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Friday, January 28, 2011

Killing the Frog: Jack Handey

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The reason for the unsavory graphic at the head of this blog is a quotation from E B White, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” In this and from time to time in future posts, I intend to treat humor as a topic for serious analysis, knowing beforehand how pitifully few people will be interested and that the internal organs of laughter cease functioning as soon as I lay them on our metal tray for examinationHere goes.
Jack Handey is a name I had known only from the Saturday Night Live feature, “Deep Thoughts;” I had missed his occasional New Yorker and National Lampoon articles, and if asked, I would have told you he was a fictional persona, like the other SNL characters. Then a local radio station, AM 1690, “The Voice of the Arts,” read “Job Rejection” in What I’d Say to the Martians.

Dear Sir:
A few days ago, you phoned us about the job you applied for with our company, and we told you that you did not get the job However, we are now writing to inform you that you did not get the job We wanted to make sure you understood that.
Sincerely,
Personnel Department

Dear Sr:
We are writing to find out what kind of carpeting and curtains you want in your new office.., Wait, we made a mistake. You’re the wrong person. Oh well, we’re going to go ahead and send this letter to you anyway.
Sincerely,
Personnel Department


Dear Sir:
While updating our file of job applications, yours was folded into a paper airplane and was accidentally flown out the window. Would you mind filling out the enclosed application and mailing it back to us in the shape of an airplane?
Sincerely,
Personnel Department

And so forth, for a maddening eleven letters, each topping the other.

If I mistook Jack Handey for a penname, perhaps it was because in a sense it is. All humorists wear masks, the only difference between one mask and another is how closely it conforms to the human face beneath. Some, such as Shirley Jackson (yes, in addition to “The Lottery,” she was also known for humorous essays) and P J O’Rourke wear masks virtually indistinguishable from themselves. Some, Robert Benchley and William Cuppy, show us their own faces with certain features comically exaggerated. Mark Twain became his mask.

On the far end of the spectrum are surrealists like Handey whose personas are so weirdly exaggerated that we can’t imagine anyone like them surviving in “real life.” Handey’s humorous voice - immature, petty, and dense-headed to the nth degree, sometimes psychotic – may remind us of early Steve Martin when he was at his funniest and most bizarre – doing comedy albums such as Let’s Get Small – and in fact, Handey was a writer for the comedian’s standup act before Martin adopted an everyman’s pose in bland comedies such as Father of the Bride and Cheaper by the Dozen.

It's the sort of thing that works best in measured doses.  It is hard to imagine enduring a novel-length work of this voice, but within a small space, Handey has no equal.  Here’s a Handeyism from Fuzzy Memories:

When I was seven, I told my friend Timmy Barker I would give him a million dollars if he would eat an earthworm. He ate the worm, but I never gave him the million dollars. As of last week, all I had given him was $9,480.

The joke is in the classic three-part structure (oh, you poor frog, here goes the spleen!): premise, development, and a punch line that is the epitome of what a punch line should be – completely and yet logically reversing our expectations: the joke is not on Timmy Barker but the narrator.

Since the frog is thoroughly eviscerated by this time, let’s examine the sum paid out thus far. I’ll just say it, $9,480 is brilliant. Clearly, a round sum, $10,000, say, or $9,000 would not be as funny as Handey’s more precise number. Going much higher, say, $901,016, would not be as funny as falling so impossibly short of the debt, but a much lower sum, $3.75 or even $110 would not be as funny either. Handey selects the ideal number this unbelievably na├»ve person could pay starting from childhood for the privilege of seeing Timmy eat the worm. (The “as of last week” so beautifully implies the ongoing payments.) A lesser humorist, myself for example, would have been tempted to specify down to the penny, but Handey does not destroy the rhythm of the line with small change, and lets us imagine a narrator casually relating this event as if it were nothing remarkable, rather than obsessively enumerating every nickel, which would indicate at least the beginnings of annoyance. Here, it’s as if he’s telling the price he’s paid for his first used car.

If it seems I’m doing excessive enumerating myself, it’s because great humor is made up of nuances like these. If walking a tightrope is difficult, writing humor is walking a violin string: success or collapse is determined by micro-millimeters. I am not saying that somewhere at the bottom of Handey’s drawer is a note pad with various figures written on it as he searched for that exact, “$9,480,” – although I wouldn’t be surprised if there were.

Anyone who thinks composing a miniature gem like this is no big deal, should try it for himself. No amount of concerted effort will yield results for a writer who isn’t already a practiced hand. It’s easy to underestimate the skill it takes to write humor because it seems so effortless, and probably for Handey it often is effortless, but, if so, it’s the sort of ease that comes after decades of practice and failure. Picasso could exquisitely render a woman’s arm in two unthinking brushstrokes, but being able to do this took not only innate talent but wearing out enough camel’s hair brushes to reconstruct the entire camel. Doubtless, for the future humorist, a natural proclivity comes into it as well, a tendency to see life as ludicrous, a knack for making others see it that way, but the early experiments are always misses, and it takes years learning to hit the target with a pin.

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