Steven Wright didn’t invent one-liners—or wait, did he?
Wright is such an original, primal, bonkers performer that he could be some sort of wandering immortal, sent on a mission from Odin to enlighten and amuse us mere mortals. Maybe Wright did invent one-liners, thousands of years ago. The man is such a unique comedy treasure that I would believe anything.
The key to Wright’s humor is literalism: glorious literalism. Wright takes words seriously and specifically in ways that turn everyday thoughts and terms into bouncy castles in a carnival of absurdity. Such literalism could wreak havoc at a casino: “A while ago, I was in Las Vegas at the roulette table having a furious argument over what I considered to be an odd number.” The beauty of this simple statement is it makes you imagine a whole comedy sketch—or perhaps Harold Pinter play—in your head. I like to think that in an alternate universe another Steven Wright is explaining to casino workers why 8 is the oddest number, because it’s also the infinity sign, and what’s odder than no limits?
For Wright, even a plain phrase like “writing a book” can take on an oddball meaning that no one else noticed before: “I’m writing a book. I have the page numbers done; now I just have to fill in the rest.” This smart humor would likely bomb in the hands of a lesser comic, but Wright’s gruff, monotone, semi-depressed, weirdo persona gives those lines weight and reality. When Wright says—“I went to a tourist information booth and said ‘tell me about some people who were here last year’”—it’s not just clever; it’s creepy and believable.
When Wright isn’t taking existing terms literally, he mashes them together into new combinations, some of which might someday appear at the Westminster Dog Show: “I got a new dog. He’s a paranoid retriever. He brings back everything because he’s not sure what I threw him.” Many jokes are absurd self-revelations, such as “I’m writing an unauthorized autobiography” and “I’m also part of the Jehovah’s Witness program.” In some of those jokes, the simple Koan-like combination is enough. But others set up a beautiful punch line: “My nephew has HDADD: high-definition attention-deficit disorder. He can barely pay attention, but when he does it’s unbelievably clear.”
As with Mitch Hedberg—the top contender to Wright’s one-liner throne—Wright can make you see everyday objects in new ways: “For my birthday, I got a humidifier and a dehumidifier. I put ’em in the same room. Let ’em fight it out.” To the normal human mind, there’s not a lot of humor to be mined from a humidifier or dehumidifier, but Wright’s mind isn’t on the same landmass as normal. Where you or I see only boring gizmos, he sees two opposing forces, two mortal enemies who should duke it out: the Jedi and Sith of moisture.
So what’s his Best Joke Ever? Even Odin’s ravens couldn’t say for sure. It could be this concise thought: “24-hour banking? I don’t have time for that.” That’s one of the cleverest of his literal jokes. Another of my personal top ten: “I’m living on a one-way dead end street. I don’t know how I ever got there.”
But I have to go with this gem, because it fits perfectly into Wright’s persona, while showing a glint of optimism that is ridiculous and poignant:
“I got a paper cut from writing my suicide note. It’s a start.”
I love jokes about suicide. What’s funnier than suicide? OK, everything. But I live by the words of the great Joan Rivers, who had this to say to a heckler who didn’t appreciate a Helen Keller joke because his son was deaf: “Oh, you stupid ass. Let me tell you what comedy is about… Comedy is to make everyone laugh at everything, and deal with things. You idiot. My mother is deaf, you stupid son of a bitch.”
This suicide joke stands out from Wright’s long resume of great absurd jokes because it’s great, absurd, and real: it’s easy to imagine his character trying to kill himself incompetently. Then, it’s easy to imagine his character getting that paper cut and feeling not a stab of annoyance, but a flicker of optimism. Maybe enough optimism to put the note away and join the Jehovah’s witness protection program or hang out with his HDADD nephew. Sometimes, that’s enough.