The Dave Barry Effect

Ever read Dave Barry? He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning humor columnist who used to write for The Miami Herald and he’s hilarious. Seriously, if you’re not familiar with his work go read one of his books like Dave Barry Does Japan or Dave Barry Talks Back. Both of these are great examples of his work and relevant to what I want to talk about because today I want to talk about humor. And he’s gotten a Pulitzer with his humor so he must be good at it, y’know?

I’ve mentioned before that humor is mostly derived from timing and delivery, the biggest exception being humor based on the absurd. And the reason I mentioned Dave Barry is because comedie bizarre is his forte.

Before there was an Internet few writers interacted directly with their audience. But as a weekly humor columnist Dave Barry had a constant and gnawing need for material. At some point, presumably early on in his career, Barry started encouraging his readers to send him any and every weird headline they found in the news. This eventually resulted in his featuring stories like the exploding whale or the air dropped trout. Each and every time Barry would tell his audience about one of these ridiculous events he would assure us, emphatically, that he was not making them up.

Seriously, this was a running gag equaled only by the way Barry would suggest random phrases would make good names for a rock band.

But the point of this post is not to exposit about Barry’s style, it’s to talk about one work of his in particular. In 1999 Dave Barry published Big Trouble, a novel. I won’t go into everything the book is about because it’s got a lot of plot threads juggled in a lot of ways that are really kind of clever and build to a decent climax and a mildly interesting payoff. It’s an okay book, but not a great one. That could be forgiven but, as someone familiar with Barry’s style, I found it had one flaw that was totally unforgivable.

It wasn’t that funny.

Oh, it will make you smile. And you might chuckle at a line or two. But there’s nothing particularly laugh out loud, sticks in your mind for life funny in the book, at least not that I found.

You see, a writer’s ability to use the absurd in fiction is inherently bounded by the fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Just reporting verifiable facts and then commenting on them lets Barry and many modern imitators get away with talking about some really ridiculous stuff, writing fiction demands that the author produce scenarios that sound at least somewhat plausible to the average reader. Big Trouble, unfortunately, crosses the line of plausibility in search of laughs and that kind of undermines the story.

Let me see if I can explain this a little better. You may know about something absolutely crazy that happened to your friend when he was sixteen and on a road trip across the country to visit his grandmother but if you adapt it to be a part of a fictional story you’re telling people will most likely just roll their eyes and wonder how you expected them to believe it. That’s the problem Big Trouble feels like it has.

Or, in other words, Dave Barry’s absurdist humor worked because we knew he wasn’t making it up. When he published a book that went in the fiction section, explicitly telling us he was making it up now, he lost most of the power in one of his greatest humor weapons. Now Barry is still funny and a brilliant satirist. But in both Big Trouble and his second novel, Tricky Business, he tried to turn the satire he lavished on real life into the foundation for a story and it was found somewhat lacking. While it may sound like I’m being harsh with Barry’s books I do want to say that I still enjoy his writing. His first two novels just aren’t the greatest examples of it and I haven’t read any of his later fiction. Maybe one day when I have some more time on my hands.

In conclusion, absurdism may be the best foundation for written humor but it’s not a good foundation for fiction. So what do you do when you want to write humorous fiction?

Well, that’s a question for another time.

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