If there’s one living stand-up legend whose jokes are perfect for Twitter, it’s Steven Wright. Not only are they concise (“Lost a buttonhole”), but they are so minutely absurd (“I like to reminisce with people I don’t know”) that rapid shifts of context do not distort their meaning.
So it was a surprise when he started an account in 2011 he used it not to try punch lines, but to write a novel – very slowly. It almost sounds like a Steven Wright joke. But more than a decade later, this fun experiment has turned into a book, “Harold,” about a meandering, bizarrely charming day in the life of a 7-year-old boy.
In an almost unconscious style from the boy’s point of view, “Harold,” set in the 1960s when Wright was a kid, ping pongs from musings about a third-grade teacher to a daydream about going to the moon. Many of his phrases wouldn’t look out of place in Wright’s stand-up: “All art is modern art at some point.”
Sitting in Simon & Schuster’s Manhattan office last month, Wright, who has been telling jokes to the public for more than 40 years, explained in his trademark gravelly drone that stand-up offered him a very “narrow window of creativity.” . Not a criticism, he is quick to add, just describing the appeal of the new, expanded form. “I wanted to put a funnel on Harold’s head and pour into it everything I think about life,” he said. “Lawyers, religion, space. Everything.”
Asked why he would focus on a boy, Wright shrugged. But he believes that children notice things that adults miss. He almost sounds envious when he describes the cheerful spirit of a youth. A child, he said, is like “an alien who just got off a spaceship and is looking around.”
Wright can look like an alien himself. He seems just as laconic and lyrical as he does on stage, except he laughs warmer and faster. Metaphors flow out of him like a Bob Dylan song comes to life. When asked to describe Wright, Marc Maron texted me, “Closer. happens. Rarely. In. Comedy.”
There is no more legendary example of Johnny Carson becoming an overnight star than when his booker, attending colleges for his son, came across an unknown Steven Wright performing at a Chinese restaurant in Boston. Wright killed on “The Tonight Show” in 1982, when the studio audience alone was his biggest audience to date. Three years later, Wright released “I Have a Pony,” a classic of modern stand-up.
If you came in young, as many did and still do, it could change your whole sense of humor. The Anthony Jeselnik comic told me that Wright “influenced everything about my comedy.” Bobcat Goldthwait called him “human pot,” explaining, “Listen to him long enough and you’ll feel stoned and see the world as absurd and amused as he is.”
Wright described his background as resolutely ordinary: middle class, all-American, Norman Rockwell stuff. Sensitive, a bit quiet, he didn’t tell his family that he had been doing comedy for years. Wright calls his breakthrough “a fluke.”
Don’t be fooled by this fairytale story. Wright not only had a gift for old-fashioned jokes, but also a rare discipline and taste to which he remained stubbornly faithful. Take an example: “I’ve always hated puns,” he told me with a rare flash of passion that got him chuckling. “It would be funnier if you dropped a dish.”
Early on, he established rules for his comedy that might have hurt him in the short run, but made his work as old as any comedian’s. He avoided anything current. He didn’t swear either. “That’s why I didn’t want to laugh harder,” he said. “I wanted it to be pure.”
Wright usually dismisses any grand intent behind his work, saying his deadpan style is exactly how he talks. His old friends support this. But maintaining a unique view of the world requires effort.
After living on both coasts, he moved back to New England to a rural spot a town beyond Walden Pond. “You can see your life better,” he said of living near nature. At one point, he compared city life to being constantly pelted with candy. “You can’t think because you’re just trying to get through the Raisinets.”
Wright’s monotonous one-liners remain a touchstone for a comedy subgenre, along with the other master of deadpan, Mitch Hedberg, who died in 2005.
“The biggest difference between Mitch and Steven is that when you saw an hour of Mitch, you got a sense of who he was voting for, what he was about,” said Goldthwait, who, like Wright, emerged from the Boston comedy scene of the 1970s. 80. “You watch Steven for an hour and have more questions about him than before you saw him.”
This is why “Harold” holds a particular fascination for comedy fans. What else can we learn about the elusive Wright?
There is a romantic streak that is largely absent from his comedy. The Apollo mission to the moon features heavily in the story, and Wright’s father, an engineer, worked for a company that helped build parts for NASA. Seeing a plastic-wrapped camera making its way to space at his father’s workplace captured his imagination and was at one point a scene in the book. That was scrapped, but the thrill of space travel remains.
There is also more love. Sometimes lustful, other times tired. “Being in love was like sitting on a seesaw with one side containing nitroglycerin,” he writes. “When you first get in, no one knows which side it’s on.”
When Harold talks about a beautiful, intense New York girlfriend in his future, it sounds like something from the author’s life. Wright said that was true, but slanted it in the book and hated discussing his personal life. He never married (“Romance is gambling,” he told me) and when asked why he didn’t have children, he sounds like a spectator of his own life. “Never thought about it, then it didn’t happen,” he said. ‘It’s not decided. It just happened.”
The most revealing thing that “Harold” captures about Steven Wright is the way he thinks about thinking. Described by the author as “a miracle machine”, the boy wonders if it is “possible to be in your 70s and have a 5-year-old’s perspective without being crazy?” Steven Wright is 67 and says he’s underperforming these days.
The central metaphor of the book is a description of Harold’s thought process as a room with one window and a flock of birds flying about. Occasionally one flies out. That represents an idea. It is a view of creativity that is random and unpredictable. Isn’t it a little scary? What happens when the birds stop flying?
Wright has released relatively few specials in his career because, he said, “I can only think of so many things.” But he seemed comfortable with the idea that some things are beyond our control. “You can try to come up with ideas, but your mind is running on its own. Or at least my mind,” he said. “It’s chaos most of the time, but you organize a lot of it.”
Then he paused to smile and throw in one last metaphor: “You have to stay on the road when you drive.”