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I once read a study of what different cultures found funny. The author claimed that Brits love puns and the French the bizarre. Americans, however, find it funniest to mock. Author Jack Handey, a veteran writer for “Saturday Night Live” and contributor to The New Yorker, definitely fits within that American sense of humor. In his newest book, “What I’d Say to the Martians: and Other Veiled Threats,” Handey mocks all aspects of American culture, from the childhood lemonade stand to violent leaders to environmentalism.
The book is a deceptively easy read—you can fly right through it without catching half of Handey’s clever satirical insights. With its scattered structure of short pieces connected by repeated references to everyday characters with absurd imaginations, the book reads like a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
Handey’s narrator appears to be a middle-aged man with a penchant for his own “funny cowboy dance.” But the individual sketches are very much units unto themselves, preventing the book from having the virtuosic scope and insight of a “Cat’s Cradle” (not that it’s trying to be “Cat’s Cradle,” anyway).
Handey’s dark and bizarre humor works. In his sketch “Fuzzy Memories,” a collection of individual childhood recollections, he writes, “When I was about ten years old, we set up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk in front of our house. But we didn’t sell many glasses, and after a few hours, we took it down. I think that was the first time I realized that the world doesn’t give a damn about you or anything you do.”
One can almost see Micahel Scott from NBC’s “The Office” telling the same anecdote, but that’s just the problem: many of Handey’s jokes would be funnier acted out and audibly articulated, because sometimes his humor becomes a little too dark and a little too bizarre for the page. Without live action, the text’s slapstick aspects tend to fall flat. In addition, the pathetic characters Handey utilizes in his pieces are given no human side, and their transparecy and one-sidedness can make the jokes just a little too cruel.
And yet Handey is able to mine everything for humor—even the prospect of manslaughter. When the narrator talks about his issues with running over hitchhikers, he asks, “Have you ever been driving and hit a strange bump and wondered, What was that? That was a hitchhiker.”
Unlike a lot of pop comedians, Handey doesn’t just riff on alcohol and sex, although he can and does. He has a message of social justice to convey, even if it is broad, unfocused, and—like the rest of the book—all over the place.
The chapter “Attila the Hun’s Greatest Speech,” effectively combines famous quotes from the speeches of the modern Western canon into a monologue that critiques the violence of our heroic leaders. “Four score and seven weeks ago, we came into this land, killing and raping everything we could get our hands on,” the Hun states. “But maybe you should ask not who the Huns can kill for you, but who you can kill for the Huns.”
“Funny New York Things” is an obvious satire of the tourist’s demand to get acquainted with New Yorkers’ personalities. Handey satirizes the notoriously uncaring ethos of that city. After falling out of a cab, the narrator says, “Even though you’re all scraped up and your bones are broken, a wino comes up to you and says, ‘Gimme some money.’ Gimme some money?! Your bones are all broken, but he still says gimme some money! He’s a New York wino, all right!”
Even environmentalism fails to escape Handey’s pen. “Reintroducing Me to My Habitat” is a tongue-in-cheek plea to environmentalists to return the speaker to “the desert Southwest where I used to roam wild and free” because “for several years, I have been largely confined to a small two-bedroom apartment in the Chelsea section of Manhattan.” Oh, one feels so terrible for poor Jack—what an awful fate to be stuck in Chelsea!
However, even from that “confined” vantage point, Handey still manages to roam far and wide and find humor in all that he sees.
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