– Biff America in ‘Steep, Deep and Dyslexic’-
His face and hands were tanned and weathered. Both were symptoms of someone who spends more time outside than in an office. He wore a wool flannel shirt, a woolen cap, and well-worn jeans. He opened the door, kicked snow from his boots, and walked inside.
“Hi Jeffrey,” the barista said. “The usual? You know where it is.”
I was on my first leg of a quest to find out where the humor writers are and was about to meet a long-time favorite of mine, Biff America aka Jeffrey Bergeron, in a Breckenridge, Colorado coffee shop. Well known for his sharp and edgy wit, Bergeron keeps skiers wondering what he’ll write about next.
Bergeron is a former radio ad copy writer with a comedic gusto that nearly matches his insatiable demand to ski. His career has migrated uphill faster than a rope tow and higher than a chairlift. Through his alter ego Biff America, Bergeron is a popular television entertainer, comedian, radio host, and the author of ‘Steep, Deep and Dyslexic,’ a collage of stories published over a ten year period in multiple Rocky Mountain newspapers. He has interviewed Hollywood celebrities and former Presidents. Bergeron also served two terms on the Breckenridge Town Council. Bergeron’s ‘Biff America’ is a Colorado icon. I wondered what made him tick.
I first saw the Biff America TV morning show thirty years ago. The show was produced, as he explains, in a “gerbil-powered TV station” and recorded in a studio resembling a college dorm room. The Biff America Show was the Rocky Mountain version of Wayne’s World. He poked fun at bad hair, ugly ski gear, and mispronounced words. His humor was as steady, and blustery, as a February blizzard.
Biff’s irreverent columns push the margin, but he lets readers decide whether the lines have been crossed. He freely volunteers stories about topics other people keep private, whether it’s smuggling beers into a family reunion or being searched at the airport for nose-hair clippers. He takes on subjects others take far too seriously and can weave together a story involving prostate exams, dog walking, and interior paint selections, all on one page.
I contacted Biff after reading his obituary which didn’t let on it was autobiographical. Apparently a squirrel jumped inside Biff’s car, climbed up his pant leg, and caused him to crash into a tree. The squirrel left the scene but Biff did not. “How sad,” I thought, “what a loss.” I reread the byline—“by Biff America.” I knew then I wanted to meet the guy who would use such an unusual way to make contact with his readers, and wanted to let him know I appreciated his work. I contacted Biff and let him know I was in town. We sat down for coffee.
Thanks for meeting. I’ve enjoyed your work for a long time.
Sure thing, but I need to prepare for a back-country ski trip later this morning. A powder dump is forecasted near Marble [Colorado]. So what’re you doing?
I’m finding out where all the humor writers are. I’m from Colorado but now live in snow-deprived Chico, California. I’m sneaking in a few ski days and wanted to track you down.
I lived in Northern California once, back during my salad—eating years and also spent some winters in Southern California. I try to ski the Sierra every spring if there’s good corn snow.
So, what kind of name is “Biff America”?
[Sigh]. It’s one of those childhood nicknames I can’t shake. I was a smart-alec kid in Boston. Biff was okay back then and even into my 30’s. But I’m almost 60. How many guys my age call themselves, “Biff?”
I guess only you, Biff.
Well, it’s my persona anyway, my pen-name. Biff pays the bills but he’s not Jeffrey Bergeron.
I moved here in the mid-1970s. The East Coast is crowded and has puny mountains with lousy snow. Yeah, we have the Bruins but I really like the Red Sox. I’m not related to Bergeron the Bruin, who’s a French Canadian. I’m an Irish-Catholic Bostonian. Ah, maybe there’s some French in there….
Did you start your writing and TV career in Colorado?
Yep, I started in the 1980s with TV-8 Summit Television in Breckenridge and began writing ten years after Al Gore invented the computer. Before writing humor columns, I wrote radio ad copy. I wasn’t formerly trained in journalism and barely scraped through high school. But I have an uncanny ability to remember details—which I embellish.
How did you get into humor writing?
My parents and siblings had a great sense of humor. I clowned around a lot at home and school. Writing radio ad copy work got me going because you really have to be concise and to the point. You need to get listeners’ attention. I eventually recorded ads and needed to be animated. Biff America is animated. The radio work led to the TV show…which I wrote. One thing led to another and I got published in newspapers and magazines. Now thinking about this, I’ve been writing a long time and Biff’s persona has carried me through.
You are known as a humor writer, but you also write serious articles. What prompts you?
I write serious when an event moves me. I guess I’m more of a serious guy that can write funny than a funny guy that can write serious. The serious stuff comes from personal experience because I had a stake in the story. To some degree I knew the people involved and wanted to make a point, whether the story talked about cancer, gun control, gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, or campaigning around town in my Vespa scooter.
That’s right; I had a show on KOA-AM 850 in Denver for nine years, not to be confused with the KOA Campground on Interstate 70. It was my trip to the big city.
Who were your most memorable interviews?
On TV I interviewed actors James Earl Jones, Robert England (Freddy Kruger), Jon Voight, Peter Fonda and musician Richie Havens. On radio I interviewed Christopher Reeves, Jimmy Carter, Ralph Nader and Lance Armstrong.
That’s quite a list. How does a humor writer get to interview a former President?
I interviewed President Carter on a multi-state radio show I co-hosted. It was a matter of persevering. And good timing. He’s fascinating.
Were you nervous interviewing President Carter?
President Carter was wonderful and gracious. He was promoting Habitat for Humanity. Before the interview I researched his work and listened to his Presidential speeches on energy policy. They were on-line. I also read his book. His kindness glowed. I picked up on that while on the air. I wasn’t nervous.
