"Gravity is never going to go out of style": Steven Wright on the secret to comedy longevity

The stand-up comedian discusses his book "Harold" and why he'd rather talk about the speed of light

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 22, 2024 1:30PM (EDT)

Steven Wright (Photo illustration by Salon/Jorge Rios/Getty Images)
Steven Wright (Photo illustration by Salon/Jorge Rios/Getty Images)

“I'm just trying to make them laugh,” says Steven Wright. “I don't focus on emotion.” The 68-year-old comedian and actor, who’s built a career on setting the bar for the definition of “deadpan,” has for decades been known for his observational humor that rarely treads into the kind of personal storytelling that’s marked other comics of his generation. But when he sat down to write his debut novel “Harold,” Wright found himself tapping into a new side of his psyche.

“There's a lot of sensitivity in there,” Wright admitted during a recent “Salon Talks” conversation. “It is more emotion than the stand-up.” Told from the perspective of a third grader over the course of one December day in the mid '60s, “Harold” has plenty of the author’s trademark surreal wit (Harold, for example, muses that all art was modern at one point), but it also brims with a depth and a wistful melancholy that will catch Wright’s fans unexpected. "This was way more going into what I really think about all things,” Wright said.

Yet the comedian, who Rolling Stone has called one of the greatest stand-ups of all time, isn’t going back on what comes most naturally to him. “I made my own rules up when I started to stand-up,” he recalled. “One of the things I did to myself is I didn't want the joke attached to time. If time was like a clothesline, I wanted to do it for as long as ever.” As he put it, “The speed of light is never going to go out of style. Gravity, lint, signs, time itself, is not going to go out of style.”  Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Wright here on YouTube.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

A lot of the reviews of “Harold” say, “It's odd and wonderful.” “It’s weird and wonderful." If you were to describe it in four words, what would those four words be, Steven?

I would say, surrealism and innocence.

Tell me about Harold. This is a story of a third-grader. He is a unique, special boy.

I just write anything that comes into my head. I drink coffee, and then my mind goes crazy. One day I wrote, "Harold was in third grade, Harold . . ." For no reason, things come into my mind, and I just write them down. And then, I started going longer, and then I didn't do it for a while, and then it went a little bit longer, and a little bit longer, and I thought, "Maybe this can be some kind of a story," not thinking I'm going to write a book. Then it just kept going, I would work on it, not work on it. Then it got to a length where I thought, "I'm going to see how long this can go." Still not thinking it was a – and then it just kept going, going and going. And I started to be taken into this world I was creating.

I liked the world I was creating, and I like to go visit it every day. It was like reading a book, you know, when you read a book, you go into that world. It was like that, except I was making the world up. And in my history of stand-up, if I think of a joke, it's because I saw a sign or I heard a word, or I was reading a book and a word . . . I love words. Words will just jazz me, like a word that has an odd sound and a meaning, like "electrolysis." I have a whole joke, because I saw the word "electrolysis" written down.

But the jokes float. I don't sit down to write jokes. I just go through the world, and there's just stuff. Like, from the minute you wake up to when you go to sleep, thousands of pieces of information go past you. The world is like a mosaic painting, and some of these squares can be connected that weren't connected before. They can be connected by the word, or it has two different meanings. And so this was different, because I started to daily, on purpose, sit down to try to see what else could happen with him.

And you didn't start it out in a notebook or on a document. This book began its life in kind of a unique place.

Yes, on my phone. I wrote the whole book on my phone.

Not just on your phone, but on the platform formerly known as Twitter, right?

Oh, that was the very beginning. Yes. That was why I even wrote anything. Thirty years ago I wrote a story for Rolling Stone called “The Beach.” It was a fairy tale about how the beach was invented. And every few years I would read it, and I would think I should write something else, but I never would. And then I got the Twitter thing, and then I read "The Beach" again, and I thought, rather than jokes on Twitter, let me try to write a story. 

"It’s a childlike thing just to notice the world."

Because to me, a joke is an alive thing that should be experienced with people in a group, said by a person. To read a joke, didn't interest me. I mean, I know people do that, that's fine, but for me it doesn't go like that. So I was writing it on Twitter, and then I just stopped. And then a year later, I thought, "I'm not going to write it on Twitter anymore. I'm going to see how long I can go." And then I would focus. 

My routine is I drink some coffee, then I exercise, bicycle, then I go somewhere with more coffee. And my mind goes crazy. I have a window, an hour and a half, where my imagination is heightened. And then that's when I would try to write this. It was different than the stand-up just floating into my head.

I thought of things that I would've never thought of if I hadn't tried to sit like that. I've never disciplined before. The other stuff just came into my head, but I found things in my mind that I never would've had, had I not sat down like that. And I did write it on my phone. I started it on my phone, in the note section. Then I went to Micro Word, whatever it is, and then I would send . . . Because I couldn't write in a room. You've written two books, right?


