‘Best. State. Ever.’ Author Dave Barry Talks Gators, Sponges, and Swinging Seniors

Reading Time: 8 minutes
photo credit: Michelle Kaufman
photo credit: Michelle Kaufman

In Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland, Dave Barry discusses how Florida got its reputation and visits some off-the-beaten-path Florida landmarks. From lethargic gators to highly energetic seniors to the debauchery that is Key West, Dave explores the real Florida beneath the glitz of the amusement parks.

You can listen to the interview or read the transcript below. Many thanks to Dave for taking the time to chat. You can pick up his latest book on Amazon or visit his website to see if he’ll be visiting your hometown on his book tour.

GeekDad: I’m here with Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry, former Miami Herald syndicated columnist and author of more than 30 books, including Big Trouble, Peter and the Starcatchers with co-author Ridley Pearson, and his latest Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland. Thanks so much for your time, Dave.

Dave Barry: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GD: Your book is Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland. I have to say, that is probably the least crazy sentence I’ve ever read that has the phrase “Florida Man” in it. Is it fair to assume the Florida Man internet meme was the impetus behind you writing the book?

DB: Yeah, pretty much. It was sort of building for a few years even before the Florida Man became huge. I’ve lived in Miami for 30 years and I’ve always been sort of defending Miami. People mock Miami all the time–and for good reason. I mean, Miami is very mockable. But then it sort of spread so the whole state became the joke state. I personally have long made fun of Florida, and I get why people make fun of Florida, but it seemed at some point it had become excessive… maybe not excessive, but there just sort of needed to be some explanation, I guess. Some explanation for Florida. And I kept reading, you know, kind of half-assed explanations for Florida that weren’t really loving, so I thought, “Ok, yes, it’s weird and stupid down here, but dammit, there’s something to be said for weird and stupid.” So, I thought I would sort of defend it.

GD: To what do you attribute the influx of all this bizarre news?

DB: Well, I talk about it some in the book. You know, my theory that if you have a rectangular crate, with a little corridor going off the right-hand corner and you dropped a bunch of rats in there all the rats would eventually explore the corridor, but the smart ones would be able to get back out again if they wanted to. A certain number of rats would be too stupid to do that, and they’d be stuck down there for the rest of their lives, along with the weird rats that just like it in a corridor. I’m comparing Florida to that because we do have this steady influx of people, a lot of them just visiting, but then a large number of them just end up staying, and they tend to be weirder people than the ones who just come and go. In other words, what I’m really saying, is it’s not our fault down here there are so many weird people. They probably came from your state.

GD: So you talk a bit about the odd places in Florida, and one of them that caught my attention was The Villages, and I was curious: did you write that just so you would have a tax-deductible excuse to tour a retirement village where people have lots of sex?

DB: [laughing] Except they don’t, or if they do, they didn’t do it in my presence. First of all, I want to stress that the entire book is tax deductible. My entire life is tax deductible because I’m a humor writer. But, yeah, I went up there, and when I went to The Villages, I expected to see this wild orgy pickup scene going on because every article I’d read about The Villages mentions this very prominently, and it all kind of dates to one instance where this couple was having sex in a public plaza and the press, particularly the British press, made this huge deal about it, and said, “This is a crazy thing, these old people having sex up there.” But I concluded it was mostly just this fascination that young magazine writers have because, I’m guessing most of them who wrote these articles were younger people, you know, they’re just amazed that older people still have sex, and I think maybe they overestimated the amount of sex going on in The Villages based on one or two anecdotes. So I went up there, and you know, I didn’t know any of that, I just kept reading about sex in The Villages and I went up there and I did not find–nobody had sex in my presence, let me put it that way. But I did see a lot of line dancing which is, in a way, scarier than sex.

GD: You talked about the line dancing and I was honestly surprised that there was that much activity at a retirement village…

DB: Oh no, it’s not like an old folks’ home with everybody just sitting around drooling. They’re actually line dancing and drooling. No, I didn’t see anybody drooling at all. The people, they’re like boomers. I mean, these are people my age, basically. So, their position is like, our life is not over, we’re just done raising kids and done working. We’re gonna party now. The work is done, we’re gonna party, and we’re playing golf all day, then we’re going to go have a few cocktails, then we’re going to get our line dance on, and if you don’t like it, screw you, kid. That’s kind of the attitude of The Villages. And since everybody is that age and that generation or older, there’s nobody to say, “Hey, this is wrong. You’re old, you shouldn’t be doing this.” And everybody’s like, “Yeah, we’re doing this!”

GD: The inverse of all that activity would probably be Gatorland and Spongeorama? I have to wonder which would be the laziest place you visited, as far as the residents go.

