Though his name famously sounds made-up, Jack Handey is a real master joke writer.
His Deep Thoughts—which aired on Saturday Night Live in the ‘90s—comprise one of the best collections of jokes ever written, particularly when they spoof psychobabble or heartfelt confessions, like so: “To me, clowns aren’t funny. In fact, they’re kind of scary. I’ve wondered where this started, and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.”
Though technically a novel, Handey’s new book The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure is the equivalent of 50 new Deep Thoughts books. Some of the jokes are layered like a wedding cake of absurdity:
“In the jungle you come to realize that death is a part of life. The bat eats the moth. Then the giant moth sucks the life out of the bat. Then the monkey eats the giant moth, pulling the wings off first, because he doesn’t like that part. Then the monkey gets a parasite from the moth that slowly eats his brain. It’s all part of the beautiful circle of life.”
A New York Times article by Dan Kois proclaimed “Jack Handey is the Envy of Every Comedy Writer in America.” Amen.
So what’s his best joke? For me, it’s not one of his Deep Thoughts, but a line from his humor piece “What I’d Say to the Martians,” which you can find in the book of the same name.
This is the joke: “I came here in peace, seeking gold and slaves.”
This joke is one of many self-contradicting, demented lines from this essay/monologue, in which the narrator is trapped in a cage, taunting and threatening some Martians, while unknowingly proving that he deserves to be in that cage. This is a typical passage: “You may kill me, either on purpose or by not making sure that all the surfaces in my cage are safe to lick. But you can’t kill an idea. And that idea is: me chasing you with a big wooden mallet.” In its context, “I came here in peace, seeking gold and slaves” might be the most deluded, deranged line out of a masterpiece of deluded derangement.
The entire “Martian” piece is great, but the line “I came here in peace, seeking gold and slaves” is even better on its own. It has a perfect setup and punchline, which are exactly the same length, creating a pleasing symmetry: five syllables of set-up and five syllables of punchline. The line isn’t iambic pentameter, but the ten syllables give it that Shakespearian feel. The language is simple, and the contradiction is massive. I dare you to write such a short, plain, ridiculous line.
This joke should be particularly pleasing to Handey himself, based on something he said to the New York Times: “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.’” The “peace” line is even more compact. MacGyver-like, Handey made a nuclear bomb of comedy out of the verbal equivalent of a paper clip.
This line is also the closest Handey comes to political humor. The greatness of Handey is that he usually avoids topical jokes, preferring to stay with what he calls “little boy stuff.” That stuff is timeless, like his “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” sketch from SNL and jokes like this from Stench: “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?’”
That’s typical of Handey: his humor is escapist, taking readers to a playful, wacky world of funny cowboy dances, cannons coming out of hats, and scary skeletons, where troubles are ridiculous rather than soul-crushing. The Handey-verse is a wacky relief from our dreary world of twerking singers and school shooters.
But the “peace” joke has real-world resonance. “I came here in peace, seeking gold and slaves” is the mantra of every conqueror, imperialist, colonizer, and oppressor ever. Handey, the forever-young little boy, aims his slingshot at real evil, smack dab in the middle of a bizarre essay about Martians. There have always been people “seeking gold and slaves” while professing peace and treating innocents like Martians: there probably always will be. Handey not only made a funny; he summed up world history.
That’s a perfect joke.