When Dave Barry won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, he became one of the only humor writers to ever win the award. (For context, this year’s prize went to Kansas City Star columnist Melinda Henneberger for a series of columns about a police detective accused of sexual violence.)
Through the years, I’ve read at least a hundred of Barry’s humor columns and at least half a dozen of his books. I quote two one-liners of his in particular on a regular basis.
As a professional journalist, at least once a month in a conversation with a colleague or an editor, I find reason to quote Barry’s written line: “The standard practice in the writing industry is to pay authors by the word. Let me repeat that statement again for emphasis: The standard practice in the industry is to pay authors by the word.”
And in conversations about music, particularly if the discussion ventures into modern music, I also find occasion at least once or twice a year to quote his line: “Taste in music is subjective. It’s possible that you like Electronic Dance Music, in which case you are wrong.”
Yet he got his start in 1971 not as a humor columnist but as an actual serious journalist, for West Chester, Pennsylvania’s Daily Local News. His 1972 article featured below wasn’t a “humor” piece exactly — it’s a legitimate news article, albeit about the relatively lighthearted subject of the entertainment industry. There are several “almost jokes,” though. Like when he quotes somebody and then adds the aside, “Honest, that’s what he said.”
Or when he quotes another person saying “Don’t stop” in all caps to reflect their tone of voice: “DON’T STOP.” Using all-caps for an entire phrase, or even for an entire sentence, became a Dave Barry trademark over the subsequent decades. Example: “And what is the Scientific Community doing about these problems? THEY’RE CLONING SHEEP. Great! Just what we need! Sheep that look MORE ALIKE than they already do!”
Barry tells me about his 1972 article:
I remember that assignment well: It was the first time a newspaper sent me somewhere to cover a story, so it was a big deal to me. The editor of the Daily Local News, Bill Dean, encouraged me to have fun with it, which made sense, as it was really more of a publicity stunt than actual news. I remember going around New York with this comical collection of movie-premiere people and thinking, “I’m getting paid for this!” Which is still how I feel about my career.
Below are two images showing the original print edition version of the article, followed by a transcribed version.
Most of all, I’d also particularly recommend the final chapter of his otherwise-comedic book Lessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog. An unexpected turn in his life prompted a surprisingly emotional and poignant closing chapter. (No, don’t worry, his dog doesn’t die.)
[West Chester, Pa., Daily Local News, Monday, January 17, 1972]
John Wayne lives for the kids
By DAVE BARRY
(Of the Local News staff)
John Wayne is for real.
I got to see him over the weekend, along with Archie Kohr of Exton. Archie won a chance to go to New York and see the premiere of Wayne’s latest movie, The Cowboys, in a contest run by the Local News and other newspapers and radio and TV stations all around the country.
Warner Brothers, who sponsored the contest, also offered to send Archie’s mother, Mrs. Ronald C. Kohr, and a reporter along.
So Friday evening I arrived at the Drake Hotel — a posh place on Park Avenue — and found out what big-time movie promotion is like.
It is insane.
It Will Identify You
As they checked in, contest winners and members of the press were issued itineraries and big yellow buttons that said “The Cowboys.”
“Wear your button at all times,” the Warner Brothers man said. “It will identify you.”
I wondered what it would identify me as. It’s hard to feel sophisticated in New York when you’re wearing a big yellow button that says “The Cowboys.”
The first item on the agenda was a dinner in the hotel dining room. It took about 11 minutes. As we sat down and started to get acquainted (“So I told him we got 43 percent of the teen market in North Carolina”) a Warner Brothers man took the microphone and said:
“Kids, we don’t want to disturb your meal but we’re going to give you all special cowboy jackets. Wear them. They will identify you.”
Kids were running around trying to trade a size 12 for a size 16 and vice versa. The Warner Brothers man was clinging to the box of jackets saying, “It’s not nice to grab. Exchange among yourselves. DON’T GRAB.”
