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King of the Road : Bring on the rubber fish and the tales of attack kites. Dave Barry's out on a book tour.

June 09, 1995|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Inside a store called A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (not to be confused with A Dark Sweaty Ver min-Infested Place for Books), Dave Barry is pontificating on the weighty issues of our time, such as presidential politics, family values and whether it's possible to set a pair of underpants on fire using a Rollerblade Barbie.

Barry, 47, is probably the only person to ever win a Pulitzer Prize writing booger jokes. As syndicated humor columnist at the Miami Herald, he also has driven the world's fastest lawn mower and ridiculed everything from the U.S. Senate ("Motto: White Male Millionaires Working for You") to heavy metal rock ("music to slaughter cattle by") to the ancient Egyptians, whose most significant achievement was "the famous 'Substitute Mummy Filled With Live Weasels' prank, which led to the collapse of the empire, but everybody involved agreed it was worth it."

And then there's Dave Barry the humanitarian, who once recommended, for the betterment of mankind, "the explosion of Barry Manilow's head." And two of his books inspired the TV sitcom "Dave's World," for which he claims to exercise "total 100% artistic control over where I cash the check they mail me."

But behind the humor is a serious, sometimes tragic life. His mother was tormented by chronic depression and committed suicide in 1987; his father was an alcoholic minister; Barry rants against government about as often as Rush Limbaugh, and he's going through a divorce with his second wife.

Somehow, he manages to keep millions of fans laughing.

The editor who "discovered" him says Barry's secret is an uncanny ability to combine adult sophistication with adolescent lunacy.

Both sides surfaced on a recent promotional tour for his book "Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys" (Random House), which explains (among other things) why men care more deeply about sports teams than about their own spouses:

Because their wives will never make the playoffs.

This leg of the tour begins in Seattle, cappuccino capital of the known universe, where "there's always six people in front of you [at Starbucks] ordering chemical equations."

Barry's favorite liquid, however, is beer, which he downs with a packet of cashews before an appearance at the University of Washington. There, about 700 people pack an auditorium to hear him spoof everything from former passengers of slow white Broncos to inane rock songs:

"In a move that's been widely hailed in the legal community, the Supreme Court has replaced Judge Lance Ito with Judge Wapner. And in a move that should definitely speed up the trial, [Wapner] has sentenced the entire defense team to death."

O.J. Simpson and his "Mormon Tabernacle Choir-sized" collection of attorneys are a running gag on the trip. So is music.

He recalls fallout from his worst-songs-ever column: "I got in huge trouble with the Neil Diamond people. If you think Salman Rushdie screwed up . . . [try] making fun of the song where [Diamond blurts], 'I am, I said, to no one there. And no one heard at all, not even the chair.' Of course the chair didn't hear you, Neil. It's furniture!"

But Barry has hit a few bad notes himself. At Haverford College (a Pennsylvania school whose Quaker affiliation later helped atheist Barry avoid the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector), he ingested drugs and played guitar in a string of awful bands. His latest group includes such authors as Stephen King and Amy Tan and--on one occasion--Bruce Springsteen, who would have been allowed to join permanently except he hasn't written a book.

When asked by a boy if the band has any CDs or tapes out, Barry suggests that hearing their music "would be very bad for you. Better to start smoking crack right now."

Other audience questions include "Have you given blood lately?" to which Barry replies: "Why? Do I look like I have too much? If God wanted us to have blood removed from our bodies, we'd have little spigots."

Another asks: "Why do you live in Florida?"

"Think it through," Barry wisecracks. "I work for the Miami Herald. If I didn't live in Florida, the closest I could live would be Georgia or Alabama and the commute would be hell."

*

Barry grew up in Armonk, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, where his Presbyterian minister father ran a social work agency and helped in the civil rights movement. His mother, a onetime secretary to nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, provided the laughs. Although plagued by chronic depression, she possessed "an absolutely wicked, unfailing sense of humor," Barry says.

When he and his three siblings went swimming, she'd call in a June Cleaver voice: "Don't drow-w-wn." And they'd sing-song back, "We wo-o-n't."

"Every family has its values that it passes along," Barry recalls. "Our No. 1 value . . . was to not take ourselves too seriously."

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