The Humanity Of The Lost Jester

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Serdar and I often inspire each other in our writings.  Recently he wrote about an amazing column by Nan Robinson that inspired him as a child – which led to me reflecting on my own inspirations.

Some of my influenced quite obvious – for instance I outright admit how I was affected by Sir Terry Pratchett and Grant Morrison.  But I want to reflect on one person who’s writing has guided me, and not any science fiction or fantasy writing.  I want to discuss author and humor columnist Dave Barry.

Yes, Mr. Barry has done some fantasy with such things as his Peter Pan based works, but read on.  I take inspiration in his earliest work – humor columns.

Mr. Barry began writing his humorous observational humor between 1981 and 1983, and I encountered him in the mid 1980s.  He mixed wordplay, humor, silliness, and a real humanity to his writing.  From birth to home ownership, strange local events to political frustrations he was accessible, funny, and often on the ball in his observations.  Barry would joke, but his jokes were very real, the humor of relatability.

His  humor style influenced my own – more than I often let out (and there’s a lesson there).  But now let me note as much as his humor inspired me, what really, really got to me, reached me, was when things stopped being funny.

Barry wrote about the death of his father and his decision to keep his last contact simple, because his father should die on his own terms.  He took a trip to Japan, and reflected on Hiroshima, the remembrance ceremonies, and he tried to capture what he as an American felt.  Barry could write about unfunny things, with all the humanity of his humorous efforts.

Much as I find good comedians can be good actors, what made him funny allowed him to be damned serious.

Most of all, I’ll remember his reflections on visiting Graceland, home of Elvis.  It was a column called “Hearts That Are True,” and you can find it in his book Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up (published 1994).  He went to Graceland, met with fans, and figured there would be something fun to write about

You could tell he thought it would be amusing.  Talk to the Elvis camping around the gates, look at the kitchy décor of Graceland, have some fun.  Very quickly, he found there wasn’t anything to laugh over.

He found passionate fans.  People who really loved Elvis.  Fans who mourned his death, sad he died in such an undignified manner.  Folks who had memories of seeing the singer, and good times with their friends.  People who you could tell wish they could have helped.

Barry heard Elvis’ songs everywhere, a reminder he was a pretty damn good singer.  Yeah, he had some lousy albums, but there was a lot of really good stuff – and even some of the bad albums at least had Elvis.  Let me say that a good listen to ‘Burning Love,” a really good listen will remind you why he was the King.

The humor columnist toured Graceland.  Sure, it was overdone and kitschy, but so what?  Elvis didn’t aspire to be some society guy collecting art or putting on pretentions of culture.  He lived and partied with his riches, but his excesses seemed weirdly human – even flying a plane to get that awesome sandwich.

And so you had Dave Barry, brilliant columnist, truly hilarious person, with nothing to laugh about.  He was there in a place of excess and fanatic fandom, exploring a colorful figure like Elvis, and there wasn’t anything funny to say.

The sheer humanity of that column hit me hard, Barry put you in touch with the fans, the feelings.  He also outright admitted there was nothing to laugh at.  If anything the joke was him and his own confidence he could find laughs.

So the humor columnist found the joke was on him.  And he turned it into a column that was one of his best, one that still sticks with me.  It’s a column of such quality I wish I could write something that good.

It’s decades since I encountered Dave Barry, his jokes about lawnmowers and pop-tarts, and I still want to be like him, writing about Elvis.  I still hope I can reach people like he reached me.

Steven Savage