Jack Handey has written "Deep Thoughts" for Saturday Night Live, "Shouts and Murmurs" for The New Yorker, and last week published his first novel, The Stench of Honolulu. He is one of the funniest living writers in the world today. He spoke to us via email about comedy, the perils of notoriety, and the best nut.
Gawker: A poll of our staff revealed that almost everyone assumed that "Jack Handey" was a fictional character, back in the SNL days. Was this something you purposely cultivated? Or was it just a source of amusement to you?
Jack Handey: A source of amusement and frustration. You finally get your tiny slice of fame, and then people think it's a made-up name. It actually is a made-up name — it was made up by my parents. I am the third Jack Handey, although my father and grandfather had different middle names.
It's funny, but when I was a kid, other kids didn't say, "Your name sounds goofy." They said things like, "Hey, Four Eyes, come here so I can punch you," but not that my name sounded funny.
I wish my creditors thought it was a made-up name.
Is there anyone from the SNL days whose genius you don't think was sufficiently appreciated (or over-appreciated, as the case may be)? Who do you consider to be the funniest people you've ever worked with?
JH: Good question. I thought Dave Koechner was under appreciated. He's really hilarious. He's since gone on to many other things, but he only lasted a year at SNL. A shame.
Some of the funniest people I've worked with include George Meyer, Jim Downey, Max Pross and Tom Gammill, Christine Zander, Al Franken and Tom Davis, Adam McKay, T. Sean Shannon, John Swartzwelder. All great writers.
Are there any writers or publications you read now that you love? Do you see anyone out there as an heir apparent to you and your style?
JH: I don't really read, or watch, a lot of comedy anymore. I don't really know why. I would imagine the cutting-edge stuff is on the Internet [such as Gawker.com, he implies here -ed.] or Comedy Central, but I'm too lazy to check it out. I used to be a big fan of the British stuff — the Pythons, of course, and Fry and Laurie, Black Adder, the Comic Strip, French & Saunders, etc. I used to write for the now-defunct British mag, Punch.
Nowadays, probably the only humor I check out is in The New Yorker. I love Ian Frazier. And George Saunders. And David Owen. Simon Rich does some really funny stuff. On TV, I checked out Anthony Jeselnik, because he was kind enough to plug "The Stench of Honolulu." He's hilarious. He has a great comedy character.
I'm sure there are writers out there who do what I do, better than me. But they'd better keep their heads down until I die.
The "Deep Thoughts" style would seem perfectly suited for Twitter. Why aren't you on Twitter? Any plans to be?
JH: People are always urging me to do so. Maybe because it seems like such a perfect fit is why I resist doing it.
Any words of advice for younger writers who want to know how to write jokes that are timeless?
JH: Write the kind of jokes you enjoy. If they are timeless, "evergreen" jokes, so much the better. But if you like writing topical jokes, that's fine too. And the latter is more likely to get you a job, on a late-night talk show or whatever.
Instead of living in, say, New York and being treated like a celebrity, you live a relatively quiet life in New Mexico. Why? Do you ever get to take advantage of your status as a cult figure?
JH: No, because New York or New Mexico, people think Jack Handey is a made-up name. A store clerk might see my name and say, "You know, there was a thing on Saturday Night Live by Jack Handey." And I'll say, "Yeah, that's me!" And the clerk will say, "No, this was a thing on Saturday Night Live." You can't win.
We used to spend summers in New Mexico, so we finally moved here from New York. New York is great — lived in Manhattan for 20 years — but it got too expensive and noisy. New Mexico is quiet. You know it's time to leave New York when you look around the subway car and you're the oldest person in there.
Will the world ever get to hear any more Deep Thoughts?
JH: I have been working on some new ones.