The Perfect Timeless Joke




I just finished reading the above article about former SNL writer Jack Handey, best known for his short sketches entitled “Deep Thoughts.”  Personally, I, like many others apparently, never realized that Jack Handey was a real person.  I always thought it was a pseudonym for the writing team at SNL at the time.  But turns out he is an older gentleman who is retired and just published his first novel.

One of the things that really struck me when reading the article is how the idea of the timeless joke is a very rare thing nowadays.  So many jokes and just the concept of comedy is based on pop culture references and current events.  To come up with a quip that doesn’t involve something that is lost in time is extremely hard to do.  I find this to be a big problem for writing in two of my projects.  In my novel “The Truth About Catholic School Girls,” my main character Danni befriends a group of high schoolers and attends a number of high school-esque events.  It’s hard to say that the group of them went to the movies without the reader asking, “Well, what did they see?”  That means I have to answer with a title that by the time the work gets published means the whole thing is null and out of date.  With my play “A Jester’s Tale,” I have a couple of characters who are very street smart and modern thinkers.  However, I have put them in a medieval type of setting, so it leaves me asking myself, “How do I make this scene funny?  How do I make a joke without making a reference to the times so it doesn’t out date (or pre date) itself?”

It simply leaves me  a conclusion I’ve had since I decided to start writing professionally; it’s hard to be funny.  The times I have been genuinely funny, it’s been completely by accident.  I tried writing a light-hearted play about death and some funny realizations and it turned out I had my classmates crying they were howling so hard.  If I could figure out a way to do that with everything I write, I’d pack up, head out on tour, and quit the other bullshit in my life.

In my opinion, there are very few writers/comedians who can do this nowadays.  The one that does come to mind is one of my personal idols, Mel Brooks.  Some can argue that “The 2000 Year Old Man” could be seen as not timeless, seeing as it deals with the past. But he tends to take history and makes it into a joke, not the current situation where it won’t be remembered. Pop culture may be funny at times, but 9 times out of 10, it won’t be a cornerstone in time.  If you want an example, I give you Contrux, California Dreams, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.  Memorable?  Still relevant?  I rest my case.  With Mel Brooks, all of his jokes and gags are carefully crafted.  Sure, some of them aren’t leg slappers, but there are moments of genius and simplicity in many of his works  that make you hold your belly because the laughter is too much for your body to handle.  One of my favorites is the line from “To Be or Not to Be,” a movie where he plays an actor who finds himself impersonating Adolf Hitler during the height of WWII in Poland.  As he’s leaving to fix the mess his wife has made, he tells her, “Listen sweetheart, if I don’t come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.  But if I do come back, you’re in a lot of trouble!”  If you need further proof of simple timeless comedy, I give you this.

My point is comedy is a very tricky art, whether spoken, written, acted, or otherwise.  For me, funny is one of those things that just shows up out of nowhere at times, like that random squirrel that darts out in front of my car and doesn’t make it to the other side.  To have a good hold of it is a gift, but there’s not many out there who can wield it so forcefully nowadays.


Author’s Note: To see some of Jack Handey’s original “Deep Thoughts” from Saturday Night Live, check them out on this Hulu link!