasted — and that’s normal — but then, without intending to, ends up rescuing a Haitian woman who washes ashore with her two children in a place where Haitians regularly do come ashore in Miami, and is then suddenly responsible for them.

And he has — on the weekend of his what is supposed to be perfect wedding has Haitians living in his bachelor suite, which is not ideal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, but as a writer then, you — the tone — you have to balance that tone, right, of sort of over-the-top humor and, well, Haitian refugees.

DAVE BARRY: Yes. And I tried very hard to treat them very seriously. It is a life-and-death problem that they are dealing with.

But, at the same time, the machinations of the groom and his groomsmen and the bride trying to get the wedding to go ahead the way it is supposed to around that is meant to be funny.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, part of — it seems like you are always — you’re taking normal things and pushing them.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, is that the M.O. here? Where does it start? Does it start with the normal thing and then you sort of imagine, oh, I wonder how far I — what I can do with it?


Like, one of the other problems that the groom has to deal with is he’s — he loses the wedding ring. He has been entrusted with the wedding — really nothing but the wedding ring, this valuable heirloom wedding ring. He loses it. And I thought, well, what would be a really good way to lose it? And I decided that he would lose it to an orangutan. So there’s an orangutan named Trevor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute.


Well, this happens all the time. Never — this is why are you not supposed to have an orangutan at a wedding. You know that. Right?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And I’m not supposed to ask why losing a ring — it would be a nice way to lose it to an orangutan.

DAVE BARRY: Well, it’s just because it is a little bit, as you say, pushing, pushing the envelope.

And what is funny is that I meant for Trevor to be like a minor character, just he was going to be the mechanism by which the ring gets lost. But I liked him a lot. And he really — he kind of took on a life of his own, and he became, in fact, a romantic character in this novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then the other thing is the mundane craziness, and I think — I guess I’m imagining this is your reporter’s eye. I did an experiment this afternoon.

I just opened the book randomly. I was on page 244. But one of the characters is trying to buy something at a drugstore.


JEFFREY BROWN: This is something we all go through.


JEFFREY BROWN: And then he said — but you write, “She was the” — he is behind one customer — “She was the nightmare customer to be stuck behind, a woman with coupons.”

And then you kind of riff on that.

DAVE BARRY: Yes. This is a guy who is a gangster, basically, who needs to get some diapers for the Haitian — it’s complicated, but he needs to get some diapers for the Haitian mother’s kids. And he gets stuck behind this woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is complicated.

DAVE BARRY: And we have all been stuck behind that woman with, you know — and she has a coupon, but it is not for the right thing. Well, what is the right thing? That is a cent off — you know, that — so I wrote a long scene where this poor man with a gun is stuck behind this woman.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about — of course, you wrote this column for a long time — the biggest difference between turning that out and then this kind of — this kind of work.

DAVE BARRY: Well, when I’m writing columns, it’s — all I’m thinking about is jokes, joke, joke, joke, setup, punch line, joke, joke, joke. And I really don’t care where it goes.

I don’t have a point the make. I have never had a point in my life to make. I’m just trying to entertain the reader. So I’m happy to start on one topic and end on another one entirely, as long as it’s funny.

With a novel, you have to have a story. It’s much more important to have it matter to the reader what happens to people, and it has to make sense and end in a way that is satisfying. So I spend a lot more time thinking about that. Then the writing itself usually is easier for me, because I know where it’s going.

JEFFREY BROWN: But those columns won you a Pulitzer for commentary.

And you are saying joke, joke, joke, you had no point to make?

DAVE BARRY: Sometimes, it gets really — I became, after I won the Pulitzer Prize, a juror. And it can be a long day reading Pulitzer Prize entries. So I think maybe they were just happy to have something that wasn’t serious.

JEFFREY BROWN: No, but you — but you also — you would go to scenes, right? You were reporting the city in a sense in a joking way.

DAVE BARRY: Yes, I mean, I …

DAVE BARRY: Yes, yes. If you are trying to give me a compliment here, by gosh, I’m going to take it.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Take it and run with it.

I mean, no, but did you see yourself sort of — and in this too, it’s kind of reporting a city. Am I taking this too far?

DAVE BARRY: No, no, you are absolutely right.

And I do try to raise certain issues. They’re not like major abstract policy issues, but, you know, dealing with the issue in this case of why is it OK for Haitian — for Cuban immigrants to come to Miami and just walk ashore and they’re allowed to stay, and Haitian immigrants are not?

And that suddenly becomes important to this guy who never even thought about immigration. So I guess I’m raising that issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a favorite literary humorist of the past that you look to, either as columnist or novelist?

DAVE BARRY: My favorite novelist of all time is P.G. Wodehouse.


DAVE BARRY: And when I write a book, that is the guy I’m thinking of, like many different characters with many different motives banging off each other in someplace, like Blandings Castle, with no idea what the other ones are up to, and somehow some resolution at the end. I love that kind of plotting.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is to come? More Miami keeps giving? What?

DAVE BARRY: Yes, Miami, you can never run out of material. As long as you have Miami around you, you will never, never stop being amused.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, this one is “Insane City.”

Dave Barry, nice to talk to you.

DAVE BARRY: Same here. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, online, you can watch more of Dave Barry as he reads an excerpt from his new novel.