When I was a young, aspiring stand up comedian of 19 and 20 I idolized, idolized Steven Wright (still do). The early-mid 1980s, when he first hit, were his perfect time. His minimalist, deadpan style seemed completely in tune with developments in rock music (punk and new wave) and cinema (No Wave — Jim Jarmusch especially). But, as I’ve written elsewhere, there are aspects of what he does that are really traditional, straight vaudeville, in fact. Having this completely evolved, easily recognizable, crazy persona. The character he created is a natural joke-engine (he not only made it easy for himself, but apparently the internet is full of countless hoaxers mis-attributing lines to him). And the way he structures jokes…as esoteric, surreal, metaphysical, trippy as they are…is within whispering distance of Henny Youngman or Rodney Dangerfield. These are guys who pare that joke down to a Haiku, a fortune cookie, a koan. For the ten people who know what I’m talking about, Wright was a big influence on my “Nihils” character, which I trot out from time to time. Lastly, his strong, unapologetic Boston accent has always filled me with regional pride. Today is Steven Wright’s birthday.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.