Stand-up comedy legend Steven Wright has been expanding minds with concise quips for nearly three decades. Now with a new Comedy Central special — his first in 15 years — the master of the monotone is arming a whole new generation with brilliant one-liners and bizarre musings.
By John Delery
After 27 years of expanding the boundaries of imagination by telling pre-shrunk jokes, comedian Steven Wright still uses words economically, as if he were paying retail for every syllable.
“When I was kid,” Wright declares at the beginning of his new Comedy Central special, When the Leaves Blow Away, “I wish my first word had been ‘Quote,’ so right before I die I could say, ‘Unquote.'”
The quip travels through the audience at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto and settles in its consciousness. An instant later – hey, Wright isn’t the only person required to think during one of his performances – the crowd roars in recognition and Wright resumes the amusing journey through his technicolor gray matter.
In the hour-long special, which premiered Oct. 21, the spotlight illuminates Wright’s Nicole Richie-lean comic style, his signature style since diving headfirst into the deep pool of comic talent in the early ’80s (his contemporaries include Roseanne Barr, Drew Carey and Jerry Seinfeld) and making a splash the size of a tsunami on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in 1982; he first appeared on Aug. 6 and then reappeared six days later.
Apparently, one day late last year he looked at his watch, not to mention his audience, and along with his manager, Tim Sarkes, decided it was time to cast fresh one-liners and hook another generation on his musings. The result after overcoming various delays: Wright’s first special since Wicker Chairs and Gravity for HBO in 1991.
“Most of my audience is in its 40s, 50s, 60s, even older,” Wright, who’s 50 himself, says from his residence in Carlisle, Mass. “The kids in college now were only 5 years old when I did my last special.” So what better place to reach a younger audience than on Comedy Central, a TV hangout for teens who regularly tune in to, say, South Park and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
“Comedy Central is like this whole other world,” says Wright, who neither looks nor acts his age. After all, his curly (well, more like Larry from the Three Stooges) locks still stretch to his shoulders, and he retains his kidlike creativity.”What did Jesus ever do for Santa Clause on his birthday?” Wright wonders in the special.
Offstage, Wright paints, abstractly, of course; onstage, he illustrates his oblique perceptions with the verbal equivalent of stick figures drawn from a master surrealist’s cockeyed viewpoint. “I’ve lasted this long, I think,” he says, “because I really just talk about everyday things, things people can identify with — but then twist it another way,” meaning he tilts the frame holding his exaggerated word pictures. The simplicity of his writing style masks the complexity of his mind:
“If I ever had twins, I’d use one for parts.”
“When I was a little kid, we had a quicksand box. I was an only child…eventually.”
“If you shoot a mime, should you use a silencer?”
“I have a fax machine. I have fax waiting.”
“If you didn’t know me, would you think I was a stranger?”
Wright, like all his fellow jesters, collects “millions of pieces of information” he either hears or observes every day, blends the data in a thought processor, then shares his concoction with people looking to laugh. His sharp mind whittles memorable witticisms from splinters of ordinary life.
“I bought an iPod,” he announces onstage in his familiar no-I-swear-you-didn’T-just-wake-me-up drowsy monotone. “It can either hold 5,000 songs or one phone message from my mother.”
Unlike so many younger comedians who sprint onstage and appear to be mainlining adrenaline, Wright continues to work at his typical pace: the speed of sound…asleep. Or so it sounds and looks in clubs, on TV (as the recurring character Warren Mermelman in the old NBC sitcom Mad About You) and in many movies (ranging from the DJ in Reservoir Dogs and Dr. Emil Reingold in Natural Born Killers, both ultraviolent dramas, to a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in Canadian Bacon and an uncredited role as the Guy on the Couch in Half Baked, both goofy comedies).
Wright’S comic roots show in When the Leaves Blow Away (available on DVD from Image Entertainment early next year). Periodically throughout the special, he connects his usual patchwork of random thoughts with stitches of stories. “I didn’t intentionally set out to be this abstract comedian, the ‘One-liner Guy.'” says Wright. “In this show, I tell more stories; I evolve back to the beginning.”
His familiar style, Wright explains, “really was an experiment,” hatched in the comedy incubators of the Northeast, especially in Boston, where, at 23, after graduating from Emerson College with a degree in Mass Communications but no concrete professional goal, Wright finally confronted his childhood dream and conquered his trepidations at the Comedy Connection.
He took the short route to acclaim, and along the path to success, Wright even scored a Grammy nod for his 1985 album, I Have a Pony; four years later he won an Academy Award for best short live-action film for The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, the story of a man (Wright, in the title role) who escapes from the maze of the rat race long enough for weekly sessions with his psychiatrist.
Since there’s no mandatory retirement age in professional comedy, Wright expects to continue touring, performing and stretching his imagination – on a rack – maybe until he, well, unquotes.
For more information, check out www.stevenwright.com.