DB: Well, Gatorland is right up there, because alligators in their natural habitat, or in a zoo which is essentially what this is, don’t do a lot. You can buy fish to feed them, and people do, and then they throw the fish out there, and they land on the alligator’s snout, and the alligator doesn’t do anything about it. Sometimes you’ll see four or five fish piled up on an alligator’s snout. They’re just sitting there doing nothing. The only time they move is when they have the “Gator Jumparoo,” which is pretty much the highlight of the day in Gatorland, where they dangle chicken carcasses over the water and the alligators, they respond to this, they know about that. Then they come around and leap out of the water and snag the chickens and everybody cheers wildly. So if you’d like to see an alligator eat a chicken, that’s your place to go. Spongeorama, the most wild and aggressive thing there is the sales ladies who will make you buy an expensive natural sponge. But the actual sponges themselves don’t do a lot. I didn’t even know what a sponge was when I got there. It’s an animal that lives underwater that has no brains or arms or legs or organs or nervous system or anything. Actually, it looks like… they show you a movie of people capturing them–and capturing is a strong term to use here because, basically, they don’t move–and it looks kind of like a turd in its natural state. So, it’s kind of a tossup. I never saw a sponge in the wild, I only saw a movie of them bringing them out, but I’d say in their natural state, the sponge and the alligator are basically non-moving critters. There is a thing where they wrestle alligators. Alligator wrestling is a thing, but the alligators really don’t want to do it. You know, the alligator’s like, “Noo! Why?!” They’re really down on the whole wrestling thing. I don’t think there’s such a thing as sponge wrestling. Maybe there should be.

GD: So, I had to ask. I’m reading through this book, and it’s basically a travelogue of Florida, and it’s… honestly, by the end, you’re riding a bike around, drunk, and visiting bars where clothing is optional, and I’m not even surprised at that point. I get to that point and I’m like, “OK, after everything I’ve read, yeah, that seems about right for Florida.” Fair assumption to make that that is fairly normal for that area?

DB: Oh, for Key West, absolutely. Well, as I said in the book, if you could get a sexually transmitted disease just from breathing, Key West is where that would happen. It is a debauched little area down there, at least the Duvall Street area. Even by Florida standards, Key West is a wasted place. People don’t go to Key West to engage in intellectual pursuits, let me put it that way. They go there to get pretty hammered and stagger around with other people that are pretty hammered, and every now and then go, “Woo!”… and then, eventually, pass out.

GD: Aside from Gatorland, you really, and I don’t want to name any names, you really don’t mention any giant Orlando theme parks.

DB: I figure everyone already knows about Disney World and Universal Studios, and everybody’s been to those places. I was trying to say, “That’s really not Florida.” Florida is… there’s a Florida underneath that that’s been there a long time. The Florida of kind of sleazy, sketchy roadside attractions and, you know, of swamps and weird people

GD: And whatever a skunk ape is?

DB: And whatever a skunk ape is. So that was kind of my goal. My goal was to show another Florida, an older Florida that underlies the modern, glitzy, theme park Florida that people see now.

GD: Just to wrap up real quick, I know you’re busy on your book tour, which, I have to say, I was re-reading your greatest hits, and just happened to come across your “Booked to Death” article…

DB: Oh, God, yeah. It hasn’t changed. You do, I mean, there’s a lot of truth to that. You just get to the point where you just don’t want to discuss your book anymore and you want to discuss somebody else’s book, you know.

GD: OK, so to that point then, a lot of people may not know about your blog. It’s been around for a long time.

DB: Yeah, I’m like an old, long-time blogger

GD: And you have some very faithful readers there. And it’s still up to date. You can visit, and weird stories seem to be your forte.

DB: Yeah, it’s kind of easy to do because people just send me stuff all the time, and I’m always going, “Wow, that’s pretty weird.” It used to be every now and then I would write a column about something like that, but now I have a way to just put it out there and say, “Take a look, folks.” It’s like a sideshow.

GD: I have to say, you featured one of mine one time, and it was the highlight of my day…

DB: Of your whole life. Be honest. It will never get better.

GD: Anyway, I appreciate it. And thank you very much for your time.

DB: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

About the Author

Dave Barry has been a professional humorist ever since he discovered that professional humor was a lot easier than working.

For many years he wrote a newspaper column that appeared in more than 500 newspapers and generated thousands of letters from readers who thought he should be fired. Despite this, Barry won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, although he misplaced it for several years, which is why his wife now keeps it in a secure location that he does not know about. One of Barry’s columns was largely responsible for the movement to observe International Talk Like a Pirate Day every year on September 19. This is probably his most enduring achievement.

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