I’ve read Hemingway, Faulkner, and McCarthy, but I say without facetiousness that Jack Handey has made a bigger impact on my writing than any of them. It’s almost sad to read one of his signature Deep Thoughts, because you know you will never write anything even half as good as that and it’s only a sentence long. (“If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.”) It’s no wonder their influence can still be seen everywhere in the world of comedy.
During his tenure at SNL, he created legendary sketches like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Happy Fun Ball, and Toonces, The Cat Who Could Drive A Car. In addition to his bestselling Deep Thoughts collections, he also published the thoroughly genius What I’d Say To The Martians and Other Veiled Threats in 2008, a collection of insane essays.
He’s back with his first ever novel The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure and it is classic Jack Handey. In the book, the character “Jack Handey” (aka “Wrong Way Slurps”) travels to Hawaii to hunt down the fabled Golden Monkey, along with his longtime “friend” Don. On every page, Handey delivers rapid-fire jokes that will please any longtime fan. (“She was like a deer, only a two-legged deer with a really nice ass.”)
We talked to Mr. Handey over email about the book, the legacy of Deep Thoughts, and the possibility of more Deep Thoughts to come.
What made you want to write a longer form novel at this point in your career?
Good question. And the answer is, I’m not really sure. I had been thinking for quite a while that it might be fun to have the Deep Thoughts character and Don go to Hawaii. Hawaii is “paradise,” so I thought it would be interesting to unleash the Deep Thoughts character there, and see what damage he could do. At first I thought they could go there on vacation, but a treasure hunt seemed to have more impetus to it. But a treasure hunt seemed to require changing the whole nature of Hawaii, making it a more dangerous, ominous place.
Besides the obvious length, what’s different about writing a novel than a short story or sketch?
It’s harder, at least for me. You have to juggle all these balls. “If he knew that then, then he wouldn’t have asked that,” etc. Plus, you can keep rewriting it forever, until sometimes you are “running past the joke into the dead zone,” as the comedian Alexei Sayle once said. Another trouble with a novel is you have to spend time plotting that you would rather spend just being funny—not that The Stench of Honolulu is meticulously plotted.
How would you describe the character of “Jack Handey”? How similar is it to your real life?
The Jack Handey character, or what I call the Deep Thoughts character, is an insane idiot. It is the same as my real life.
Why does he dislike his “so-called friend” Don so much? Is he based on anyone you know?
Don is not based on anyone in particular. Don is reasonable and polite and thoughtful, all irritants to an insane idiot.
What about your “funny cowboy dance”?
I love it when insane idiots try to be funny or tell a joke. One of my favorite parts in Dumb and Dumber was when Jim Carrey thinks that lighting a fart would be the height of wit.
Is there any chance you would read an audiobook version of The Stench of Honolulu? Even while reading, I can’t help but hear your voice in my head.
I do read the audiobook. Dennis Kao did a great job of directing me.
Deep Thoughts still has such a cult following and their influence can be seen everywhere. Is it strange to you that they’ve had such an impact on comedy?
Very strange. I was just trying to get a little paperback book published.
In a weird way, Deep Thoughts seems ahead of its time, with Twitter now putting a focus on more bite-sized comedy. You can tweet a joke immediately, instead of going through editors and rewrites. Is that a good thing? Do you think that will change comedy or is it similar to the instant output of SNL?
I’m not sure it’s a good thing not to have an editor between you and your audience. A lot of times what you think are great ideas aren’t so great. You need time to sift through them, sort them out, let them sit.
In the ‘80s, you wrote for a magazine created by George Meyer called Army Man, which has become legendary. Almost every writer went on to become well-known in the comedy world. What do you remember about that?
George Meyer is one of the most brilliant comedy minds around. When he left Saturday Night Live, he wound up in Boulder, Colorado, for a while, and put out Army Man — three issues. But he tired of being an editor, having to reject or accept his friends’ writings. I have tried to get him to revive Army Man, with no luck. He even got an offer from Michael Nesmith to finance it, but still declined.
What’s next for you?
I am actually writing some new Deep Thoughts. Also, I am tinkering with “Squeaky Poems,” a collection of over 100 poems about my pet pack rat Squeaky, with great photos by my friend Pamela Reed. But so far no bites from publishers.
For Deep Thoughts, do you sit down and try to write new ones or do they come gradually?
They don’t come gradually, or out of the blue. You have to sit down — or in my case, lie down — for hours, and try to come up with some. Usually, I lie down on the floor and throw a ball against the ceiling, over and over.
Do you know when the new Deep Thoughts book will be finished?
Possibly by next year.
Are there any that stand out as a favorite?
Here’s one: “It’s never too late to start doing what you really want to do. Wait, how old are you?”
Do you really have a pet mouse?
I have a pet pack rat, Squeaky. She was an orphan when we found her. Her mother was killed by something, an owl, possibly. Her siblings were picked off by blue jays as they wriggled out of the nest. We saved Squeaky. My wife, Marta, fed her with an eye dropper. Sadly, coincidentally, she died just a few hours ago. She was just over four years old.
Is there anything you want to do, but still have yet to?
Visit our nation’s capital.
Bryan Bierman is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia, who’s written for The A.V. Club, Magnet Magazine, and Philadelphia City Paper. His current favorite Deep Thought is “To me, it’s always a good idea to always carry two sacks of something when you walk around. That way, if anybody says, ‘Hey, can you give me a hand?’ you can say, ‘Sorry, got these sacks.’” He is always going to feel guilty for killing Jack Handey’s pet mouse, Squeaky.