The Boston Phoenix
August 20 - 27, 1998


Diary of a hack

Ever feel like Mike Barnicle's column is predictable? Here are 50 reasons.

by Jason Gay with Shirley Zilberstein and S.I. Rosenbaum

When Mike Barnicle tried to explain the suspicious presence of nearly a dozen George Carlin jokes in his August 2 column, he offered up a puzzling tidbit in his defense. One of the lines he had been accused of stealing from Carlin -- a crack about black boxes and airplanes -- had actually appeared in one of Barnicle's own columns from 1996, he said.

Also: Did Barnicle steal from A.J. Liebling?
Unrest at Channel 5

Verrry interesting, we thought. Essentially, instead of copying Carlin, Barnicle was admitting to ripping himself off -- a journalistic indiscretion that, while not on par with plagiarizing the work of other writers, is still prima facie evidence of his being a hack.

But Barnicle's "I Was Just Thinking" column -- a collection of jokes, lame one-liners, and shameless plugs for the columnist's cronies -- has been a sloppy exercise for more than a generation. Not only does Barnicle take from his own columns, he's done it repeatedly, throughout his career. In reviewing more than 40 of these columns from 1981 to the present, we found 50 examples of Barnicle's cribbing his own work. There could well be more.

Certainly, Barnicle isn't the first columnist to recycle his own lines. Says Al Larkin, a Globe vice president and assistant to the publisher: "I don't think anyone here was keeping track of whether Mike Barnicle used the same joke more than once any more than we keep track of whether our sportswriters here used the same sports metaphors more than once. It would be a hard thing to do."

But we found examples of recycling in almost every single "I Was Just Thinking" column we read. Sometimes, Barnicle's repeated the same line four or five times.

Compiled here for the first time, this just might be the funniest Barnicle column ever assembled.

1. How come they don't make planes out of the same material used to build those indestructible black boxes?" (November 28, 1996)
How come planes aren't made with the same indestructible material used to assemble those black boxes that always survive crashes? (August 2, 1998)

2. My guy on the mound for that one big game would be Bob Gibson. (October 2, 1981)
With everything on the line, my man on the pitching mound would be Bob Gibson. (January 5, 1987)
But I'd still prefer Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford on the mound for the game I had to win. (July 15, 1990)
If I had one game to win, I'd want Bob Gibson on the mound. (August 2, 1998)

3. Parents who think it's cute to have their three-year-old answer the phone should have their fingers put in a toaster. (November 15, 1990)
People who have a 3-year-old on an answering machine ought to have their hands put in a hot toaster. (November 28, 1996)

4. Michael J. Connolly, our Secretary of Space, thinks you have to water nuclear plants. (July 29, 1985)
Dan Quayle is so dumb he thinks nuclear plants are something you water every other day. (April 19, 1992)
Peter Torkildsen . . . thinks nuclear plants have to be watered regularly. (November 28, 1996)

5. If Bill Clinton doesn't skip the cupcakes, by October he'll be wearing Tip O'Neill's suits. (April 19, 1992)
Bill Clinton . . . looks as if he is on the verge of being able to fit into Tip O'Neill's old suits. (November 28, 1996)

6. I don't like people who take two parking spaces. (May 15, 1981)
Thumbs down for . . . people who take two spaces in parking lots. (August 14, 1981)
I have a problem with people who take up two spaces in parking garages. (June 20, 1993)

7. On the plus side, now you can get Oregon salmon in both regular and unleaded. (May 23, 1989)
The good thing about fishing Boston Harbor is that whatever you catch comes in both regular and unleaded. (June 20, 1993)

8. Did Mike Dukakis get his suits as the result of a low bid? (May 23, 1989)
Is Paul Cellucci's haircut the result of a low-bid contract? (June 20, 1993)

9. Whenever I watch, I always get the feeling that David Brinkley is about to fall asleep on his own show. (August 14, 1988)
One of these Sundays, David Brinkley is going to fall asleep on his own TV show. (June 20, 1993)

10. Who gets custody of Michael J. Connolly after the US Senate primary? (August 13, 1984)
Who gets custody of Jerry Brown when the primaries are over? (April 19, 1992)

