Jack Handey—who is indeed a real person, despite common misconception—is best known for his series of hilarious faux aphorisms, Deep Thoughts. Handey is also the writer of many of SNL's best sketches from the 80s and 90s, such as "Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car," "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer," and "Happy Fun Ball." For the past decade, he has been a regular contributor to the New Yorker's Shouts & Murmurs section. This summer he released his first novel, The Stench of Honolulu, which begins: "When my friend Don suggested we go on a trip to the South Seas together, and offered to pay for the whole thing, I thought, Fine, but what's in it for me?"
Lincoln Michel talked to him for VICE about writing, funny grammar, and proper cowboy dance moves.
VICE: I'm curious about the writing process for your novel, The Stench of Honolulu. Did you write most of the jokes separately, like for Deep Thoughts, and then add them to a narrative? Or did you write the jokes as you wrote the story?
Jack Handey: Some jokes were preexisting, but most were written as the story developed.
In the early 2000s, SNL ran excerpts from a fake novel of yours called My Big Thick Novel. If I'm not mistaken, one or two of those bits ended up in The Stench of Honolulu. For example, the one with a woman named Lanani (in the novel it's Leilani) who gets annoyed about being a "personal blowdart counter." Did the idea for writing an actual novel originate in the My Big Thick Novel spots?
Yes, I stole that joke from My Big Thick Novel. I think the novel did have a lot of its origins in My Big Thick Novel. I like a jungle setting, because just about anything can happen there, real or supernatural. It adds to the possibility of jokes you can use.
What is your favorite SNL sketch that you wrote? What is your favorite SNL sketch that you didn't write?
Good question. That I did write, probably a toss-up between "Anne Boleyn" and "Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car."
One I wished I'd written was an episode of "Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein," a sketch I created with writer Jim Downey. We flash back in time to Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein singing "California Dreamin'" in their stilted, monosyllabic style, as hippies. Then we cut to modern day, where they say, "Tonto, Tarzan, Frankenstein take many drug in 60s. We lucky. Not affect us. But maybe you not so lucky."
But there was another sketch that week that was similar, so I didn't submit it.
Another sketch I actually wrote up but never submitted was Robert Mitchum as a very frightened submarine commander—sort of a parody of the Mitchum film The Enemy Below. Mitchum, by the way, was the coolest host I ever met on the show—that sort of languid, 1940s cool. Him playing scared would have been funny.
A lot of your greatest SNL sketches, such as "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" and "Happy Fun Ball," featured the late, great Phil Hartman. What was he like to collaborate with?
Phil was the best, a total pro. I wrote a lot for him because he could play so many things so very well. I could make major changes in a sketch between Dress and Air, and go to Phil sitting there in the makeup room, and quickly tell him the changes, and he would calmly absorb them.
What are the core elements a successful "funny cowboy dance"?
You can't force it. When you're doing the dance, if you suddenly feel like flinging your hand out, do it. Don't think about it. Or if you feel like pretending you're chewing tobacco and spitting, as you dance, do that. Don't be too rigid, is what I'm trying to say.
Like the cowboy dance, the so-called friend, Don, is an element that has recurred in your writing for many years. There are Deep Thoughts about Don ("My friend Don is such a loser. But if he was here right now, he'd say I was the loser. No, Don, you're the loser. But if he was here, he'd say I was the loser. No way Don, you're the loser.") and he appears in several of your New Yorker pieces. Now he is a central character in your novel. How did Don come about?
It's funnier if a jerk like the Deep Thoughts character is mean to a nice guy rather than another jerk. I guess that's where Don came from. He's a punching bag.
For a lot of humor writers of my generation, Army Man, which published some of your first Deep Thoughts, is a huge inspiration. Can you tell us how you got involved with Army Man and George Meyer?
George and I were officemates on a show called The New Show, a sketch show from 1984. George produced Army Man between the time he left SNL and when he joined The Simpsons. George is an amazing comedy writer. He can come up with a joke that no one else could ever come up with. For instance, I wrote a sketch called "Salmon," where spawning salmon are talking to each other, and one mentions how hard it was to get over a certain waterfall. George came up with the response, "Tell me about it! Boy! I think the key is you can't be afraid to look stupid."
A lot of your humor, in my reading at least, is bound up in the syntax and grammar. Here's an example from one of your Fuzzy Memories: "The first time I ever tried to milk a cow at Grandpa's farm, I didn't even know which end of the cow to milk! Then I guess I got even dumber, because the next time I couldn't even find the barn. Then the last time, I just went out in the woods and lived, with no clothes."
This is a hilarious premise to begin with, but the inclusion of the exclamation point in the first sentence and the dangling "with no clothes" clause in the second really seal it for me. I realize I'm dipping into English-major-nerd territory, but how do you think grammar and syntax play into written comedy? Is it comparable to timing and intonation?
Syntax and grammar are very important, not only for joke timing, but also to get a sense of the character, that he's not too bright. When I first sold some Deep Thoughts to the National Lampoon, way back when, at first they would correct the grammar, and I'd have to tell them, no, go back to the bad version.
You've said that you love the writing of George Saunders, who also blurbed your book. What other contemporary fiction writers do you read?
I don't read much fiction, but I like Maria Semple, Wells Tower, Jacqueline Carey, Ron Carlson.
How handy is Jack Handey with a hammer? Saw? Sword?
I am probably the most unmechanical person I know. I couldn't figure out how to open a door even if it was obvious that a big rock was blocking it.
You've said you are working on a book of new Deep Thoughts. Can you give us a preview?
It's never too late to start doing what you want to do. Wait, how old are you?
Lincoln Michel's work appears in the Believer, Electric Literature, Tin House, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic, a Brooklyn-based magazine of short prose and art. He can be found online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.
The VICE Reader is a series in which we publish original fiction—mostly. We also feature the occasional poem, essay, book review, diary entry, Graham Greene-style dream-diary entry, Zemblan fable, letter to the editor, letter to a fictional character, and anything else that is so good we feel it must be shared among the literary-minded and the internet at large.
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