Jack Handey once wrote, “Whenever you read a good book, it’s like the author is right there, in the room talking to you, which is why I don’t like to read good books.” “Deep Thoughts” like this one were once interstitials on Saturday Night Live, deadpan tone poems introduced by a purring Phil Hartman and accompanied by stock footage of a sunset or a babbling brook. “Deep Thoughts” became an empire, and then a national sensibility. In the past few years, Handey has been working on his own good book, The Stench of Honolulu, a novel, and it’s finally out today. We talked to him about his idea of Hawaii, his famous cat’s sanity, and writing poems for his new pet, a rat, Squeaky.
Did you read the story in the Times that accused you of influencing a generation of American poets?
Yeah, I saw that. [Laughs.] I was flattered. Like, Wow! Really? That was very nice. That just came out of the blue. She [Kathleen Rooney] didn’t talk to me at all. Hell, I’m a dang poet now.
I think she’s right when she said “you assault the convention of poetic metaphor and expose poetic writing as a fraudulent and circular game.” So was Hawaii’s poetic beauty just crying out to be assaulted?
I think so! For some reason, I had thought of sort of the “Deep Thoughts” character going to Hawaii. And I think it was because Hawaii is like paradise and so perfect that I kinda wanted to see what kind of damage the “Deep Thoughts” character could do if he was set loose over there. And it started out kind of like a vacation, and then I thought, Well, there’s not enough sort of danger or tension in that. So I made it like a treasure hunt. And that sort of required changing the whole nature of Hawaii to make it more dangerous and kind of threatening.
So this crazy Hawaii exists in the “Deep Thoughts” universe?
Yeah, is that the way it really is, or does he see it that way? He’s an insane idiot, so either one of those could be true.
So where did he come from? In the mid-eighties, he was in the National Lampoon.
Yeah, it sort of started out as a reaction to all the New Agey stuff that was coming out at the time. It just seemed ripe for parody. And hopefully, the character became sort of consistent.
Have you read Eckhart Tolle? How familiar were you with the culture you were parodying?
Well, it kinda started out when I actually knew a guy here, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Hugh Prather. But he had a lot of books called, like, Notes to Myself and I Touch the Earth, the Earth Touches Me. And they’re good books! But they just seemed kind of ripe for parody. And then hopefully “Deep Thoughts” became more than just parody, kind of became a character that fancies himself as being sensitive and thoughtful but is just kind of dangerous, actually.
How long did you work to get “Deep Thoughts” on the air? Because you saw the marketing potential of getting these on TV.
Yeah, as a matter of fact, to be honest, I always wanted to have it out as a book. But, boy, every publisher in the world turned it down. And so I thought, Gee, if I could just get it on TV they would have to publish it. And sure enough they did. So the TV stuff was almost secondary in a way.
You worked with Phil Hartman, who did the intros to the “Deep Thoughts” and then they were against this stock nature footage. So how did they come together each week?
There were different ideas that bounced around in my head before I finally got them on the air. One was to have a rich old guy sitting in the room, and a butler comes in with a little note on a tray and the guy opens it up and reads it and it’s a different “Deep Thought” every time. So to be honest with you, I don’t really know how the bucolic scenes came to be, but it somehow seemed to work. And boy, I looked at miles and miles of stock footage of waving wheat and waterfalls.
You talk about the difficulties of writing long form, but writing short can be even harder. How hard are they to write?
Yeah, they are hard to write. Sometimes people will call up and go, Can you give us like twenty “Deep Thoughts” on Father’s Day? And you’ll go, No, it’s too hard! For me, I would rather write things sort of spontaneously and sort of sift through them and see if they’re any good. But the novel, you’re rewriting and rewriting. Which you could do forever.
With a novel, you have to adhere to a narrative arc of some kind?
Right, and you have to spend time on the narrative arc that you would’ve kind of preferred just spending being funny. With the narrative thing you have to go like, “Well, if he knew that then he wouldn’t have said that.” So you’re juggling balls. So it’s difficult. I admire people that can do it. I’m not sure I can. I tried!
How long did it take?
Well, it actually took a few years. You go through the plot, you change the plot, and then you go, “Well, I’ll do a made-up country.” Which a lot of people do, even in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, it’s not like Ethiopia, it’s Beefiopia. You know, I just thought, I’ll just call it Hawaii. Because there’s just so many Hawaii archetypes that you can play against: like hulas and leis around the neck. So that was the evolution of it.
There’s this other line in Live From New York where you still have Tuesday-evening nightmares. But what is your process like? Mornings? Evenings?
I usually can’t get going in the morning. I usually waste time in the morning. E-mails and all kinds of stuff. Usually around one o’clock I start writing. And the process for “Deep Thoughts,” and I still kind of use this, is to just sort of lay on the floor and throw a ball against the ceiling forever.
You lay on your back?
It’s like a modified Steve McQueen.
Why Steve McQueen?
Like in The Great Escape.
That’s right, like a reclining Steve McQueen. Yeah, I don’t know what it is. It becomes sort of meditative. And I think laying on your back helps, too, because you get a little more blood to the brain. It runs out of your ears.
So you live in New Mexico, and it started out as making fun of New Age stuff, but it sounds like you have a deep knowledge of this stuff.
Yeah, well, Santa Fe is one of those towns where you look up and see a lot of ads for healers. So it’s got its share of New Agey-ness.
And you met one of the fathers of conceptual stand-up in New Mexico, Steve Martin, who eventually introduced you to Lorne Michaels. Are you and Steve still friends? Why wasn’t he all over your book jacket?
We’re not really friends, but you know, we talk occasionally. I guess I didn’t want to impose on him.
So what’s next for the “Deep Thoughts” character?
Well, I’m actually writing some new “Deep Thoughts.” And I’ve also written some poems that I can’t get a publisher interested in. But they’re called “Squeaky Poems.” Yeah, you’re right: I am a poet!
There are plenty of people that believe that. What are the “Squeaky Poems” about?
They’re about my pet pack rat, Squeaky. If you want I’ll e-mail you a couple.*
I’d love that. Is the real Toonces still alive?
Yeah, my cat Toonces has since passed to the great beyond.
So you wrote poems for Squeaky and a skit for Toonces.
Yeah, I should be careful about which pets I adopt. But Squeaky was a pack rat that we found abandoned. Actually, she was the sole survivor of an owl massacre. So we raised her and she’s still around after four years. So I wrote some little squibby poems about her.
So how did the real Toonces inspire that sketch?
I really don’t know how I thought of a cat driving a car. It’s one of those things where two neurons connect. And that wasn’t the actual Toonces in the show. That was an actor cat.
It looked like a puppet.
Well, part of it was a puppet and part of it was a real cat.
So what was the real Toonces like?
He was pretty neurotic. Like he would bang his head into the headboard on our bed. He was pretty crazy.
So you’re saying accident prone.
Yeah! There you go. Or suicidal? I don’t know. He would get up on our bed and just bonk his head onto the headboard. Which I’ve probably done myself.
*Here are two poems for Squeaky:
To me the greatest joke of all
Would be to walk into a hall
With my Squeaky on my hat,
And keep asking, “Seen my rat?”
Rats have been in every war,
And yet where is their statue?
When you bring the topic up,
There’s silence, then an “Achoo!”