11. Sean McDonough is as good as they get. (July 15, 1990)
Sean McDonough only happens to be the best baseball announcer on TV. (April 19, 1992)

12. Did someone pass a law saying that you have to wear an earring to walk along Charles Street? (November 22, 1985)
I feel positively awkward on Charles Street without tangerine hair and a ring through my nose. (June 23, 1987)
Whenever I'm on Newbury Street I feel naked because I don't wear an earring. (April 19, 1992)

13. Whatever happened to Julie Christie? (August 13, 1984)
Whatever happened to Julie Christie? (August 14, 1988)

14. Cheers is a very funny show. (September 16, 1983)
Cheers is a very funny show. (November 23, 1983)
Cheers is still a very funny show. (November 15, 1990)

15. Hasn't Dick Cavett's career simply taken off? (August 14, 1988)
Hasn't Dick Cavett's career taken off? (November 15, 1990)

16. A recent social science study concluded that the most often-heard phrase in Roxbury and Dorchester is, "Don't worry. It's just a flesh wound." (October 24, 1989)
We're in trouble when one of the most soothing phrases a person can hear lately is, "Don't worry. It's just a flesh wound." (March 8, 1990)

17. You know you're getting old when all the cops look younger than you. (June 29, 1981)
Age is creeping up on you when all the cops look younger. (July 19, 1982)
You know you're getting old when all the cops look 18. (November 26, 1982)
You know you're on life's back nine when all the cops look younger than you. (October 24, 1989)

18. Norm Nathan belongs on the radio. (September 13, 1982)
Wouldn't it be nice if Norm Nathan were on a major league station? (February 23, 1983)
Norm Nathan truly deserves his own radio show. (August 14, 1988)

19. If you roped off the Boston City Council, you could start a zoo. (July 29, 1985)
The Republican party in Massachusetts should be roped off and declared a zoo. (July 21, 1986)
The Republican Party platform committee should be roped off and declared a zoo. (August 14, 1988)

20. And if I lived in New York, I'd get up early just to listen to Don Imus. (November 22, 1985)
It's worth getting up early in Manhattan just to listen to Imus in the morning. (October 4, 1987)

21. "Brown Sugar" is the greatest rock 'n' roll record of all time. (August 14, 1981)
No kidding: "Brown Sugar" is the greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time. (November 22, 1985)

22. Stores that put Christmas decorations up before Thanksgiving should be boycotted. (November 23, 1983)
Any store that displays Christmas lights before Thanksgiving deserves a good leaving alone. (November 22, 1985)

23. What laughs Kenny Rogers must have when he reads critics who take him seriously. (March 12, 1982)
What laughs Morgan Fairchild's mother must have when she reads reviews that take her daughter seriously. (July 11, 1983)
What laughs Prince must have when he reads critics who take his music seriously. (August 13, 1984)
What laughs Mr. T and Daryl Hannah must have when they read critics who take their stuff seriously. (January 16, 1985)
Imagine the laughs Bob Guccione must have when he hears of people who actually take him seriously. (July 29, 1985)
Imagine how hard Yoko Ono must laugh when she reads music critics who take her seriously. (February 23, 1983)
Yoko Ono must have a great laugh for herself whenever she reads critics who take her seriously. (April 25, 1983)

24. Gary LaPierre is part of my radio day. (August 13, 1984)
Gary LaPierre is a must in my morning. (July 29, 1985)

25. "Boy" George's mother wanted a girl and his father wanted a boy: they're both happy. (January 20, 1984)
If Prince's mother wanted a girl and his father wanted a boy, I'd say they both have to be happy. (July 29, 1985)

26. Ray Shamie reminds me of an aging bellhop. (November 19, 1984)
Caspar Weinberger looks like a disgruntled bellhop. (April 8, 1985)

27. Ever notice how many fat people insist on wearing clothes a size too small? (November 19, 1984)
How come people with a weight problem always insist their clothes are really two sizes smaller? (January 16, 1985)