Nothing was scheduled for after dinner Friday night, so everybody started making plans to see New York City.
Saturday morning breakfast was at 7:30. More mayhem. This time it was hats.
“Kids,” the Warner Brothers man said. “I don’t want to disturb your breakfast but you’re all gonna get a cowboy hat. Wear it. It will identify you.”
A little after nine, the buses took us over to Radio City Music Hall for the premiere of The Cowboys.
I was actually looking forward to seeing the music hall again, because the last time I’d been there I was 8 and my father had taken me to see my Uncle Jay, who played the tuba in the orchestra that comes out of the floor.
Standing In Line
Standing in line to get into the hall, people talked about what they’d done the night before in the Big City.
I stood next to a guy who told me he was a disc jockey in Nashville, Tenn. I asked him what kind of show he did.
“Seven to 10,” he said. “Swingers and flingers, pussycats and tomcats.”
Honest, that’s what he said.
Finally, they let us into the hall. There was a delay while they took movies of several hundred newspaper boys (who had also won a chance to see the emovie) waving at a Warner Brothers camera.
And then the premiere of The Cowboys began.
Good and Bad
If you like John Wayne, you’ll love The Cowboys.
Basically, it’s about John Wayne and a bunch of little kids he has to hire to herd his cattle because all the men are off looking for gold. John Wayne and the kids are the Good Guys.
The Bad Guys are a bunch of unshaven rustlers led by a particularly nasty (and long-haired) fellow who likes to beat up on little boys and shoot people in the back.
The movie is full of classic John Wayne lines like, “Next one of you pulls a knife in this outfit, you’re gonna learn better at the buckle end of my belt.”
There is a lot of killing in the movie, but it has a happy ending because all of the Bad Guys get shot and there are a few Good Guys left at the end. The leader of the Bad Guys dies a satisfyingly horrible death.
Wayne Gets Killed
One surprising thing, though — John Wayne gets killed about two-thirds of the way through the picture. That sort of stunned the audience. As he took his last heroic breaths, the lady behind me whispered:
“I never seen him get killed before.”
After the movie ended (to wild applause and cheers from the packed house) John Wayne himself came out on the stage. His presence was a bit hard to believe, since (1) we had just seen him get killed and (2) he was wearing business clothes instead of his cowboy suit.
Wayne gave a 10-minute speech, which began with what one of his writers probably thought was humor. John Wayne is a great cowboy, but a lousy stand-up comedian.
The speech became more serious. In fact, it began to sound like a sermon, with numerous references to “the man upstairs.” Wayne talked about God, Mother, and the Flag, and said he was in favor of all three.
After the John Wayne speech came the famous Radio City stage show. The theme was “Cowboys and Indians.”
After the show we got to go to a luncheon and press conference with John Wayne in the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of the RCA building. Wayne sat with the director and some of the other actors at the head table, and they answered questions from the audience.
Most of the questions were fairly innocuous (“How do you make that blood come out of your arm when you get shot?”). There were, however, a few tense moments.
An older, long-haired boy got up and, jabbing a forefinger towards Wayne, accused him of preaching good in his speech and doing something evil (i.e. killing people) in the movie.
The audience, embarrassed, looked angrily at the young man. Wayne said he thought everybody who did wrong should get punished. The audience clapped and whistled, relieved that their hero had won out.
A little while later, the long-haired youth’s companion made an unintelligible statement to the effect that John Wayne was destroying the morals of America’s youth.
“You run your ranch and I’ll run mine,” said John Wayne.
The crowd went wild.
Archie Kohr of Exton asked Wayne what his favorite breed of cattle was. Wayne said he raised Herefords. Archie Kohr is no fool; his father raises Herefords, too.
After the press conference, Wayne left for Chicago, where he’ll be doing the whole thing all over again with another group of kids.
We all got up to go back to our hotel rooms.
It’s not every day you see a Living Legend.