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Writing a novel brings out the little boy in Steven Wright

Comedian Steven Wright has written his first novel, “Harold.”Richard Tilkin

At 7 years old, Harold already has some pretty advanced thoughts. Why, for instance, is time measured forward and backward, “but never off to the side”?

Harold is the brainchild of Steven Wright, the Boston comedian whose own mind works in delightfully mysterious ways. “Next week I’m going to have an MRI to find out whether or not I have claustrophobia,” he deadpanned on his 2007 album, “I Still Have a Pony.” Wright, who is the factory reset of deadpan, became an overnight sensation after debuting on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1982. More than 40 years later, he remains a comedy purist, recording just two albums and making a small handful of film and television appearances while building a reputation as a preeminent stand-up — the 15th-best of all time, according to Rolling Stone.


Now he has expanded his tiny empire to include his first novel, “Harold” — 241 pages rattling around inside the head of a semi-fictional schoolboy growing up in the 1960s. Wright began the book as a Twitter experiment all the way back in 2011, posting one line at a time.

“I did a couple of sentences every day for like a week and a half,” he recalls, on the phone last week from his home northwest of Boston. “Then I didn’t do it for two weeks. Then I put some other sentences on. Then I stopped it completely.

“A year later, without any announcement, I put on like four more sentences.”

The title character has, of course, a unique perspective on the world. There’s a window inside his head through which various birds fly, all carrying the thoughts that occupy Harold’s hyperactive mind.

Teeth, he points out, are the only part of the human skeleton you can see while the person is still alive: “They’re like a skeleton preview.”


“I used Harold’s head as a funnel,” Wright explains. “I poured in everything of what I think of life.”

“I used Harold’s head as a funnel," Steven Wright says of the titular character of his debut novel. "I poured in everything of what I think of life.” Jorge Rios

Wright’s oldest friends are still awed by his one-of-a-kind, all-encompassing sense of humor. Eddie Brill met him when both were attending Emerson College in the late 1970s.

“We have a powerful connection and I marvel at how his brain works,” e-mails Brill, who served as David Letterman’s comedy talent coordinator for years. Wright’s novel, he writes, “is a wondrous journey inside a mind that is hilarious, full of questions and deep revelations.

“He dances with wordplay as his music,” his longtime pal suggests.

Despite the novel’s reliance on the constant comings and goings of the birds for Harold’s thoughts, Wright says he’s not actually a birdwatcher. In fact, lots of the bird types named in the novel don’t exist in real life. He just made them up.

“I know, like, five names of birds,” he says. At one point, an “Albino Blackbird” urges Harold to drink more coffee. Later, a bright red cardinal “wearing a tiny St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat” glides through the rectangle in Harold’s head, whistling the song “Mr. Bojangles.”

"Harold" by Steven WrightSimon & Schuster/Handout

The entire book takes place over the course of one day in Ms. Yuka’s third-grade classroom. Bored and easily distracted, Harold daydreams about traveling with Elizabeth, the young object of his affection, to the moon, where they meet a very tall Carl Sagan.

One of the most important parts of the brain, Harold decides, has to be “the part that helps you decide what to say and what not to say.” If Harold is correct, maybe his creator was preoccupied when that part was being handed out.


“I would agree with you that anyone walking down the street has this tornado of thoughts in their head,” Wright says. “Everyone’s head is just bouncing around.”

Wright dedicated his debut novel to Peter Lassally, the “Tonight Show” producer who invited him onto Carson’s show after catching his act at the Ding Ho, and to the late Barry Crimmins, the frothing comedian who created the short-lived but wildly influential comedy showcase in a Chinese restaurant in Inman Square.

“He was one of my best friends in my whole life,” Wright says of Crimmins, who died in 2018. “We were on the road together for many years.”

Among other things, he says, Crimmins helped prepare Wright for that first “Tonight Show” gig, telling him to think of it as just another short set in front of a small roomful of spectators.

“He made it less mythical,” Wright says.

At one point in the book, Harold dreams up a scenario in which a squadron of B-17 bombers drops sweaters instead of bombs. Or maybe straitjackets.

“And all the insane people,” the author writes — “which includes everybody” ― would run into the open fields to catch them.

“Everybody is trying to fit in, trying to be normal,” Wright says. “But there is no normal. Everybody is just trying to get through it as best they can.”


It was a strategic decision to make his main character a young boy. Harold has no filter. He can say anything he wants.

“When you think of it, any kid is struggling,” Wright says. “It’s like they got off a spaceship and they don’t know anything. They’re completely curious.

“Everyone is trying to figure this puzzle out, even as an adult. But kids are automatic scientists. They’re constantly experimenting.”

In the book, Harold wonders if it’s possible “to be in your 70s and have the perspective of a 5 year old without being nuts.” Wright, who is 67, thinks he has the answer.

“When Harold was in his 70s,” he writes, “he would know it was possible.”

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.