Some comedians are storytellers, taking audiences on a journey through constructed experiences, finding the humor in loose observations. Some tackle political issues head-on, pointing out egregious inconsistency, which can engage an audience enough to laugh at hypocrisy. Others form bits, easily digestible amounts of verbiage on one topic, like Seinfeld on horses or George Carlin on the difference between baseball and football. But on the comedic spectrum, the form drying up due to lack of concision is the one-liner. Jack Handey is the torchbearer for that genre, as well as one of the few comedians who works almost exclusively in print.
Handey’s Deep Thoughts books were staples at bookstore checkout counters for a decade, collecting together his best segments from Saturday Night Live, which grew from a one-off to one of the most beloved recurring interstitials on the long-running comedy show. Since leaving the writing staff—first in 1998, and then for good in 2002—he’s written humor pieces for The New Yorker, collected into volumes of short essays, which showed that Handy could sustain his style for longer than a minute-long interstitial or a short sketch airing at 12:45.
The Stench Of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure is Handey’s first novel, and though it ostensibly tells a longer narrative story, it mostly ditches plot in favor of Handey’s well-crafted one-liners. The story is compact, the chapters are short, and nearly every paragraph contains a punchline meant as punctuation on a thought. The act of reading joke after joke in rapid succession can feel concussive—the Deep Thoughts books collected many lines at once, though they were always best consumed once a week on SNL. So many of those one-liners draw laughs that it throws off the pace of the book, as the reader is constantly interrupted by Handey’s own deft skill as a wordsmith. Though the jokes don’t stand with the most memorable of his tenure with SNL, the sheer number of laughs he’s able to wring from a novel is impressive.
Handey’s narrator is a fiercely oblivious to the destruction he wreaks on everyone around him, from his friend Don who invites him to travel, to a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, to a Native Hawaiian woman who constantly thwarts the narrator’s brutish advances. The bare-bones plot takes the narrator and Don on a vacation to Hawaii—the narrator only agrees to go in order to escape repaying a debt—where they embark on a quest to steal a Golden Monkey somewhere on the island. The narrator’s moronic follies put them in danger at every turn, destroying boats, killing pirates, blowing up houses, stealing at every possible opportunity, and misinterpreting even the most basic social cues.
But through it all, Handey proves once again that he’s an artisan of classic comedy, with a flair for the surreal that doesn’t come close to pushing boundaries or riding a cutting edge, but still earns laughter for sheer silliness. The Stench Of Honolulu makes absolutely no sense, jumping from point to point within the plot merely as a larger setup for bumbling action and the literary equivalent of a man stepping on a rake over and over. And as he states in his New York Times Magazine profile, Handey takes so many shots at an innocent island state that he might never be allowed there again. Yet he always manages to surprise everyone with just how easy he makes it look to get a laugh simply by ruthlessly whittling crazy ideas down to their most economical form.
The one-liner is a dying art kept alive by very few stand-ups. Anthony Jeselnik recently cited Handey as one of his formative idols on Bill Simmons’ podcast, and that bears out in his twisted, going-for-broke dark humor. Demetri Martin keeps all of his jokes short even when using his favorite visual gimmicks. But Handey is an anomaly, relying only on whimsical situations and wordplay in order to get laughs, and only in writing. Stringing so many one-liners together in a row, connected by a thread of plot, stretches the structure to a breaking point—but Handey’s joke construction is so well-tuned that whenever the story drags, there’s a laugh right in the next paragraph to keep the reader going.