28. And Dukakis is such a tightwad that when he asks salespeople to see something cheap, they tell him to look in the mirror. (September 13, 1982)
When Mike Dukakis asks a sales clerk to show him something cheap, he's told to look in the mirror. (November 19, 1984)

29. You're safer in owner-occupied restaurants. (May 15, 1981)
But you're in good hands when you eat in an owner-occupied place. (June 29, 1981)
Your stomach is usually on safe ground in an owner-operated restaurant. (February 23, 1983)
You'll seldom go wrong eating in a restaurant that is owner-operated. (August 13, 1984)

30. Nantucket is so precious that the fire department uses Perrier. (July 19, 1982)
On Brattle Street, they use Perrier water to hose down the lawn. (January 20, 1984)
Dover is so exclusive that the dogs drink Perrier. (April 30, 1984)

31. In Cambridge, a Walk-Man is called a Walk-Person. (September 13, 1982)
The Town of Brookline is so progressive that the stores sell Walk-Persons. (January 20, 1984)

32. Eddie King is so boring, answering machines hang up on him. (September 13, 1982)
Fritz Mondale is so boring that an answering machine hung up on him yesterday. (January 20, 1984)

33. When pay-TV becomes a reality, how much do you suppose the Bruins will give us to watch? (June 29, 1981)
If pro football eventually goes to pay-TV, how much do you think the Patriots will pay us to watch? (November 23, 1983)

34. Greenfield is a great place to live if you happen to be a pine cone. (August 14, 1981)
Maine is a good place if you happen to be a pine cone. (November 23, 1983)

35. I miss Rick Burleson. (August 14, 1981)
I miss Rick Burleson. (July 11, 1983)

36. How come all the sales clerks in Bloomingdale's act like deposed members of the Hapsburgs? (November 26, 1982)
Why do people in Manchester-by-the-Sea act like descendants of the Hapsburgs just waiting to take back the throne? (July 11, 1983)

37. Norman Mailer is still the heavyweight champion of the typewriter. (May 15, 1981)
Norman Mailer is still the heavyweight champion of the typewriter. (July 11, 1983)

38. I never had a cab driver who took a short cut without being asked. (March 12, 1982)
Cab drivers who don't take short cuts unless asked by the passenger deserve no tip. (April 25, 1983)

39. And if the bottle bill is so equitable, why isn't there a deposit on bottles of white wine or designer water? (April 25, 1983)
Why doesn't white wine come under the bottle bill? (February 23, 1983)

40. People who fish through their pockets in the exact change lane are inconsiderate. (March 12, 1982)
Women who fumble in their pocketbooks at the head of the exact change lane shouldn't be driving. (February 23, 1983)

41. Spencer Tracy was a great actor. (September 7, 1981)
Spencer Tracy was the best ever. (May 17, 1982)
Nobody can act like Spencer Tracy. (February 23, 1983)

42. Norm Nathan is funny. (May 15, 1981)
Norm Nathan and the other guy are very funny. (May 17, 1982)

43. I miss front porches. (October 2, 1981)
I miss front porches. (May 17, 1982)

44. Sheldon Cohen's Out-of-Town Newsstand is merely the best in the world. (June 29, 1981)
Thumbs up for . . . the Out-of-Town newsstand. (March 12, 1982)
Thumbs up for . . . Sheldon Cohen's Out-of-Town newsstand. (July 19, 1982)

45. Buddy Holly was the real king. (August 14, 1981)
Buddy Holly will always be "The King." (November 26, 1982)

46. How come . . . Boston [has] the most poorly marked streets? (September 7, 1981)
No city in the world has fewer street signs than Boston. (November 26, 1982)

47. A round of applause for . . . the coffee at Doughboys. (January 22, 1982)
Thumbs up for . . . the coffee at Doughboys. (November 26, 1982)

48. And Jacqueline Bisset is real easy on the eyes. (October 2, 1981)
Jacqueline Bisset is easy on the eyes. (July 19, 1982)

49. I miss . . . Columbo. (October 2, 1981)
I miss Columbo. (January 22, 1982)

50. I miss Jimmy Cannon because he was the best. (May 15, 1981)
I miss . . . Jimmy Cannon. (October 2, 1981)

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay[a]

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