My Conversation with comedian Dave Barry

Here is the transcript and audio (no video).

We discuss what makes Florida special, why business writing is so terrible, Eddie Murphy, whether social conservatives can be funny (in public), the weirdness of Peter Pan, how he is so productive, playing guitar with Roger McGuinn, DT, the future of comedy, and much much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I look at old slapstick, it doesn’t seem funny at all. Intuitively, you would think slapstick, being only physical, would have a much longer half-life. What I find funny is very culturally specific references. Now, am I strange?

BARRY: Well, not about slapstick. When I was a little guy, I maybe thought that the Three Stooges were kind of funny but that stopped a long time ago. Some physical humor is still funny to me. Abbott and Costello were pretty physical, but they were funny without being slapstick. Just hitting each other in the nose and going, “nyuk, nyuk, nyuk” never struck me as funny at all. I have forgotten the second part of your question.

On different comedians and what’s not funny anymore

COWEN: You mentioned Abbott and Costello. If you’re willing, I’ll talk about a few comedians, or mention a few, and you can tell me what you found funny with them, didn’t find funny.

Let’s start with Abbott and Costello. Favorite of my father. I’ve watched almost all the movies. As I kid, I didn’t find them funny, but I actually started to find them funny in retrospect after having watched a bit of Seinfeld and Larry David. What’s your take on Abbott and Costello?

BARRY: Yeah, I can see the connection there. It more relies on you letting it — the humor — slowly develop and the characters themselves being the humor without coming right out and saying what’s funny about it: The one who never understands what’s going on, the one who’s always losing his patience with the other one. The first, maybe, three or four times, it’s just mildly amusing. But after a while, when you see it coming, that becomes very funny to you.

It’s very rare to find that kind of patience in humor anymore. I don’t think the audience is as generous as it used to be, allowing humor to build the way it did in an Abbott and Costello sketch.

COWEN: And is Abbott or Costello funnier to you? Abbott being the straight man.

BARRY: Yeah, I think Abbott is funnier.

COWEN: I think he’s much funnier.

Most of all, I was impressed by Dave Barry as a managerial force for his own career.  Again, here is the link.


Over the decades I've found most American comedy pretty unfunny but I rate Buster Keaton a comic genius.

P. J. O'Rourke is funny and smart. Parliament of Whores explains government well, the sting in the tail being that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (explanation and humor).

Yeah I read that book by O'Rourke, it's pretty good and I totally agreed with his easy way to balance the Federal budget (cut defense a bit and Social Security benefits, done!)

I also got kicked off of Usenet's group devoted to Dave Barry once, back in the 1990s. First and last time that ever happened, he had rabid fans, some of them I suspect real rednecks.

Bonus trivia: I've done amateur standup.

I think slapstick works well in small doses as part of say, a larger cast of characters where one is sort of the dedicated slapstick-er. Tobias Funke on Arrested Development, for example, or Steve Urkell on Family Matters (sorry, had to). When the focus is solely on the slapstick, like with the Stooges, I agree it's not great.

Andy Dick on News Radio comes to mind as well. Small doses is exactly right.

But it's memorable. The Stooges pie scene invoking the Sword of Damocles is LOL funny and I will take to the grave.

Also the junkyard scene involving Tuco in "Breaking Bad" where Tuco accidentally with his have to see it, it's good. Also the Tuco scene were he slowly figures out Walter and Jesse are trying to poison gawd that series was LOL dark humor funny. Best ever, one of the few shows that made me laugh while alone, hard to do to a natural comedian like me.

Nope. Dave Barry stopped being funny when I turned 12 thank you. Also why is Tyler so fascinated with the question why aren't conservatives funny?

Probably the same reason he is compelled to bring up the "alt-right" while interviewing a comedian.

"So did you hear the one about the single mother?"

"Well, it turns out she doesn't go to church and God punishes the unjust. HAHAHAHA hilarious."

Overall, the whole thing was mildly interesting and the parts about political humor slightly less so. Barry is quite right that the anti-right tilt of American political humor doesn't have to do with what is funny but, rather, what demonstrates that one is cool. It would have been easy to make jokes about Obama; considered objectively he is a pretty ridiculous character. It just wouldn't have been cool.

The absolutely striking and unnerving part was the tiny bit about Malcolm Gladwell's Sarah Palin comments. Gladwell, of course, is quite correct. Most people will eventually sympathize with someone who has been made the butt of a seemingly endless series of cruel jokes. Who can forget the hilarity of Dave Letterman's joke, on national television, about Palin's then fourteen year old daughter being raped by a member of the New York Yankees. Good times, good times,

The jarring thing is that Gladwell is evidently so consumed with hatred that he thinks this is a bad thing, even if it is only a secondary effect of the jokes. Presumably, he didn't like it that some people might get the feeling that Sarah Palin is . . . human. I guess the slight reduction in anti-Palin feeling was just too high a price for Gladwell to pay.