How did you like writing your books?

It's what they say about writing — you just sit down and open a vein. I can't imagine writing fiction. Steven, one of my favorite genres is books that are from the perspective of a child.


Or a teenager. It's truly among my favorites. And this book has been compared to “Catcher in the Rye,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Calvin and Hobbes. For you, a man in his 60s, to take on the worldview of this eight-year-old child . . . What was it about Harold that brought you to that place where this was a story you wanted to tell and in this moment in time in American history too?

Well, I've always said that the stand-up is seeing the world like a child, like everything is new to a child. You don't understand, "Why is that . . ." And I would see the world as a child in any way. But I can use words as an adult, assemble my comments as an adult. But it's a childlike thing just to notice the world.

I said Harold was in third grade for no reason . . . .now it kept going, now I'm going to try to write a book. I didn't have to adjust, how would a seven-year-old think? I didn't have to do that, because I automatically think like that. There was no adjustment. 

"The world is complete madness. And then there's all these rules to try to contain the chaos that everyone is trying to do."

In the jokes, I tell a couple sentences. It's a very narrow window of creativity, I think. I'm not complaining, I'm just describing it. It's like it has to have a few sentences said, that hopefully makes a group of people laugh out loud. Is a very narrow window. But I had stuff in my mind besides what would go through that window. So when I started doing this, I realized what I could do, is I'm going to put a funnel on Harold's head, and I'm going to pour into his head. What I think about life, in joke form. And I could get all this history and evolution, and the universe. And everything, I'll just pour right into his head. I didn't have to adjust what would a seven-year-old think. It's automatic.

But it's different. As someone who's followed you for decades, Steven, there is a poignancy to seeing those observations, reading them in a book and reading them from the voice of a child, then hearing them on a stage from a guy with a microphone. Even though it might be the same observation about the world, about what's on the other side of a blackboard, that feels different coming from the voice of a child. Throughout your career, you have been very clear that you don't like to tell personal stories, you don't like to talk about your family. You try to avoid those kinds of topics. But reading this, it makes me think, is this a way into a different side of yourself and telling a more personal story?

Yes, it is. There's a lot of sensitivity in there, when he was going through school, and how he feels about the girl in the class. Yes, yes. I never thought of that, but it is more emotion than the stand-up. It just happened. 

I was in Wildwood School, and some of the things, the people, I use their names, and some of the things really happened, but very rarely. Like the grandfather I made. That’s a big part, of the relationship with him and his grandfather—that’s all made up. But the house on Moosehead Lake is a real place that I went to when I was eight, nine, 10, 11. The neighbors owned this house on Moosehead Lake. But you're right, his relationship with the – there’s a lot of stuff. 

I don't know why I don't do that on stage. I'm just trying to make them laugh. It's like, I don't connect to – I don't focus on emotion. So this was way more going into what I really think about all things.

It’s funny, but it's also sad. It's lonely. It’s emotional. There's a lot about it that hits in a different way. The book has been out now for a year, you have a built-in audience, you have people who read you and follow you, and I'm sure picked up this book because they like your comedy. I'm curious what their response has been from readers, to this very unique work from you.

A lot of people liked it. Even though everything is so different with the emotion and the kid and everything, it's still questioning the world. The world is madness. The world is complete madness. And then there's all these rules to try to contain the chaos, that everyone is trying to do. But it's so much unexplained. 

They liked it because it was the same sensibility of the stand-up, but it was more than the stand-up as far as people interacting, in their feelings, their inner feelings about many things. I mean, it covers everything almost: the universe, babies, death.


Oh. Who's that, in the mother?


Oh yeah, yeah, the mother is nuts.

As many of our moms are, Steven. Reading this, it’s hard for me to switch between thinking of this as in the voice of a child, but also thinking of it in this voice that we know. You have a very famous presentation in the way that you talk. You do a lot of voice work. You are known for your voice. You are known for your delivery. There is one word in particular that is almost always ascribed to you. When you Google you, it's the first word that comes up. The word is deadpan.

Oh, yes.

You're like, "Please don't let it be . . ."


So what does that word mean to you? What does it mean to you to be “deadpan”?

I mean, I agree. I was doing comedy in Boston for a year and there was a newspaper called the Phoenix, an independent paper, and someone wrote a review, they saw me, and they said, " . . . a monotone, deadpan." And I went, "Oh. Oh, oh, yeah. Oh." I never connected that word. No one ever said that word about me, but I agreed. But I was like, "OK," but I don't really think about it. It's just how I talk.

"It was like going through a magical door. Everything changed. My career, my whole life — from that one night."

You have said that some of that was exaggerated, particularly early in your career, because you had stage fright. The idea that you wanted to do this so badly, get up in front of people, and yet were afraid. All of us have things that we're afraid to do, and don't say, "I'm going to make that my career." I want to know what kept you going, through particularly those early years — when it was the scariest.

