Jack Handey is Real
And he is funnier than you
By Genevieve Mueller
The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure
Grand Central Publishing
To all would-be comedians: Jack Handey is better than you. All those tweets you painstakingly compose, desperately hoping to craft the perfect one-liner to make you famous? Handey did that 30 years ago, he did it better than you, he did it smarter than you, and he continues to be funnier than you. Handey’s writing is concise, witty and absurd. In his new novel The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure, he demonstrates an almost unearthly ability to maintain a surreal narrative that unfolds like a drunk, greedy and murderous Dickensian plot.
Handey wrote for “Saturday Night Live” from 1985 to 1998 and 2001 to 2002. He’s responsible for sketches such as “Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car” and “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” His “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey” segment appeared regularly on “SNL” in the early ’90s. These short absurdities “were first inspired by New Age-type writings of the 1970s,” he recalls. “Specifically books like Notes to Myself and I Touch the Earth, the Earth Touches Me by Hugh Prather.” Although they started as parodies, “Deep Thoughts” are so entirely Handey that they’ve been included in collections along with his other similar works. His writing is no longer merely satire; it has a distinctly recognizable voice. Handey’s impact is far-reaching.
Handey has inspired an entire generation of comics, whether they know it or not. Of course many still don’t realize that he is, indeed, a real person. The question comes up so often that his website offers a survey called, “Is There a Real Jack Handey?” Countless comedians and comedy writers such as stand-up comic Anthony Jeselnik and even Mike Smith, Alibi contributor and writer of the Twitter feed @ABrokenGPS, have cited Handey as their inspiration. Handey’s response: “I am very happy to have entered the ‘inspiration’ stage of my career, as opposed to my earlier ‘you stink’ phase.”
Most of Handey’s previous books have been collections of short anti-aphorisms, like Deep Thoughts and his similar work Fuzzy Memories, so it’s interesting that Handey would now choose to write a novel. “I was curious what would happen if the ‘Deep Thoughts’ character was set loose in the world, what kind of damage he would cause, so I set him on an adventure with his friend Don,” Handey says. And boy does that Wrong Way Slurps cause some damage. In case you didn’t know: The “Deep Thoughts” character, also named Jack Handey, gives himself the nickname Wrong Way Slurps.
In The Stench of Honolulu, Handey’s new novel, Wrong Way Slurps is an arrogant and self-indulgent hustler who sets off for Honolulu with his friend Don to steal the Golden Monkey statue, a Hawaiian treasure. As they drift down a Honolulu river on their way to find the statue, they convince a local girl, Leilani, to be their guide. Slurps, who’s clueless, nearly kills this band of treasure hunters several times. Each line gets more and more ludicrous; this is a novel that will make you laugh until your stomach bursts into flames and then contemplate how Handey made a band of marauding vigilante tourists so incredibly funny.
Slurps reads like an homage to 1970s stand-up from the likes of Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. Handey wrote for Martin, whose success, he says, “was influential on me in the sense that you could indeed get away with silly, absurdist ideas.” Handey’s writing is intelligent, intense and well crafted. It relies on the reader to be actively engaged in the process because the punchline only unfolds if the reader allows it. In The Stench of Honolulu, he creates a seemingly implausible island scenario, but the narrative floats us along that river with Slurps, and we begin to want this petty character with homicidal tendencies to find that Golden Monkey.
Originally from El Paso, Handey now lives in Santa Fe. There is a certain kind of person who willingly decides to live in the Southwest. Reflecting on this, Handey says, “I think a lot of people from the Southwest are soft-spoken and not that confident in themselves. At least that probably describes me. So that may be why I made my comedy character the opposite of that.” This self-described “lack of confidence” manifests somehow in the ability to manipulate his audience into thinking like him, into living in the absurd worlds of “Deep Thoughts” and his most recent novel. Although others may try, nobody does that better than Handey.
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