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Steven Wright: The One-Line Wonder

Updated: Nov 15, 2022



Whether it be a professional comedian or a school clown, comedy is perhaps most commonly elicited through the power of persona. Often, a joke does not have to be particularly witty or well-crafted when such a character exudes their wackiness or confidence - they are naturally funny. Few of such types, however, ever thrive in the standup world. Despite having been told their whole lives how funny they are, when having to combine that natural comedy with skill and nuance, it can often be too much. Some who can find such nuance in tandem with natural comedic personality do find success, though - Kevin Hart (often portraying himself as an exasperated, bumbling short person) and Jack Whitehall (exaggerating his poshness and effete sensibility) for example.

More often than not, though, comedians do not exude this comedic presence when stripped of their microphone. Standup comics can even have a reputation for seeming melancholic or depressed - the antithesis to comedy. We can only assume, then, that to put an audience in stitches when onstage takes an immense amount of craft and dedication, as well as attention to detail, and perhaps no one better exemplifies that than Steven Wright.


His comedy is by no means aided by his delivery - the jokes exist and prevail totally on their own. One might say that Wright's drab tone assists in the throw-away nature of his lines, down-playing them and as such making them funner, though one could equally counter that anyone could read his jokes, and no matter the delivery, they would still create at the very least a chuckle, though more probably hysterics.

By Wright's choice to downplay delivery and put all emphasis on his writing, it becomes clear why he is such a skilled comedian. He can make you laugh without making himself into a caricature - his writing is that good. This is not to bash more slapstick comics - a laugh is a laugh - who cares? But most people can create laughs that way. What makes Wright unique is that, in spite of taking the harder route and reserving himself from his audience, he prevails nonetheless.

So what makes his writing so funny? In his jokes, Wright presents an absurd world of impossibilities. He doesn't need a joke to be relatable or grounded for it to grasp an audience - the more ridiculous, the better. The craziness of his scenarios is enough to catch the audience off-guard, and to leave them more vulnerable to his influence. In analysing his comedy, one can observe a kind of pattern to his joke structure.

Step one: set-up. Wright presents us first with the universe that he has created. This requires its own step, as it is often so insane, that Wright knows to give the audience a minute to not only process it, but to laugh at it. Take, for example, the first clip in the video above. Wright begins by saying: "I have been selected for Jury Duty. It's kind of an insane case. 6,000 ants dressed up as rice robbed a Chinese restaurant." This creates a world distinctly different to our own - he injects intention into the minds of ants, and not only that, but instils in them malice and creativity. He creates the background that they have also been caught, and thus the justice system in this universe tries animals and insects. This alone is enough to make the audience laugh, as it is contrasted with the mundanity of "Jury Duty", and thus sweeps them off his feet. Thus, the second part can drive it home.
Step two: execution. With the audience already acclimatised to the world Wright has created, he now builds on the joke by once again breaking expectations, and changing said world in a way that one could never expect, and in doing so making it even more absurd. Later in the joke, for example, he continues: "I don't think they did it...I know a few of them and they wouldn't do anything like that." This then calls into question the very absurdity that Wright has established - though for an even more absurd reason! Wright now claims to have personal relationships with ants. It also brings human empathy and hope - the kind one projects onto a troubled loved one whom they try and pretend is not guilty - on a group of ants. It is his metamorphosis of the insignificant - ants in this case - into the significant - a creature capable of complex thought, intention, emotion, and relationships, as well as impacting the life of others.

This comedic pattern, while not absolute, is often noticeable in Wright's comedy. Unfortunately, the public's appetite for such a style is not so ripe in the modern world - hour-long specials demand more of the anecdotal comedian or the philosophical comedian rather than the absurdist. Yet Wright's lack of notoriety makes no bearing on the quality of his work - he is original and meticulous in his craft, and a wonder of the one-liners.


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