For a literate pop child of the 1980s, Jack Handey, the author of “Saturday Night Live’s” one-line “Deep Thoughts,” seemed like a genius – if he were real, that is. I’m not sure I knew that Jack Handey actually existed until the late 90s, and by then, I had moved on from “Saturday Night Live” to more rarified comedy: “Mr. Show with Bob and David,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “The Howard Stern Show.” (The latter may seem out of place unless you’re a longtime listener, albeit one who does not have “truck nuts” dangling from the back of your pick-up. The show is a lot smarter than it is given credit for. Seriously!)
Those were the days when staying up for “SNL” or “Letterman” seemed like a real treat. It felt as if I were experiencing true adult comedy, and that was thrilling. Handey’s “Deep Thoughts’ played an enormous part in that sensation. Did I understand the deadpan humor? I’m not sure, but I liked pretending jokes like this cracked me up:
“If you lose your job, your marriage and your mind all in one week, try to lose your mind first, because then the other stuff won’t matter that much.”
“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.”
Perhaps these seem a little lame on the page, but consider the context. Those were the admittedly killer (to a 13-year-old) days of Sandler, Farley and Myers, and amid the broad comedy, “Deep Thoughts” seemed almost otherworldly. Perhaps that’s why the author never quite broke out the way the show’s other writers did.
Handey seems to be aware of his semi-famous yet questionable existence; his website, deepthoughtsbyjackhandey.com, even features an “Is There a Real Jack Handey?” page.
Handey is, indeed, real, and he is still writing with the deadpan, absurdist glee that made “Deep Thoughts” seem so astoundingly droll to a 12-year-old. His latest creation is the wonderfully titled novel “The Stench of Honolulu,” a short (224 pages), modest, occasionally funny one-sitting read that goes down as easily your fifth shot and is about that memorable. Essentially, it is a collection of one-liners strung together with a minimum of plot.
It is the kind of book that opens like so: “When my friend Don suggested we go on a trip to the South Seas together, and offered to pay for the whole thing, I though, fine, but what’s in it for me?”
The plot is really a loose series of events mainly centered around droll one-liners. But there is some semblance of story. It involves a treasure map, a quest for the “Golden Monkey,” and a journey to a “dirty, coastal backwater called Honolulu. The stench was unbearable.”
Along the way, our un-dynamic duo encounter the mysterious Doctor Ponzari (His movements were elegant and refined, like some evil s---bird from Hell”), become smitten with “native girl” Leilani (“the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I’m not just saying that because she was nude”), watch as an alligator devours a pirate and, of course, sink into quicksand.
It’s all enjoyably dumb. When I say the novel’s comedy mostly comes from its one-liners, I’m not kidding. Take the narrator’s groggy thoughts after being drugged (again) by his uncle:
“One day I would get my revenge. My plan was to get a metal container and fill it with sizzling acid and go to his house. If everything worked correctly, the acid would eat through the container after I had already left, and spill out onto the table, and ruin it, and Uncle Lou would have to go by a new one.”
Often, getting to the jokes takes some heavy-lifting – and occasionally it’s not worth it. But that’s the book. Take it or leave it.
Handey keeps the silliness moving, and the narrator even busts out some “Deep Thoughts”-esque “theories”: “If Superman ever visited Tarzan, at first they’d get along, but then Superman would finally have to say, ‘How can you live like this?’ ” And so on, and so forth.
“The Stench of Honolulu” is a quick little burst of a read, like a slightly diluted bottle of five-hour-energy drink. It offers no more than modest enjoyment, but so what? You have got to love a guy whose book includes this line:
“Humans are evolving into a higher form and a lower form at the same time. Confused? Then guess which one you are.”
Christopher Schobert is a freelance critic and movie blogger whose work appears frequently in the News.
“The Stench of Honolulu”
By Jack Handey
Grand Central Publishing
224 pages, $18.99