April 20, 2008 in Features

Handey’s new ‘Thoughts’

Jake Coyle Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Jack Handey, author of the new “What I’d Say to the Martians” and the “Deep Thoughts” books, poses for a photograph at his Santa Fe, N.M. home. With a comedic style forged decades ago with Steve Martin, Handey is pushing the bounds of humor writing. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

Jack Handey thinks dinosaurs are overrated.

“A world ruled by dinosaurs? It didn’t make any sense! I could understand a world where dinosaurs had some say – but not rule,” he says.

It’s been years since his “Deep Thoughts” was a staple on “Saturday Night Live.” Since then, longer but equally surreal works by Handey have become commonplace in the pages of The New Yorker and other magazines.

After a series of “Deep Thoughts” paperback collections and a “Fuzzy Memories” compilation, which collectively have sold more than 1 million copies, Handey is releasing his first book of longer-form material.

“What I’d Say to the Martians and Other Veiled Threats” (Hyperion, 192 pages, $14.95) contains a few of his favorite “Deep Thoughts” and a handful of “little tiny stories,” such as the dinosaur tale.

But the meat of the book is shaped by short pieces such as the title story, in which a caged narrator rants to his alien captors:

“So are we so different? Of course, we are, and you will be even more different if I ever finish my homemade flame thrower.”

Handey, 59, lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with his wife, Marta, who is also his editor.

For years, some fans assumed he was only a character, a disembodied voice that soothingly read “Deep Thoughts” in the guise of the implausibly named “Jack Handey.”

“The irony is that people think Jack Handey is a made-up name,” he says. “You can’t win is the lesson.”

On his Web site, www.deepthoughtsby jackhandey.com, you can vote on whether Handey is a real person or not. One of the choices is that he’s Steve Martin, which isn’t a coincidence; the two comedians have a connection that goes back decades.

Handey, who was born in San Antonio and went to the University of Texas at El Paso, began as a newspaper reporter, often writing a humor column. He still recalls the possibly influential headline of one paper’s tabloid evening edition: “Boy, 14, Sold for Chickens.”

In the 1970s, Martin and Handey were at one point neighbors in Santa Fe. Martin invited Handey to write jokes for his stand-up act and, eventually, for a comedy special.

Martin, a frequent guest on “SNL,” later recommended to show creator Lorne Michaels that Handey be hired because he could simply “write funny.”

“Instead of going one leap forward, he goes about three leaps forward,” Martin says.

He happily recalls jokes Handey wrote for him, including one bit titled “What I Believe” that was rattled off as a list. One entry: “I believe that robots are stealing my luggage.”

Martin is also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and Handey jokes about their intertwining paths: “So now he can never die because then I would die, too.”

More seriously, Handey adds: “Our minds kind of work a lot in the same way. It’s sort of jerk humor, where the character is sort of a jerk.”

His jokes often begin with a cliche before diverting in an unpredictable, often demented direction.

For example, he writes: “Eventually, I believe, everything evens out. Long ago an asteroid hit our planet and killed our dinosaurs. But in the future, maybe we’ll go to another planet and kill their dinosaurs.”

Susan Morrison, editor of the “Shouts & Murmurs” section in The New Yorker, says Handey’s writing is a feat of control and sustained tone.

“In each of these pieces, he conjures this perfect, seamless world, almost in the way that a really expert fiction writer does,” she says.

“There’s not a false note. Within the first sentence, you’re in Jack Handey’s world.”

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