Home Arts Steven Wright, Master of the One-Liner, Tries His Hand at a Novel

Steven Wright, Master of the One-Liner, Tries His Hand at a Novel

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If there’s one living standup legend with the perfect joke for Twitter, it’s Stephen Wright. Not only are they terse (“I lost the buttonhole”), but they are so meticulously absurd (“I like to relive memories with people I don’t know”) that the context changes rapidly without distorting the meaning.

So it was a surprise when he started account In 2011, he used the tool to write a novel very slowly, not to test punch lines. Sounds like a Stephen Wright joke. But more than a decade later, this gritty experiment became Harold, a book about a twisting, strangely fascinating day in the life of a seven-year-old boy.

Set in the 1960s when Wright was a child, “Harold” is almost stream-of-consciousness styled from a boy’s point of view, ping-pong from musings about his third-grade teacher to daydreaming about going to the moon. depicted in Much of that text would fit right in with Wright’s stand-up that “all art is contemporary art at some point.”

Sitting in Simon & Schuster’s Manhattan office last month, Wright, who has been joking in front of audiences for more than 40 years, said the standup gave him a very “narrow window of creativity.” Explained with a distinctive gravel drone. He was quick to add that he was not criticizing, but simply explaining the appeal of the new, more expansive format. “I wanted to put a funnel over Harold’s head and pour everything I thought about life into it,” he said. “Lawyers, religion, space. Everything.”

Wright shrugged when I asked him why he was focusing on boys. But he believes that children notice what adults miss. Describing the young man’s organized mind makes him sound almost jealous. According to him, children are like “aliens getting out of a spaceship and looking around.”

Light himself can sometimes resemble an alien. He’s as brief and lyrical as he is on stage, but just warm and quick to laugh. Metaphors pour out of him like a Bob Dylan song brought to life. When asked to describe Light, Marc Maron texted me: happen. Rarely. of. Comedy. ”

A famous example of Johnny Carson becoming an overnight star was when Booker, visiting his son at college, happened upon an unknown Stephen Wright playing at a Chinese restaurant in Boston. there is nothinglight Murdered on ‘The Tonight Show’In 1982, the studio crowd was his biggest audience. Three years later, Wright said,i have a ponyis a modern stand-up classic.

If you realized this at a young age, and as many did and still do, it could change your entire sense of humor. Anthony Jeselnik’s cartoon told me Wright “influenced all of my comedy.” Bobcat Goldthwait called him a “human pot” and said, “Hearing enough of his stories makes you feel agitated and realize that the world is as absurd and amusing as he is.” You’ll understand,’ he explained.

Wright described his background as quite mediocre: middle-class, All-American, Norman Rockwell. Sensitive and a little quiet, he hadn’t told his family that he was a comedian in years. Wright calls his break a “fluke.”

Don’t let this fairy tale fool you. Not only did Wright have a knack for crafting old-fashioned jokes, but he also possessed the rare discipline and flair to remain stubbornly loyal. Let’s take an example. “I’ve always hated puns,” he told me with unusual enthusiasm. “It would be more fun if you dropped the plate.”

He set rules for his comedy early on, which may have hurt him in the short term, but allowed his work to age like any other comedian. bottom. He avoided anything topical. He didn’t yell either. “Because of that, he didn’t want to make me laugh anymore,” he said. “I wanted it to be pure.”

Wright usually ignores the grandiose intentions behind his work, saying his deadpan style is just the way he speaks. His old friends support this. But it takes effort to maintain his unique worldview.

After living on both coasts, he returned to New England and moved to the countryside one town from Walden Pond. “I can see my life better,” he said of living close to nature. At one point, he likened city life to having candy thrown at him all the time. “I can’t think because I’m just trying to get over the Raznets.”

Wright’s drab one-liners, along with another deadpan maestro Mitch Hedberg, who died in 2005, remain touchstones of the comedy subgenre.

“The biggest difference between Mitch and Steven is that you can watch Mitch for an hour and see who he voted for and what he’s talking about,” said Wright, who also comes out of the Boston comedy world. Goldthwait said. 1980s. “Watching Steven for an hour raises more questions than before I met him.”

This is why “Harold” has a special appeal for comedy fans. What more can we learn about the elusive light?

His comedy has a romantic element that is almost absent. Apollo’s plans for the moon loom large in the story, and Wright’s father was an engineer who worked for a company that helped NASA manufacture parts. Seeing a plastic-encased camera pointing out into space at his father’s workplace sparked his imagination and at one point became a scene in the book. It’s been cut, but the thrill of space travel remains.

Love stories have also increased. Sometimes greedy, sometimes exhausted. “Making love was like riding a seesaw with nitroglycerin on one side,” he wrote. “When you first ride, no one knows which side you’re on.”

When Harold talks about the beautiful and intense girlfriend he could have in New York in the future, it sounds like something from the author’s life. Wright said it was true, but she sidetracked it in the book and didn’t like to talk about her private life. He has never been married (“Romance is a gamble,” he told me) and when I ask him why he doesn’t have children, he makes his life feel like a bystander to him. “I hadn’t thought about it, so it didn’t happen,” he said. “It wasn’t decided. It just happened.”

The most obvious thing that “Harold” captures about Stephen Wright is the way he thinks about thinking. Described by the author as a “wonder machine,” the boy wonders, “Is it possible to have the perspective of a five-year-old in his seventies without going crazy?” Stephen Wright, 67, says he’s been performing poorly lately.

A central metaphor in the book describes Harold’s thought process as a room with a window and a flock of birds flying around. Sometimes one jumps out. It represents an idea. It’s a random, unpredictable look at creativity. Aren’t you a little scared? What would happen if the bird stopped flying?

Wright has released very few specials in his career because he “can only think of so many things.” But he seemed reassured that some things were out of our control. “When I try to come up with ideas, my head just goes on its own, at least my mind,” he said. “Mostly chaos, but you organize a lot of it.”

Then he paused, smiled, and cast a final metaphor. “When you drive a car, you must stay off the road.”

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