Reading Jack Handey’s Lost Screenplay ‘Harv the Barbarian’
“The Script Pile” is a biweekly column on Splitsider that takes a look at the screenplays for high-profile movie and TV comedies that never made it to the screen.
Called “the envy of every comedy writer in America” by The New York Times, Jack Handey spent over a decade writing for Saturday Night Live and creating memorable sketches and segments like “Deep Thoughts,” “Toonces, the Cat Who Could Drive a Car,” and “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” Handey was part of a cluster of revered writers who joined SNL in the mid-’80s and went on to dominate the comedy world in the ’90s and ’00s, along with Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, Bob Odenkirk, George Meyer, and Greg Daniels. While Handey’s peers would go on to make big TV shows and movies after leaving SNL, Handey has mostly spent his post-SNL years in the print humor world, most recently penning his first novel, the acclaimed Stench of Honolulu.
While print humor has occupied most of Handey’s time over the past couple decades, that doesn’t mean he didn’t try to branch out into movies. I recently came across the script to Harv the Barbarian, a big studio comedy that Handey began writing in the mid-’90s, spending nearly a decade writing and rewriting it. Studios came close to making Harv a couple times over the years, but things have yet to come together and the script is still unfilmed.
Handey co-wrote Harv the Barbarian with Carmen Finestra, a longtime Cosby Show writer/producer and one of the creators of Home Improvement who, like Handey, got his start as a writer for Steve Martin on some of his early ’80s TV specials. Harv, described as a “Monty Python-esque” comedy and a potential “franchise like Austin Powers” when it was announced in the trades at the time, follows a dumb barbarian who goes on a sweeping journey to free his people from slavery.
The movie opens depicting a peaceful barbarian clan called “the Dirt People.” They’re an overly friendly, simple people who just love dirt. They live on a fertile land full of crops and diamonds, but they’re only interested in harvesting dirt. They use dirt for money, build their huts out a dirt, their kind has a crown made of dirt… You get the idea.
The peaceful Dirt People are quickly conquered by the Skull People, an evil tribe, who burn down their village and kidnap all the Dirt People and either kill them or force them into slavery.
The Dirt People kidnap Harv, a newborn baby, and put him into slavery as a baby, forcing him to wear a harness and pull wagons full of Skull People around. We flash forward to Harv as an adult, and he learns that the Dirt People has a prophecy that he will lead them to freedom and become the Dirt King.
Harv becomes a successful gladiator until he is tasked with fighting the Mystery Worm of Atlantis, a sixty-foot-long, five-foot-thick worm that uses its ability to projectile vomit as a weapon, in the gladiator arena. Harv loses the fight, and the Skull Prince sells Harv to a dog, ending his days as a gladiator. The dog is unhappy with Harv and lets him free, sending Harv toward a brief career in real estate and a failed suicide attempt before he finally decides to follow his destiny and free the Dirt People. He purchases a beautiful Dirt People slave named Bettina, only to set her free, but Bettina, who is tougher than Harv, insists on accompanying him on his quest. With the help of Bettina, who Harv is attracted to despite learning that she’s his sister, and a pervy wizard named Sneeho, Harv goes on a giant quest to liberate his people. Harv the Barbarian concludes with a big battle that actually provides the story with a satisfying conclusion, which is rare for a big-screen comedy, especially one this broad, and ties a lot of the script’s subplots and characters together nicely.
After it was initially written in the ’90s, Harv the Barbarian drew interest from multiple studios but the script sat around for years, not being made. In 2001, the film was finally given the green light when when Rob Schneider signed on to play Harv and David Zucker (Airplane!, Naked Gun) agreed to direct. Adam Sandler’s company, Happy Madison, was onboard to produce, and filming was scheduled to take place in the summer of 2002. Production was delayed and then the movie was subsequently called off.
The next two movies Schneider starred in, The Hot Chick and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, underperformed at the box office, making it difficult for him to get a solo leading role after that. Schneider still wanted to make Harv, excitedly telling the press:
“This next picture is probably the most ambitious movie we’re going to do – Harv the Barbarian. Jack Handey wrote the script… It’s a famous script in Hollywood. Ask comic writers [about] Harv the Barbarian. It’s a famous script. This guy Jack Handey – I worked with him on Saturday Night Live, and he’s genius – he’s got this script, and I’m just telling you, he’s been rewriting it over the years and we’re been working on it together, and we’ve finally getting a chance to make it. Sony wants to make it now so, so that’s a big movie… for me, it’s kinda like a Lord of the Rings thing, big Middle Earth kinda thing. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s gonna be fun, so we gotta do it.”
Despite Schneider’s enthusiasm, he was unable to get Harv the Barbarian off the ground. The draft of the script I read, dated 7/18/02, seems to have been Schneider-ized a little bit (there’s a fart joke and a running double entrendre gag about the word “cock” referring to chickens), but Handey’s writing clearly shines through and the script is far sharper than any movie Schneider’s made before. It’s a shame Handey, one of our greatest comedy writers, has yet to get a screenplay made. Harv the Barbarian allows him the room to spread out a little bit, something he didn’t have the ability to do in SNL sketches or New Yorker pieces (but does in his newfound path as a novelist). In Harv, Handey displays a knack for physical comedy and an impressive ability to pay jokes off.
Here’s a conversation between Harv and another barbarian that contains a pretty solid Handey joke:
The script also has some strong Simpsons-esque sign gags:
Here’s Handey showing off his ability to cram a quick, funny sight gag into a scene:
It’s not hard to guess why Harv the Barbarian fell apart. It’s an ambitious comedy that would have been very expensive to make, and with public interest in Rob Schneider as a movie star waning at the time, it’s understandable why folks involved would get cold feet. Could the script be filmed now? With similar, recent-ish big-screen comedies Year One and Your Highness having bombed with critics and audiences alike, getting Handey’s Harv the Barbarian script made today would be a hard sell as slapstick comedies that follow gross, dumb dudes on a prehistoric or fantasy quests aren’t doing so hot lately.
Nevertheless, it’s a funny script and one that showcases the unseen movie-writing abilities of Jack Handey. The only other feature screenplay I can find a record of him writing on was Mike Myers’s Dieter movie, which I reviewed in this column last year, but that film was canceled before entering production too. Jack Handey hasn’t gotten a movie made yet, but he definitely knows how to write one.