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History lesson part 2

Barry Smith

When we last left off, it was July of 1994, and 28-year-old Barry, who was home recovering from auto-accident-induced brain damage, had just been offered to have his silly letter to the editor published as a guest column in that other Aspen paper.

I opened the paper to see my column inside, and I was thrilled. I wrote another one and they ran it the following week. After the third week, the editor, who was someone I knew from another gig, called me up and said something that nearly made me faint — “If you could do this every week, you’d have people all over the valley waiting to see what Barry Smith wrote this week.”

Now, 20 years of weekly column writing later, I know that this wasn’t/isn’t true, but at the time, well, swoon.

I was six years old when I first heard of the city called Las Vegas. I thought it was named “Lost” Vegas. At the dinner table that night I announced, “Have you heard the news? They found Lost Vegas!” My mother smiled politely. My father told me to sit up and eat and stop messing around. I was a hit! At that moment I imagined a life where I would come up with a new comedy news item to announce at dinner each night. My family would eagerly anticipate my nightly entertainment. This was a dream job! Reality set in after only the second night, when I failed to come up with a subsequent, comedy news item. But the dream never died. And now, at 28, it was starting to stir within me once again.

I wrote a few more guest columns before the editor resigned under a shroud of controversy. I called him up and asked if I could still have my weekly guest column. He said it wasn’t up to him, I’d have to talk to the new boss.

“But don’t get your hopes up,” he told me. “This guy has no sense of humor whatsoever.”

Oh, no.

I gathered up my handful of guest columns, stuck them in a folder and made an appointment to meet this new humorless editor. I was incredibly nervous. The brain damage didn’t help. I went into his office and sat down.

“What’s our deal with you?” he asked.

“I wrote this,” I squeaked, and handed him my folder.

He flipped through my six columns, my entire body of work at that point. He was not smiling.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I don’t want money!” I said, louder and faster than was necessary. “I’d just like to have my own column.”

Time passes. More reading. Still no smiling.

“These are good,” he finally said. “It’s hard to write funny. We’ll take your picture and start running you next month. Can you do twice a week?”

“I don’t want money,” I repeated, because I have keen business sense. Luckily it was the Aspen Daily News, so they were more than happy to comply with my peculiar financial demands.

Oh, and the new editor was Curtis Robinson, who soon became a close friend. Curtis is one of the funniest people I know. Not sure how that detail got so turned around.

I needed a name for my column, so I began brainstorming. I was pretty sure I’d be spending my time writing about things that were weird and fun rather than crucial to anyone’s existence, so my titles were attempts at conveying that. “Whatever …”, “A Bit of B.S.” and “Dain Bramage” were all considerations. I settled on “Theory of Irrelativity.” My second choice was a play on the title of a local column that was running in The Aspen Times called “A Trout in the Milk.” My version: “A Trout in my Butt.”

When my first official column appeared in the paper, there wasn’t enough room for the whole title, so just “Irrelativity” was next to my picture. And thus it was fated that I’d spend the next fifth of a century associating myself with a made up word this is nearly impossible to spell or pronounce. Years later, this would be called a “branding fail,” but nobody was talking such nonsense back then. It also meant years of phone conversations like this:

Them: What’s your email address?

Me: Barry at irrelativity.com.

Them: (Pause) Never mind. — Click —

After about the millionth such exchange, a trout in my butt was starting to feel like a pretty good idea.

To be continued —

Barry Smith’s column appears on Mondays.


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