Humorist Jack Handey’s debut novel tells the delightfully absurd tale of two men’s quest to find the Holy Grail of fictional wealth: a Golden Monkey supposedly worth…a lot. Our not-so-humble narrator (a sociopathic ignoramus) and his friend Don navigate a world of pirates, blow darts, banana peels and treasure maps of dubious origin. Despite basically rehashing the plot of The Goonies, Handey proves one very important thing: You don’t need big words for big laughs.
“What is anathema to comedy?” Carrie Brownstein once asked standup comedian Todd Barry, to which he famously said, “Words like anathema.”
Handey agrees. An example: “The plan I finally decided on was complex. But also, in a way, it was simple: I would hit Don over the head with a frying pan.”
So schemes the narrator, and in so scheming coincidentally describes the contrivance of the book itself. Handey scrapes together the simplest of plots: Men seek treasure. He writes in middle-school vocabulary. He draws two-dimensional characters and creates a setting so vague it recedes like an Etch-a-Sketch drawing.
Simple, yes…but hilarious. Handey wants laughs, and consciously minimizes plot, language, and character to that end. Brevity and clarity supersede emotional and intellectual content. Handey has reappropriated the novel, and rebuilt instead a well-oiled laugh-machine. A prose cartoon.
The result? A book that glimmers like an oasis of funny in the desert of snark that surrounds us.
The characters’ actual mission matters about as much as whether Tom catches Jerry. Handey gives his characters just enough flesh to provide punchlines. Handey writes the way caricature artists draw, with whimsy and blithe exaggeration. A reader can enjoy the entire book in a single sitting.
Even so, his humor depends on tightly knit, poetically choreographed sentences. The novel can resemble haiku. “Sometimes, in rare moments,” Handey writes, “Your thoughts and emotions and desires crystallize into pure thoughtlessness. The Eastern swamis can achieve this, and so can some checkout clerks.”
Let’s have some plot, with the caveat that one exists only because Handey needs a storyline on which to hang his jokes.
Our unnamed narrator and Don both fall in love with Leilani, a native and “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I’m not just saying that because she was nude.”
Leilani becomes a guide up the Paloonga River, helping our heroes dodge pirates here, earthquakes there. Meanwhile, the very evil Dr. Ponzari does everything he can to cure plague and do other good stuff.
Sober, stiff-necked critics will surely focus on the silly, seemingly trivial tone of the book. These same people would write off Moby Dick as a failed fishing manual. Frivolity is the point. In an interview with Esquire magazine, Jack Handey admitted to reporter Daniel Rosen, “This is not really a novel. It’s a grab bag of jokes.” How many times must we hear Oscar Wilde quoted (“Life is too important to be taken seriously.”) before we all we hail Handey as a serious genius?
We know Handey best for “Deep Thoughts,” a series of broken adages that ran on Saturday Night Live from 1991 to 1998. After much convincing, Lorne Michaels agreed to incorporate Handey’s concept into a 1991 show that featured musical guest Sting. The inaugural one-liner was this dark jewel: “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.”
Stench brings the featherbrained and pseudo-Zen “Deep Thoughts” sensibility to the dangerous shores of Hawaii, here “a dirty, coastal backwater.” Among outrageously primitive natives, the narrator and Don seek the golden thingy, despite constant setbacks. They confuse Leilani-lust for love, then love for sex, then sex for accidental orgasm. Through it all, our bumbling narrator never fails to see the beauty in the uncultivated landscape that surrounds him: “There’s a strange allure to this land. You can see why Robinson Crusoe was so attracted to it and stayed here for so long.”
Handey weds ludicrous to conceivable. Rather than a blow dart materializing out of somewhere, 37 blow darts appear from nowhere. Rather than subdue our not-so-humble narrator, the darts imbue him with an inexplicable resistance to their poison … a quality he soon learns to sell to tourists. The plausible and the lunatic walk hand in hand: “The brochures all said to go to the Honolulu Museum,” he writes, “And I don’t like to disobey brochures.”
Handey has milked his Deep Thoughts shtick. Six previous books compile his witticisms; the collection of pithy one-liners has sold about a million copies. Meanwhile, comments about The Stench on Amazon reveal vastly contrary reactions: “Genius!” insist some; “Dumbness!” shout others. Online comments rarely exude nuance, but Handey’s particular brand of humor seems to dramatically polarize audiences. “I have never gotten so many angry reviews,” Handey explains to Rosen at Esquire. “I think it’s because there is a certain element that don’t like silly. They think you are making fun of them or something.”
“I don’t think four lines go by without a killer joke,” Maria Semple told Dan Kois of The New York Times Magazine in a recent profile of Handey that called him “the envy of every comedy writer in America.” Semple, a writer for SNL and Arrested Development believes that Handey’s genius lies in his ability to separate himself from the topical. Comedy so often depends on the news, but Handey jokes strive for timelessness. He hijacks cultural tropes and stuffs them with silliness. “You know,” Handey told Rachel Martin of NPR, “For me the best stuff is sort of mythical stuff. I mean, the best comedy is riffing off of mythical things like cowboys and flying saucers.”
Another noted deep-thoughtist, Ian Frazier, holds Handey in high regard. “I see Jack as in the tradition of Mark Twain or Will Rogers,” Frazier told Kois, “He writes jokes that just keep on going. They’re not gonna crash and burn because they’re about Don Johnson, and people forget who Don Johnson was. Jokes by their nature are perishable. If you can write a timeless joke, that’s an incredible thing.” Pressed as to why his writing ignores the contemporary, Handey explains to Kois, “It feels so throwaway.”
Most bookstores have shitty humor sections. It’s a problem of organization, not availability. We find the really funny people…Twain, Perelman, Wodehouse, John Kennedy Toole, Vonnegut, Thurber, E.B. White, Fran Lebowitz, Hunter S. Thompson…scattered in Fiction or Journalism. Hidden in the Film/Television stacks? Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin.
This leaves the Humor Section with three things: picture books with stupid captions; joke books full of priests and rabbis walking into bars; and, lastly, comedic memoirs. Okay, sometimes you’ll find a gigantic tome of odds and ends from Colbert or Stewart, written by the Internet and too heavy to carry home. But only the comedy memoirs seem worth a damn.
David Sedaris’ success with the humorous personal essay sparked a trend that has done nothing but snowball. Augusten Burroughs, David Rakoff, Sloane Crosley and others continued that tradition, with varying degrees of success.
Others, though, have usurped the comedic memoir for shameless self-promotion. Mindy Kaling, Michael Ian Black, Chelsea Handler, Marc Maron, Russell Brand and Tina Fey have one thing in common: They’ve all written comedic memoirs with enormous, egomaniacal, accidentally sexy photos of themselves on the covers.
Don’t look for Handey’s photo on his cover. Only on the back flap will you learn about the author; a man who apparently values humility over the ubiquitous self-aggrandizing so pervasive in the social media era.
I revel in Handey’s absolute refusal to self promote. He asks you to laugh, not follow him on Twitter. Could this humility account for his hilarity? Does the ethos of self-promotion in comics today detract from actual comedy?
Deep thoughts, these…
Sebastien Theroux posts 12 selfies a day. Paste readers can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, Tumblr and Twitter again (on your other device).