You’ll likely remember comedy writer Jack Handey, if you remember him at all, from his “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey” sketches, which ran on Saturday Night Live in the nineties. The simple, aphoristic, twisted parable-like jokes, often a mere sentence or three, made a lasting impression on the next couple of generations of would-be funny people to come, including myself, who to this day are still in awe of Handey’s talent. Many of them, including his contempoary Al Franken, show up in this delightful profile of Handey in the New York Times from yesterday written by Dan Kois on the occasion of the release of his first novel The Stench of Honolulu.
It’s fitting, if disconcerting to comedy writers, that Handey himself admits to still chasing down the elusive dream of the perfect joke—the one that stands out of time and contemporary referential humor—because so many that have come after him are still chasing his style down; almost all of the funny people you see regularly RT’d in your feed are flopping around, decades later, in Handey’s wake.
Consider this offering for his favorite joke:
“Brevity is a big factor for me in a stand-alone joke. To get a laugh with the fewest number of words possible. Which is why ‘Take my wife, please’ is such a great joke. The closest I’ve ever come is probably ‘The crows seemed to be calling his name, thought Caw.’ ”
You’ll see hundreds of daily repetitions on that style among the legions of comedians and wannabes on Twitter, particularly among the denizens of #weirdtwitter, for which Handey serves as the patron saint.
Here are a few of my favorite Handey bits:
- One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. “Oh no”, I said, “Disneyland burned down.” He cried and cried, but I think that deep down he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late.
- If you’re a cowboy, and you’re dragging a guy behind your horse, I bet it would really make you mad if you looked back and the guy was reading a magazine.
- It makes me mad when people say I turned and ran like a scared rabbit. Maybe it was like an angry rabbit, who was going to fight in another fight, away from the first fight.
- To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kinda scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time when I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.
- You know something that would really make me applaud? A guy gets stuck in quicksand, then sinks, then suddenly comes shooting out, riding on water skis! How do they do that?!
- Dad always thought laughter was the best medicine, which I guess is why several of us died of tuberculosis.
- If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let ’em go, because, man, they’re gone.
- I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.
- There should be a detective show called “Johnny Monkey,” because every week you could have a guy say “I ain’t gonna get caught by no MONKEY,” but then he would, and I don’t think I’d ever get tired of that.