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Humor columnist offers advice to students

Dave Barry tells three classes on Wednesday morning to be patient when planning to earn a living simply by following their dreams.

Dave Barry talks with students after his morning guest lecture to three classes in the School of Communications.

A day after addressing the Elon University community at Fall Convocation and the Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture, humor columnist Dave Barry met with students in the School of Communications and the Department of English on Wednesday to share stories from his travels and to offer advice as they prepare for their own careers: notably, “be patient.”

Students from three classes led by School of Communications faculty members Michelle Ferrier, Anthony Hatcher and Michael Skube filled the theater in the McEwen building for a morning guest appearance that was jokingly described as “one of the best mandatory assignments you’ll ever have.”

Barry, a longtime Miami Herald columnist who won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary and who retired from full-time writing in 2005, was an English major at Haverford College outside of Philadelphia. Shortly after graduating, he took a job with the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., something Barry dubbed “the world’s most generic newspaper name.”

He covered fires, shootings, and sewage debate for a few years in the early 1970s. Nothing sparked an interest in continuing as a reporter. “What I really wanted to do was write humor,” he said, “but no one would pay me.”

That didn’t stop him from publishing a weekly humor column for the paper. And it didn’t stop him from, years after leaving West Chester to teach effective writing, submitting a column to the Philadelphia Inquirer on his experience with preparing his wife for childbirth. Barry joked with students about that process.

“They use the word ‘contraction.’ They never use the word ‘pain,’” he said of the doctors involved in the birth of his son. “It’s like talking about the Pacific Ocean and never using the word ‘water.’”

The Inquirer essay netted him $500. When a Chicago Tribune editor called to ask how much he would charge for the Midwest paper to run the same work, Barry replied $50, figuring he already got paid. The editor chuckled and said he would pay $750.

Shortly afterward, he was in Miami writing a regular feature for the Herald. Books would follow, as would a TV sitcom on the 1990s based on his columns and the 2002 movie Big Trouble, which was inspired by one of Barry’s first fictional novels.

Barry credited his parents with helping to develop his own sense of humor. He grew up in a house where “nothing” was sacrilegious. Of course, he added, Saturday Night Live motivated him as well.

The retired columnist fielded several questions from students, including those that asked about how Barry concludes whether a joke may be funny, the inspiration for his humor, and more about his home in Miami, a city that often receives humorous jabs though one that is “cosmopolitan” with lots of diversity and culture.

Toward the end, one student asked if he ever regretted columns he had published. Barry replied that he had, indeed, written things for which he is ashamed, like once using the word “retard” to describe a stupid person and not considering the insult it implies toward people with developmental disabilities. The mother of one young girl wrote a polite letter telling him so.

However, Barry said, he typically has no regrets of those who draw his attention. “I try to pick targets that I think deserve it,” Barry said as he provided one note of caution. “When you pick on someone, it’s kind of unfair. You have a newspaper and they don’t.”

Eric Townsend,
10/13/2011 12:33 PM