The Internet is a good place to find memes in which Abraham Lincoln expounds on such hot, 19th century topics as radical Islam, welfare cheats and the McRib sandwich.
Because Lincoln knew he wouldn’t be around to Google himself, he entreated future Lincoln scholars to forgo study of his presidency in favor of debunking misquotes.
Unlike Lincoln, comedian Steven Wright is around to Google himself. And while he probably won’t ever engage in any active debunking, he is sometimes perturbed by what he finds.
Wright performs in Skokie and St. Charles, Illinois, on April 8 and 9, respectively.
Wright started performing comedy about two decades before the Internet reached full flower and yet his snappy word puzzles and delayed-fuse musings seem uniquely suited to compilation and celebration on the Web.
The problem with this is the cavalier way that many of the compilers match the quotes with the quoted.
In a phone interview, Wright said fully 50 percent of the jokes attributed to him on many of these lists are not his.
And some of them are pretty bad.
“The Internet is like the Wild West,” he said. “There’s no rules. My analogy for this is: Imagine that you broke into a bookstore — when there were bookstores — and you went over to ‘Oliver Twist’ and you ripped out Chapter 8 and put your own chapter in there. Then someone buys ‘Oliver Twist’ and they’re reading it and, all of a sudden, Oliver Twist goes to Miami and starts building houses. Maybe the person reading that book wouldn’t know Dickens hadn’t put that in there. But several crimes would have been committed.”
Perhaps Dickens should have had the foresight to entreat future Dickens scholars to forgo study of his legacy in favor of debunking the notion that Oliver Twist ever worked as a residential building contractor in South Florida.
Wright is only marginally bothered by this phenomenon because he is only marginally connected to the Internet.
He has an iPhone into which he types notes but he says he’s always relieved to go back to the pads of unlined paper he used to use before handheld technology became unavoidable.
Considering what a comedic phenomenon Wright was in the 1980s and what an indelible impression he has left on stand-up, his resume is surprisingly thin.
Since first taking the “Tonight Show” stage in 1982, Wright has released two comedy albums and three comedy specials. He won an Academy Award for a short film in 1989.
Occasionally, he will pop up briefly in a movie or on a TV show, but bit parts such as these are almost always favors he does for someone.
This is all by design.
It may come as a surprise to most people that to learn Wright has constructed for himself the ideal life for a creative person. He is also a musician and visual artist, and a full stand-up schedule gives him the freedom to do what he wants when he wants, for the most part.
Each discipline satisfies him in a different way.
“Comedy has to make absolute sense,” he said, “no matter how weird it is. You can’t just say ‘Fifteen midgets are running down a hill.’ An abstract painting has none of that. If you feel like putting this line here for no reason — there’s no rules at all. You just go on complete emotion. And then music is kind of in-between.”
In the ’80s, someone who knew Wright observed that he was the sort of person who was perfectly happy sitting on a bare mattress with a notebook and a glass of water.
That may have been and may still be true. But Wright said he discovered that he couldn’t just sit in a room and write jokes.
He had to walk around. With a pad of paper, of course.
“When I first started,” he said, “I would sit down and try to write like that. For about 6 to 8 months, I would actually just try to sit and write jokes. And then my mind started to think, ‘What if I didn’t sit down anymore?’ So I would just be wandering around the city or wherever I was and my mind would see something and then I would write it down. My subconscious became an observer for jokes.”
Wright said he never goes out looking for jokes. It is almost as if jokes come looking for him.
“If I went to a museum, there might be a joke there,” he said. “But I didn’t go to a museum to look for a joke.”
The many notebooks he has accrued over the years are repositories of everything: jokes, of course, but also philosophical musings, drawings, lyrics and ideas for screenplays.
Writing things down sanctifies them in a sense.
“There’s just something about: You thought about something and you don’t want it to just float out there,” Wright said. “Thoughts to me are precious. They’re worthy of being written down. Thoughts that aren’t even jokes. Jokes are worthy of being written down too. But also thoughts about life. I’m always writing (expletive) down.”
Of course, the jokes are what butters the bread, so to speak.
Wright said he does an 80-minute show and delivers an average of five jokes per minute.
“So, what is that? I forgot math. I used to know what eight times five was. It is, like, 40 something?”
It comes out to 400 jokes. Five jokes a minute seems like an overly generous estimate, but it is probably true that Wright goes through more material in a show than any other comic.
Given that Wright is constantly trying out new material and cycling out old material, and given that so little of that material has been and is being recorded for posterity, a fan really has to see him live if he or she wants to keep up with his career.
A fan should also download episodes of “Horace and Pete.”
Wright plays a barfly in Louis C.K.’s acclaimed web series.
Four years ago, native Bostonian Wright decided to move to New York to “get a fix on the city.” A friend introduced him to Louis C.K. and the two hit it off. Eventually, Louis C.K. hired Wright as a consultant on his FX series, “Louis.”
Wright’s role on the show was to be there when Louis C.K. wanted to bounce ideas off someone who could bounce back something worthy.
“He’s such a brilliant guy,” Wright said. “It’s like he has a band and he let me sit in with the band.”
Wright said he is in awe of Louis C.K.’s talents.
“I was thinking that only Woody Allen does everything that he does,” he said, “and then I thought, ‘No.’ He writes all the stuff, he directs all the stuff, he acts in all the stuff and then he does stand-up too. He’s like Woody Allen and George Carlin. There’s no one who’s ever done both of those things. Nobody. Not one person.”
Wright said Louis C.K. inspires him but he’s not sure yet what form that inspiration will take.
For the time being, Wright will continue to be creative for creativity’s sake.
“There was a famous artist,” he said. “I can’t remember who he is. He’s a current guy. He said that people ask him, ‘When did you start drawing?’ and he says to them, ‘When did you stop?’ Because everyone drew and painted. Everybody does it naturally. And then they get to a point where lots of people don’t do that anymore. It wears off.
“You should do stuff for no reason,” Wright said. “Just for the hell of it. Just for the fun of creating.”