Falling off a chair with comedian Steven Wright

If babies could keep diaries, what would they say? What if birds didn’t fall from the sky when they died? What would it look like if people were able to skate on the other side of the ice? What if we viewed the world’s beaches as huge seashell collections?

Or what if people just plain paid attention to the world around them and paid more attention to their interactions with each other? Would their conversations be more sincere or at least make more sense?

These are the things that come to mind when listening to Oscar- winning comedian Steven Wright.

Whether intentionally or just by comic design, Wright grabs my attention by putting a spotlight on the accidental, continuous fall that is humanity. Does that sound fatalistic? From his observations, people might be better off if we all felt that way.

As he said on his first album, 1985’s “I Have a Pony,” “You know when you’re rocking in a rocking chair, and you go so far that you almost fall over back- wards, but at the last instant you catch yourself? That’s how I feel all the time.”

Wouldn’t feeling this way prevent us from slipping into autopilot?

Although he enjoys waxing poetic and has philosophical leanings, he makes it clear that his performances are not an attempt to fix humanity. Wright would probably be more comfortable presenting himself as an unwitting tour guide who’s likely to trip every time he enters a room than someone who has a message for mankind.

Whether or not he is aiming for deep thought, it may behoove us to pay attention to what he finds funny. Luckily, he’s coming to New Jersey with several shows scheduled around the state this week and next.

I figured a phone call to Wright was in order. We talked a bit about poetry and philosophy. But mostly, we talked about jokes.

Q: Do you put philosophy and poetry into your jokes?

A: I don’t try to write something philosophical. I get the jokes from just noticing things. If a joke is philosophical it’s because the subject just came into my mind.

Q: Bill Cosby talks about jokes being medicine and Freud says that jokes relieve subconscious tension. Any thoughts on what jokes can do for people?

A: I think that it does relax people to laugh. I would agree it releases tension.

Q: Your jokes are so minimal, they’re avant-garde. [An example of one of his jokes: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”] When you’re writing a joke how do you know when you’ve gone far enough for it to be a good joke?

A: If I feel it’s funny, I write it down but then I have to try it out on the audience. You can just tell when a joke is finished when you write it. You know when it’s finished, but it doesn’t matter what I think. The audience decides whether I keep it or not.

Q: Is there a joke that people always want to hear?

A: Maybe the Cesarean joke: I was Cesarean born. You can’t really tell. Although whenever I leave the house, I go out through the window.

Q: It seems to me that the one thing that’s needed for a joke is surprise. Do you think that’s true?

A: Yes. That’s definitely a major part of it because the element of surprise is what the joke really is. That’s the major part of the joke.

Q: Where does the surprise come from in your jokes? How do you build that kind of suspense?

A: You’re making a connection that the audience doesn’t make, so when you make the connection that was previously unknown then there’s surprise. But I don’t really think about it like this. I mean you’re asking me, so I’m breaking it down. It happens automatically.

Q: Do you have some favorite jokes that you think are ideal— that inspire you?

A: Well, I like George Carlin’s jokes. I like his humor. He’s one of my heroes and I like what he did with talking about everyday things. I don’t have a particular joke. He had a poem about his hair being long. It was always one of my favorites, and I like Woody Allen’s comedy album that he did before movies. I love the material on that too.

What Wright said about Carlin made sense. He was a hero to Wright because of the light he shed on everyday things. That is similar to what Wright’s jokes do, except, they’re more likely to focus on people—how they interact with each other and their surroundings. They are able to restore a sense of childlike wonder not because they are part of a grand scheme but because sometimes, he can be infantile, as he told dead-frog.com.

“…I’m seeing the world partially through the eyes of a kid. Not all the time. There’s no black and white to it. But sometimes I’m seeing it like I’m 4,” he said.

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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