It’s often assumed that Dave Barry has a wild comic imagination, like Rabelais, Swift, and Paula Jones. This is a common misconception. He actually has one of the finest scientific minds of our times. The confusion arises because he doesn’t investigate the things prominent scientists usually investigate, such as quarks, black holes, mitochondria, and movie popcorn. Instead, he ventures into areas so chaotic and controversial that most scientists won’t go anywhere near them — income tax forms, easy-assembly instructions, snakes in toilets, bad songs, science-fair projects. Naturally, in contending with these little-understood phenomena, he has to invent his own units of measurement, such as the breath mint (“This ploy is effective only if the observer has the IQ of a breath mint, so it worked perfectly on my dogs”). But the unfamiliar terminology shouldn’t be allowed to obscure Barry’s commitment to hard facts, and if there were a Nobel Prize — or at least a stiff fine — for the study of exploding cows, he would deserve it.
The point about his basic ruthless objectivity is nicely made by the title of his new book, Dave Barry is Not Making This Up, which includes fieldwork in Gulf Breeze, Fla. (UFO sightings), and Memphis (the Elvis cult), as well as an impressive shapeless mass of fact-based newspaper columns. Much of the book, like much of modern science, is devoted to previously underestimated risk factors: “Contrary to what you hear from the ‘experts,’ it’s a bad idea for parents and teenagers to attempt to communicate because there’s always the risk that one of you will actually find out what the other one is thinking.” Boats, ants, left-handedness, children, and winning lottery tickets also fall into this category.
Often Barry is only carrying on research begun by illustrious predecessors. Like Robert Benchley, he explores the possibility that common objects — lawnmowers, for instance — have petty, malicious minds of their own. Like S.J. Perelman, he experimentally allows idioms to run amok: “A hush fell over the courtroom, injuring six.” When Barry discovers, in an extended account of a visit to Hong Kong, that foreigners are numerous and eat strange things, he’s following in the serenely philistine footsteps of Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad.
Twain said that for humor to live forever (“by forever, I mean thirty years”), it has to have a sermon behind it, cleverly disguised so that no preaching is done on the premises. And in Barry’s best work, he’s more than a connoisseur of slapstick oddities. He is, like Russell Baker or Calvin Trillin, a man with an ethical yen for simplicity, contemplating bureaucracy and consumerism in their baroque phases. He has a particularly subversive instinct for the hollow assurances that accompany official incompetence or paralysis: “Until the authorities come up with a plan of action, I am urging everybody to take the sensible precaution of developing a nervous facial tic.”
Admittedly, Barry has superb comic reflexes rather than a polished comic style comparable to Twain’s mock-decorous deadpan, Benchley’s whimsical urbanity, or Perelman’s pyrotechnics. He’s more artless and bookless and lacks their parodic virtuousity, though he does bring off a rapid-fire send-up of legal thrillers here. But his best pieces still transcend the general run of humorous journalism; the CBS sitcom based on his life, Dave’s World, does not do justice to his writing. Not only does he make you laugh out loud, he demonstrates — with scientific rigor — that the rituals of our suburban middle-class shopping-mall culture are as weird and fearsome, in their own ways, as all the rites of the Druids, Hottentots, Whirling Dervishes, and solemn scientific experts put together. A-