By Jake Coyle
The material in the book is longer than his previous works.
NEW YORK — 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.
With absurdist musings such as these, Handey has established himself as the strangest of birds: a famous comedian whose platform is not the stage or screen, but the page.
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 (a 1994 edition was titled “Deepest Thoughts: So Deep They Squeak”) and a “Fuzzy Memories” compilation, which collectively have sold more than 1 million copies, Handey is releasing his first book of longer form material.
“It does feel like an accomplishment, kind of going to the adults table with a hardback cover,” Handey said in a recent interview. “It does feel like, OK, this is playing with the big boys.”
“What I’d Say to the Martians and Other Veiled Threats,” published by Hyperion with a first print run of 25,000 copies, 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,” he says.
Handey, 59, lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with his wife, Marta, who is also his editor. But that is a much too specific existence for many to accept. 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.”
Handey, though, hasn’t exactly discouraged this perception. In one of his “Martians” pieces — “How I Want to Be Remembered” — he eulogizes himself: “Jack was an expert in so many fields, it’s hard to say what he was best at: the arts, the sciences, or the businesses.”
“SNL” is generally reluctant to use a writer’s name, preferring to keep the focus on the performers. Handey, though, eventually won the honor, thanks to the strength of his work on penning such sketches as “Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer.”
“The irony is that people think Jack Handey is a made-up name,” says Handey. “You can’t win is the lesson.”
On his Web site, www.deepthoughtsbyjackhandey.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 when he could. He still recalls the possibly influential headlines 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 took notice of Handey’s articles and invited him to write jokes for his standup act and, eventually, for a comedy special. Handey calls it his proverbial big break.
A frequent guest on “SNL,” Martin recommended to 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,” says Martin of Handey’s humor. Martin happily recalls jokes Handey wrote for him, like for one bit called “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.
“Our minds kind of work a lot in the same way,” Handey says. “It’s sort of jerk humor, where the character is sort of a jerk.”
In “Martians,” the characteristics of that character — a kind of alter ego of Handey’s that shares his name — are evident in the essays. He often likes to do his “funny cowboy dance” and refers repeatedly to his “friend Don.” But above all, he is oblivious to just how disturbing his assumptions are.
“That character is a psychotic person who thinks he’s normal and tries to explain away his psychoses as normal,” says Handey. “He’s sort of a dangerous person who has this facade of normality.”
With wavy gray hair, dark-framed glasses and toothy grin, Handey appears to be normal, but by all accounts it’s not a facade. His friends call him unpretentious, sweet and bearing no obvious bloodlust for Martians.
His more bizarre pieces include shot-by-shot instructions for a nature documentary (including having a monkey ride atop a giraffe), a pseudo history of a friendship between Al Capone and Albert Einstein (Capone: “With your brains and my muscle, we’ll be unstoppable”) and the essay “This Is No Game,” a list of warnings that includes: “It’s as real as a mummy who still thinks he’s inside a pyramid, but he’s actually in a museum in Ohio.”
His jokes often begin with a clich 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 his 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 world.”
The brevity is no doubt a result of years of writing “Deep Thoughts.”
“Why write a line of exposition when you can write a joke?” Handey says. “Writing ‘Deep Thoughts,’ it almost reaches a point of, ‘How few words can I write to get a laugh?”’
Handey is on hiatus from “Deep Thoughts” but believes he’ll return to composing his signature material for another book, the title of which he’s already chosen: “Please Stop the Deep Thoughts.”
He also has a screenplay (“Harv the Barbarian”) that’s been floating around for years with occasional interest. He counts Monty Python as a major influence, but says that other than his readings on “SNL,” he was never tempted to perform.
“I’ve always enjoyed print more than anything,” Handey says. “It doesn’t pay a whole lot but you control it and your name’s on it.”