Did President Carter have a sense of humor?
I asked whether his staff received the $100 I sent to his Presidential campaign. He laughed and said he heard it was only $50.
Tell me about your book “Steep, Deep and Dyslexic.” Reviewers describe you as a mix of Andy Rooney and Garrison Keillor.
Backcountry Magazine sponsored Steep and Deep which was published in 2006. It’s a collage of newspaper articles where I talk about recreation, family, living people, dead people, politics, connubial bliss, God, and sex, love and body parts. One reviewer said he blew beer through his nose. I haven’t met that guy.
Your book received high acclaim from the Denver Post and in 2005 you received the Colorado Press Association award for both humor and serious writing. Do you have plans for another book?
Yes, but I’m in the early stages. I still write for Backcountry Magazine, of course from the viewpoint of a wise-guy, aging, skier. I love to write but like to ski more days than I work.
I understand you are friends with John Nichols, author of ‘The Milagro Beanfield War’. Have you considered writing fiction?
Oh, I don’t know…maybe.
Your humor is to Backcountry Magazine like Patrick McManus is to Field & Stream. What are your favorite topics?
I like to write about myself, a subject I’m familiar with. Like when I’m skiing with younger guys or with my wife. I gasp for air while they breathe using scuba-tank-size-lungs. When you poke fun at yourself it doesn’t intimidate others. I’ve screwed up a lot, so there’s plenty to write about. I write about topics that many only think about. I have a broad mesh in my filter.
What are the most challenging stories to write?
Any story about myself, where I’m not proud of my behavior, or situations that are painful to recount. ‘Steep and Deep’ gives readers a peek at that when I talk about my parents, or the time a friend died in an avalanche. Though it hurt I still wrote about those experiences. Unfortunately I know a lot of dead people.
Who most influenced your writing career?
My brother is a brilliant writer for a Boston newspaper. I can’t say he influenced me much as he’s just too good. Novelist and poet Jack Kerouac (On the Road) changed my life. Former syndicated travel writer, David Gonzales, was also very supportive in my early years. Other supporters were Denver Post columnist Steve Lipsher and author John Nichols.
Do you blog?
No, I have a Facebook account but that’s it. I’m a print guy, which is good. The editors can fix my terrible typing, spelling and grammar.
You served on the Breckenridge Town Council. Why does a humor writer get into politics?
Yeah, I served two terms. I wanted to represent the ski-bum, the hard working guy or gal barely getting by. I wanted to maintain a town where a person like me could get established. I was not beholden to the developers or any corporations, just the working person. They needed a voice. And I also wanted to protect our local resources and the area’s natural beauty.
I had observed many Council meetings over the years and my largest hurdle to getting elected was my name. Citizens didn’t think I’d take the job seriously. Once elected, I soon realized how difficult a job it is. We considered the impacts of development, affordable housing, and sustaining our local economy. Behind the scenes were many forces, and pressure, to take one side over another. The job was difficult but I tried to listen to everyone. The issues were not as clear as I thought. I learned that I couldn’t please everybody. I’m still involved in the Town’s Open Space Advisory Committee.
Yes, it began prior to my term when my wife and I got involved in a ballot measure to establish a town tax for preserving open space. As an elected official…that word “official” sounds weird…I eventually became involved with local water politics. The Town of Breckenridge has some of the oldest and most senior water rights in Colorado. It was interesting to learn the options the Town had to improve management and storage of the Blue River before it reaches Lake Dillon, which is owned by the Denver Water Board.
Do you plan to retire?
From TV, yes. I’ll still do some freelance TV work if the opportunity presents itself but won’t actively seek it. I don’t want to fill my schedule having to be somewhere. I’ll continue to write and can do that anywhere at any time. I want to ski more than I work…did I already say that?
What advice do you have for aspiring humor writers?
Embellish, be edgy, but know your audience. I write for a PG-rated audience and I’ve seen colleagues flop when they pushed beyond social tolerance. Summit County is known for its ski resorts, but the area also has a long history, charm and ambience. Breckenridge was explored in the 1800’s by trappers and miners. We’re a close knit community with less than 10,000 people. But I have a broader audience. The Breckenridge Ski Area can attract up to 20,000 skiers on a peak day. We’re an international destination. So my audience includes the locals and tourists, whether they come from Lubbock or London.
That said, edgy is good… but I don’t want to lose my coffee club membership. Oh yeah, and write your own fan mail.
You’ve had a broad career and are multi-talented. Do you also perform colonoscopies?
Funny you ask, I just had one. They found a Timex in there.
Soon, time ran out. Bergeron needed to pack for his ski trip and daylight burned. I handed him two souvenirs, a hat from Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewery, and a complimentary Sky Mall Magazine from my airline flight (these magazines sell things people need, like underwater treadmills and dog bunk beds). We finished our coffee session discussing ski equipment. I told Biff about my rig. “Dude, your stuff is old. You need all-terrain skis and bindings….”
He offered me a ride and I hopped in his car (sans squirrel) for a shuttle across town. He dropped me off, waved and drove away. What I appreciate most about Bergeron is that through Biff America, I’m transported to an era when life was simpler and the world less complicated. Today, his humor is sharper and more perceptive than most comedians.
I’m glad he wasn’t done in by a squirrel.
If Breckenridge is your destination, spend a few moments Sunday morning reading the Summit Daily News where you’ll find Biff America’s column. Also read Biff in Backcountry Magazine, or download Biff America: Steep, Deep, and Dyslexic on your e-reader by visiting Biff America.
Eric Miller is a lazy backcountry skier and prefers chairlifts over skins. He lives in Chico, California with his wife and teenage daughters.
Editors: For more information on my Humor Project please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.