Humorist Jack Handey—author of "Deep Thoughts," "What I’d Say to the Martians," and "The Stench of Honolulu"—is a legend for two reasons: many people think he’s not a real person, and he’s so funny it should be illegal. We recently chatted via email about humor, Jupiter, and ultra-violence.
Mark Peters: Jack, thanks for letting me interview you. It’s a serious thrill for me, because you are my favorite writer, and I have many cheese sculptures of you in my house. Kidding! They’re made of chocolate.
You make a lot of people laugh. Who makes you laugh? If you desperately needed a laugh, who would you read or watch?
Jack Handey: Probably ultra-violence. And mutilation. Like the scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" where Graham Chapman cuts off the arms and legs of the Black Knight. Or the scene in "Dead Alive" where the guy fends off zombies with a power mower. The first time I saw anyone playing "Grand Theft Auto" I fell down laughing.
John Cleese once said something to the effect that a man slipping on a banana will make a civilian laugh. But for a comedy writer, it has to be an old lady, slipping and falling into a manhole.
Absurdity also makes me laugh. But it has to be unexplained, arbitrary absurdity. If there's a logical explanation behind the absurdity, it ruins it.
Also, redundancy makes me laugh.
MP: Which of your New Yorker pieces is your favorite and why?
JH: Probably "What I'd Say to the Martians," because of its arbitrary meanness and violence.
MP: What’s an overlooked joke of yours that you’re especially proud of?
JH: When Jerry Hall hosted "Saturday Night Live," she was in a sketch that I wrote. I put in a totally absurd, non-sequitur joke ending, which was Jerry telling the family, "Your father has gone and hung himself." Jerry and her husband at the time, Mick Jagger, didn't like it and wanted it changed. But I wouldn't, and Lorne Michaels, my boss, backed me up. So I'm not proud that it was a great joke, but that I stuck to my guns.
MP: It seems like you’ve been gradually taking your bread and butter—Deep Thoughts—and using them as building blocks for longer humor. Many of your New Yorker pieces could be considered extensions of the Deep Thoughts character, and "The Stench of Honolulu" is like a novel made of Deep Thoughts (with an impressively intricate plot too). Have you thought of expanding into other areas? Would "Deep Thoughts: The Movie" work?
JH: Probably only for drunk people, or people who'd been smoking hashish.
Right now I am finishing a book of Deep Thoughts-like poems about my pet rat. "Squeaky Poems."
MP: I’ve heard you’re working on a collection of new Deep Thoughts. Could you share one?
JH: "It's never too late to do what you really want to do. Wait, how old are you?"
MP: Since this interview will be on the Psychology Today website, I should ask you something about the psychology of humor, but I’d rather ask you something important and relevant: Do you still consider Jupiter an enemy planet?
JH: Jupiter has made some much-needed reforms, but it's not enough.
MP: What is the craziest thing you ever saw?
JH: Here in Santa Fe, where I live, in the middle of the day, I saw a butterfly chasing a bat. The bat was trying to get away. I think the butterfly had amorous intentions.
(Photo by Brad Wilson)