Because I started watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson when I was like 14, 15 years old, and I became addicted to it. I had never seen stand-up comedians before. So a guy comes out and he talks about life in this hilarious way, and then he sits down and talks to Johnny Carson. Richard Pryor and David Brennan, Robert Klein, George Carlin, of course, one of my heroes, and I thought, "Wow, look at this. That's something I would really like to do. I think I would like to do that.”

After watching it for a couple of years, my desire to do it was very powerful, but I knew it would be like a kid wanting to be an astronaut or a baseball player. I knew maybe it wouldn't happen, probably wouldn't have happened. But when I heard about the comedy club in Boston, when I was 23, I thought, "Well, there's one here now. I don't have to move to New York or Los Angeles. I could try it out here.” So I saw the show, and then I went to the open mic two weeks later. 

To answer your question, public speaking is one of the main fears of people. It's like over death. And I was like that — I was horrified. But I wanted to try it so bad that I forced myself to do it, because I wanted to try it. And I mean, I already talk like this, so then I'm on there and I'm afraid, it’s even more like this. I'm trying to say the joke the right way. I'm thinking, "What is the next joke?" I have no emotion at all, but I'm not doing that for a reason other than I'm horrified, and I'm trying to remember it. But just by luck, it went well with these abstract jokes that I'm saying. It connected by accident to this particular way of doing it.

It's funny.


Before people went viral, you went viral. Your first appearance on Carson changed your life in a way that I don't know if that can happen for a comic now. Talk to me about what that moment was like in 1982. What changed for you after that?

Everything changed. I mean, I've been doing comedy three years, and Peter Lassally from the “Tonight Show” came to Massachusetts to look at colleges for his kids and he saw me in this half Chinese restaurant, half comedy club, the Ding Ho Comedy Club. He knew of it because someone wrote an article about it, and it was in the LA Times. So when he came to Massachusetts, he remembered the article, and he saw me in there. 

Three weeks later, it's a miracle, it's like a fairy tale. I have a lot of accidental things in my career that just flukely lined up. That's the biggest one. Peter Lassally saw me and he put me on, and then I went on. Now I'm 26, and I started watching it when I was 16. So here I am with my hero, on the show at the set, Johnny Carson. It was surrealism to me. I was so nervous that I wasn't nervous, then I kind of got numb, like you know when they show something that's underwater and you don't hear the sound?

At the time, it was like going through a magical door. Everything changed, my career, my whole life, from that one night. So I mean, Johnny Carson changed my life twice, because the first time was from me watching the show, thinking, "Look at him. Look at how funny he is, look at all these comedians. I would like to be that.” To get that in my head, was one thing — a goal, a fantasy. And then I'm really on the show, and then everything changes. I'm a very lucky, very lucky person. It's not like, let me try to think an odd way. This is just how I think. This is the tone of my voice. I'm very fortunate and I appreciate it.

As you said, you have a unique way, you have a unique style. I want to ask you one more thing. Because of that, and because you don't really do topical, you don't really do political, you don't really do personal, and the thing about that is, Steven, there are jokes of yours or lines of yours, that I feel like 40 years later, you probably could get up on a stage and do tonight. There are jokes in this book that feel like they could have been written in any time because they're in the voice of someone who was in the mid '60s, and yet they feel as fresh today. Is there a line that you feel like that's the one I'll be remembered for, that's the one that's going to be in my obituary?

What is this?

I want you to think about your death now, Steven. I want you to get really dark.

All the interviews in my whole life, no one's ever said that. And here's this woman, a very nice woman. Oh, I don't know. Maybe, "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it."

That's the one I think about every time someone says it's a small world.

Yeah, that one, that's maybe the most known one. But the thing about saying they could be written at any time, I made my own rules up when I started to do stand-up — what to do, what not to do. And one of the things I did to myself, out of conservation is I didn't want the joke attached to time. If time was like a clothesline, I wanted to do it for as long as ever. 

I didn't want to think about whatever, something current like a TV show or a current famous person, or a current fad or something. Because then I could just keep doing it. I didn't want to joke to, "Oh, now I can't do that anymore." The speed of light is never going to go out of style. Gravity, lint, signs, time itself, is not going to go out of style. So it was almost, I don't know if it's laziness, but just, "Oh, I can do it.” That’s why.

I can do lint jokes ‘til the day I die.

“Lint in the Universe,” starts Friday.

What's next? Are you writing another book?

I don't know. I would like to sometime, but see, I didn't think about, I'm going to write a book about a little kid. It just started happening. So I want something else to happen without thinking, "Oh, what?" But I write stuff every day. Mostly now jokes, but every day I drink coffee and write stuff down. But someday I would like to write another one. I just don't know what it would be.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Comedy Harold Johnny Carson Salon Talks Stand-up Steven Wright The Tonight Show