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Sunday, July 5, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fine-Tune Your Life And Emotions With The Aphorisms - Inane And Banal - Of Jack Handey -- In Too Deep

It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man."

It takes a remarkably average-size man, a man of about 5 feet 10 inches, a man named Jack Handey, to think such deep thoughts.

Handey's "Deep Thoughts," spread far and wide by television exposure the last two seasons on "Saturday Night Live," have become an artesian well of philosophy to rival "Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life" bumper-stickers.

This summer, 92 of Handey's chestnuts have been published by Berkley Books in a handsome soft-cover volume about the size of an extra-absorbent cocktail napkin and, at $6.95, less expensive than a case of all but the cheapest beer.

Only a fool who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, though, or perhaps a bookstore owner, would want to put a price tag on Handey's brand of wisdom:

"Is there anything more beautiful than a beautiful, beautiful flamingo, flying across in front of a beautiful sunset? And he's carrying a beautiful rose in his beak, and also he's carrying a very beautiful painting with his feet. And also, you're drunk."

"I've always been fascinated by cracker-barrel philosophy that Americans love," Handey says by telephone from his New York City apartment. "All these rules-for-living books that have been so popular, the pop psychology and pop philosophy books."

In fact, Handey brainstormed his first deep thoughts somewhat as an homage to the pearls of wisdom cultured by Hugh Prather, author of 1970's "Notes to Myself," a book that sold millions (and continues to sell - Bantam Classics recently published a 20th anniversary edition). The New York Times called Prather the "Kahlil Gibran of America."

A typical Pratherism: "When I get to where I can enjoy just lying on the rug picking up lint balls, I will no longer be too ambitious."

The American book-buyer remains a cerebral thrill-seeker, ready to bungee jump into the gorge of profundity. Now topping the New York Times advice/how-to/miscellaneous bestseller list - hard and soft cover - is "Life's Little Instruction Book," a manual that has sold more than 3.5 million copies by making life look easier to adjust than your TV set's horizontal hold.

Among its 511 tips are No. 232: "Keep your promises," and No. 472: "Enjoy real maple syrup."

"I guess I resist the idea that you can actually guide your life by some sort of phrases that somebody might tell you," says Handey. "There's always been something really pompous and funny to me about people who try to explain life and how to live it by following these little rules."

A writer with "Saturday Night Live" for the past half-dozen seasons, Handey, 43, has conceived such memorable characters as "Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer" and "Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive A Car."

Before becoming a TV comedy writer, Handey studied journalism at the University of Texas-El Paso. He worked as a reporter at a succession of newspapers in the Southwest, writing features and cultivating an appreciation for tabloid headlines (a favorite: BOY, 14, SOLD FOR CHICKENS).

In Santa Fe he rented an adobe duplex next door to not-yet-famous Steve Martin. A year or two later, at another paper in another town, Handey flipped on the TV and saw his old neighbor on "The Tonight Show." He mailed Martin some of the newspaper humor columns he had written and asked for a job.

"It was the proverbial lucky break," says Handey, who won a Writers' Guild award for his work on Martin's second TV special, "Comedy Is Not Pretty."

He also helped write "What I Believe," Martin's stirring statement of values that crescendos with: "I believe sex is one of the most beautiful and wonderful things that money can buy."

As Handey skipped through a succession of jobs writing for several short-lived TV comedy shows, he also penned humor pieces for the New Yorker, Punch, Playboy and other magazines. Some of his first deep thoughts surfaced in National Lampoon and Omni.

It took him several years after joining "Saturday Night Live" to win a place on the show for "Deep Thoughts." Handey also narrates and helps select the backgrounds - stock video footage of horses grazing and sunsets and sandpipers scuttling beside the surf.

For the show's producers, Handey admits, a large part of the initial appeal of "Deep Thoughts" was that they provide a convenient 30-second "bumper" during which cameras can be hustled between sketches from set to set. Handey's musings, though, seem to have struck a chord. The same company that merchandises "Far Side" greeting cards just shipped the new line of 28 "Deep Thoughts" cards. When perused on a rotating wire rack they should evoke the same "Uh-huh" of enlightenment as more venerable homespun wisdom such as "War is unhealthy for children and other living things," or "If rash develops, discontinue use."

Any day now, Handey will begin preparing his next season of "Deep Thoughts." He will enter a state so transcendental as to be inaccesible to his wife Marta and their three cats (Mickey, Spunky and, yes, Toonces).

"I get a rubber ball and I lie on the bed and throw the ball against the ceiling for hour after hour," says Handey, whose hobbies include fishing - fly, not deep-sea. "They don't just come off the top of my head. For some reason it requires a lot of thought to get into that stupid mode."

Once he's arrived there, he edits little and discards much. For every 40 ruminations he jots down, one might be judged worthy to join the ranks of "It's too bad that whole families have to be torn apart by something as simple as wild dogs."

What might a Viking think about glow-in-the-dark stickers? What would happen if a dog stuck its head out the window of the space shuttle? Handey's boundlessly probing mind affirms that there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.

Deep? Handey makes the Grand Canyon look like a drainage ditch. If you swam from "Deep Thoughts" to Arsenio Hall's "Things that make you go: Hmmmm" you'd risk getting the bends.

Handey, when asked for his own personal credo, pauses for a moment. You can almost hear a submarine claxon sounding. Dive! Dive!

"If the things I have said make you laugh, then I have done my job," he says. "But if they have also make you stop and think, then I have failed."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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