Even if you don’t know comedy, you know Steven Wright. He’s the lanky, laconic humorist whose deadpan one-liners shot him to fame in the 1980s — and whose work, in the 1990s, has become a staple of humor websites and e-mail chain letters. He’s the guy who asks, “If you’re sending someone Styrofoam, what do you pack it in?” and “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?” He’s the guy who wants to know, “So, what’s the speed of dark?”
Except he’s not. Although dozens of such jokes speed around the Web in e-mails headed “Wrightisms” and on such websites as “Steven Wright One-Liners” (albrecht.ecn.purdue.edu/~taylor/humor/sw.html), most of them did not actually come from him. He didn’t write them, and he didn’t say them. Just as, for certain folks, Kurt Vonnegut will always be the man who gave the “Don’t Forget to Wear Sunscreen” commencement address, so Steven Wright will always be the man who said, “What happened to preparations A through G?”
Except he’s not.
Wright, 43, doesn’t own a computer and finds the whole Internet “like some electronic island with all these people going crazy having this experience.” Reached at his Santa Monica home, the humorist explains that the problem isn’t exactly new: Five years ago a friend punched “Steven Wright” into a search engine and came up with a website devoted to the comedian’s humor. “‘This is good! This is advertising!'” Wright recalls thinking. Three years later, another friend did the same; that time, only about half the jokes listed were actually his. A year ago, Wright and a friend checked a third time. On one page, Wright says, “there were 25 jokes and not one of them was mine.” When confronted with lines like “If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?” Wright confesses, “I cringe! It’s horrible!”
Even when the Web gets Wright right, it gets him wrong. One site posts: “I went for a walk last night, and my kids asked me how long I’d be gone. I said, ‘The whole time.'” “That’s my joke,” says Wright. “But it was my girlfriend. I don’t do ‘kid’ jokes.”
Several webmasters contacted by EW now offer their apologies. “Jeez! I didn’t do any research on this!” says Don E. Z’Boray, a self-described Wright fanatic who runs a fan site (http://www.newbie.net/JumpStations/StevenWright). “I haven’t verified each and every” joke, admits David Williams, who was inspired to create a Wright page (http://www.hooked.net/users/davew/bin/stevenwright) after seeing one of the comedian’s HBO specials. Both men suggest Wright set up his own website.
Wright might. In fact, the humorist likes the idea of an official site that says, “If it is not here, I did not write it.” On the other hand, Wright, just off a long road trip to nightclubs and soon to appear in Albert Brooks’ The Muse, sees an upside. If people are drawn to his performances, he says, they’ll be very impressed: “It would be all-new material for them. They’d think, ‘Wow! How’s he write so much?'”