So you think Tyler should be asking about cool rather than funny? and if that's the case is this an example of an imperfection in the free market?

No, as to that point I was just expressing my agreement with something Dave Barry said. My only criticism of Tyler with respect to this (a slight one) was that he "buried the lead" a little on Gladwell's comment.

Thanks for posting the transcript. I think that the focus on humorists who point out the absurdity of the rules and mores of society misses the types of humor (of which slapstick often is) that focus more on mocking people who refuse to follow the rules and mores of society, which is more social conservative. Humor tends to stem from the gap between what is expected and what happens, but there's both humor that mocks what is expected, and humor that mocks reality (or people) for not living up to it. Religious conservatives are certainly no strangers to the idea that people are flawed.

(And yes you can do this side of humor without it being aimed specifically at outgroup X, though ethnic humor does fall into the general category.)

Well, not about slapstick.


As usual, Tyler makes sure to signal his cultural sophistication by swearing that he does not find the low-brow humor of the Three Stooges funny. Dave Barry makes a power move when he says "I have forgotten the second part of your question", showing very clearly that he has no fear of being lowered in status for having a poor memory and showing that he is not trying to impress Tyler.

While I've made that type of criticism of Tyler before, it was Barry who mentioned not finding the Stooges funny since he was a young child.

At their peak I think they can be quite funny.

Even as a child, I remember thinking the stooges were just mean and scary. I never saw the humor and still don't.

Abbot and Costello, on the other hand, could be hilarious and both very skilled at what they did. The reason some believe Abbot was the funnier one is that, without Abbot, Costello was noticeably less funny. Scenes with Costello confronting a scary bad guy or monster didn't go nearly as well as the verbal play with Abbot. Without Costello, however, Abbot didn't try to be funny. This has to do with the conventions of those movies, not with the skills of the players.

"Trump himself is the pro-Trump humorist."
No, Trump is a conman, a fine example of what politics has become in the nation of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and La Guardia.

That's the first time I've ever seen anyone mention Fiorello La Guardia in the same breath as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Very conspicuous.

Only New Yorkers know about La Guardia? And only Egyptians know about Nasser and only Cubans know about the Castros and only Brazilians know about President Temer? In Brazil, La Guardia is considered a symbol of urban reformer and a though enemy of crime. Galbraith mentioned him in his autobiography. Also, like President Temer and former President Kubitschek, one of the most beloved Presidents in Brazilian history, La Guardia was from foreign stock. There was a time when America was a country of opportunities, the country of the Asimovs, La Guardias, Galbraiths and Kissingers. Now, America wants to build wallsinstead of bridges. Sad.

Try as I might, I have found not a single example of Trump telling a joke or laughing spontaneously at something funny (as distinct from laughingly mocking someone or something).

Compare this to the genial Kim, Leader of Norrh Korea. That man is laughing in almost every known photograph of him. He's downright jovial. And it's clear too from the chuckling generals and admirals and lieutenant colonels that surround him that he's capable of some great puns and punchlines. I wouldn't be surprised if Kim didn't come up with comic gems like "Twitler" apropos Trump. Genius.

Sure, the No Dong missile was an unfortunate misnomer, but surely some humorless underling thought that one up.

"Compare this to the genial Kim, Leader of Norrh Korea. That man is laughing in almost every known photograph of him. He’s downright jovial. And it’s clear too from the chuckling generals and admirals and lieutenant colonels that surround him that he’s capable of some great puns and punchlines."

1) He is also a lady's man:
2) President Temer is known, among other things, for his warming smile.
During a rough political time, a journalist asked if he intended to resign and he replied: just check my smile.

There is actually a streak of religious humour within Evangelicalism. See, for example, The Babylon Bee (essentially a Christian version of The Onion), its defunct ancestor, the Wittenburg Door magazine, and comedian Tim Hawkins. Most of the jokes are inside jokes, but to those of us inside, they're hilarious, if occasionally unsettling. Like a lot of humour, they point out the absurdities and inconsistencies in the ways we handle things we consider really important.

I wonder if part of the reason religious people "aren't funny" is that humour needs to make reference to some shared experience, and religious experience isn't broadly shared across society anymore. For example, I find one of Hawkins' bits on the way people use their hands during worship services to be hilarious because it refers to an experience I have every week, while someone non-religious, or who belongs to a different enough religious tradition won't know what he's talking about, and therefore won't see why it's so funny.

Unfortunately, many people don't think Christians are funny at all and so they take satire as real news:

Also, this is funny, in my opinion and I don't even get every joke:

Dale Martin's singing group with fellow divinity students was called The Eschatones. That's funny. Funny because nobody but fellow divinity students would get the joke. Jewish comedians are funny. Take Woody Allen. Indeed, take most comedians: they are Jews. I suppose Jews must choose between humor and despair and choose humor. As for Christians, they aren't very funny. They have a lot of material to work with, but fear blasphemy. For example, I think the Last Judgment not happening is funny. I mean, the Disciples quit their day jobs in anticipation. Consider all the jokes that could be built around that. I think the Prosperity Gospel is funny. If every Christian were rich, then none would be rich because rich is relative. Or what about the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgment. Do Christians get to pick the body they prefer or are they stuck with the ugly one they were born with? That's an important question. The priest at a funeral I attended a few years ago said that the elect get their youthful body rather than their decrepit body when they died of old age. That was both funny and hopeful.

Good Christian jokes are based on ignorance of the Christian Bible (New Testament). No, grandma isn't up in heaven with the family dog, she's in a waiting room somewhere until the Last Judgment. Fellow Christians can only hope that they have good movies and books rather than just old magazines since it may be a long wait. That's funny. Or what about Stephen and the other Christian martyrs (Stephen was the first Christian martyr). Martyrs don't have to wait until the Last Judgment and get to go straight to heaven. If Christians knew, they'd all try to be martyrs to avoid that waiting room. On the other hand, spending all that time with fellow martyrs might not be so great, martyrs being martyrs and all, with little if any sense of humor. What would they talk about?

Good thing you read the transcript so you didn't make a fool of yourself again
... oops

"Who's on First" is my favorite Abbott & Costello routine. With a little imagination, one can see the similarities between "Who's on First" and Donald Trump's presser yesterday (or any Trump presser).

A little dementia maybe.

Ray's or Trump's?

I used to watch the old three stooges reruns when I was a kid just out of habit since it was the only thing on in the afternoons when there was only 4 channels to watch. I hadn't thought about them in years and when that Three Stooges movie came out a few years ago I was dying it was so funny.

Catholics are also very active in comedy:

Maybe part of it comes more from the theatrical nature of Judaism and Catholicism than their theologies. Both groups are prevalent in other fields of entertainment, such as filmmaking.

You realize there's a big difference between being born into a faith and being a practicing member, right?

There is? Wow, no, I didn't.

You do realize that a culture's religion tends to influence it beyond just the ceremonies, though, right?

Mike Judge is funny. Norm Macdonald is funny. Tina fey is funny.

From the interview concerning business writing: I used to say to them, “The most important thing you have to say should be in the first sentence.”

Arthur Stinchcombe, Constructing Social Theories (1968), from the introduction: A second graduate-school conversation, with Philip Selznick, shaped my attitude toward what theory is for. He remarked that one felt satisfied that he understood something when he could summarize in a sentence the guts of a phenomenon. He gave the illustration that he felt satisfied when he realized that the achievement of the Bolshevik parties was “to turn a voluntary association into an administrative apparatus.” To use, as a criterion of judgment, the guts of a phenomenon—what is going on—is better than to use any logical or formal criterion.

Great insight into writing. I suspect that most researchers have already come to any conclusions before they complete their research and then sift through their findings to reach some conclusions. When I would write academic papers I'd complete my research, sift through my findings, and then write the opening sentences and concluding sentences. But they were never final, as I would rewrite them many times as I made my way through writing the entire paper. The very act of writing would stimulate parts of my brain that would provide illumination for clarity. Alas, most of my writing is advocacy, so I have already reached my conclusion before I start. On the other hand, the research combined with the act of writing often leads me on a different, and hopefully more convincing, path then the path I had originally chosen. I doubt very many appreciate much less understand the connection between the act of writing and insight.

Writing is one of the best ways to figure out what you're thinking.

For three years in graduate school I had a job writing abstracts for an academic journal (American Journal of Computational Linguistics). I'd read through the literature and prepare abstracts. In some cases the abstract that came with the article or research report was OK. But more often than not, it wasn't. It would say what was done, but didn't really give the guts of the conclusions. So I had to skim through the article and do that. Great discipline.

"Second star to the right, and straight on 'till morning."

Generally, I have two issues with American humor. You can see the joke coming, and when in it does, it's milked for laughs for too long.

Seinfeld was an exception.

Have I Got News For You and Paul Merton in the early days was brilliant.

Well, maybe not everyone can see the joke coming. I remember vividly a teacher I had who would work dry jokes into the lectures, and I would consistently get the joke just before the punchline came and start laughing, and then after the punchline everyone else in the class would start laughing. And these were not stupid people. I often wondered, what do the other people in the class think? That I'm an idiot laughing at nothing because I think the punchline has already come? But no one ever mentioned it to me and I didn't ask.

Chapo on why conservatives can't be funny:

That's a whole lot of people completely lacking self-awareness. I'm referring to the speakers, not their subject.

I continue to enjoy these podcasts.

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