Comedian Fran Solomita said it best during his set last Monday night: “How perfect it is that Steven Wright is the first inductee into a Hall of Fame that doesn’t physically exist.” In fact, Wright was the unanimous choice to be honored at the inaugural Boston Comedy Hall of Fame ceremony, held – perfectly enough – neither in Boston nor at a Hall of Fame. But, the Hall will be built someday soon, and there is certainly no shortage of monuments to the enduring brilliance of Wright’s art and influence, it’s just that a lot of those monuments are walking, breathing, joke-telling things we call “comedians.”
Born just outside Boston and educated in the city at Emerson College (alma mater of Denis Leary and Jay Leno, among others), Wright was a frequent performer at the famous-in-its-time Ding Ho. “Steven is the kind of guy that could only have come out of Boston,” Solomita said later. “He’s a dichotomy of a few things. He’s got that working class kind of accent, and looks very Boston, talks very Boston, but his intellect is also Boston and very interesting.”
From 1979 until 1984, the Ding Ho was the city’s wildest full-time comedy club, located where all great art is made: inside a Chinese restaurant. Run by comedian/satirist Barry Crimmins, regulars like Lenny Clarke, Jimmy Tingle, Don Gavin, Mike Donovan, Mike McDonald, Bob Lazarus, and Steve Sweeney called it home – and they were all on hand on that night to pay tribute to Wright. (There were others in the Ding Ho days, too: Paula Poundstone, Denis Leary, Kevin Meaney, Dana Gould, Brian Kiley, Bobcat Goldthwait, D.J. Hazard…it goes on.) A large part of the Ding Ho’s legend is owed to Wright himself.
As (young Ding Ho regular) Solomita documented on the DVD When Stand Up Stood Out, his warts-and-all look at the era, Wright was the first breakout star. On a trip to Boston in 1982, Tonight Show producer Peter Lassally caught Wright in action, and days later, Wright’s one-of-a-kind act had Johnny Carson doubled-over with laughter on national television. And, seemingly ever since, “Boston comedy” has meant something aside from nostalgia for days of cocaine and tequila. (Not that there wasn’t that too – onstage, Solomita noted how difficult it was for comics to get health coverage because many insurance companies “consider being a Boston comic during the 1980s a ‘pre-existing condition.’”)
The Ding long gone, the show was held at the far more upscale Showcase Live, a sleek new entertainment/nightlife/lots-and-lots-of-eating-and-boozing establishment grafted into the shadow of Gillette Stadium. Tony V brought up nearly a dozen comics who performed short sets which – while far from edgy – were filled with many of the same kinds of mainstream crowd-pleasers they’ve been doing for decades. Lenny Clarke was his usual self – brash, funny, and loud. Ken Rogerson talked about drinking, Mike Donovan was a crowd favorite with his sports jokes (hard to go wrong with those literally fifty yards from the Patriots’ home turf), and Steve Sweeney did a well-received impression of the mumbling mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino. Pretty much everyone talked about the Iraqi journalist with the bad aim that tossed his shoes at George W. Bush, though – as the host – Tony V took particular glee in being the first to do it, wondering how good the Secret Service could be if the journalist managed to throw both of his shoes before being tackled.
Solomita drew out the irony in having a comedy hall of fame with something close to perfection when he compared the accomplishments of Steven Wright with people in other Halls of Fame. “To get into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, pitcher Greg Maddux won over 320 games and 4 consecutive Cy Young Awards, so he’ll be inducted. And Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs – he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame. On the other hand, to be inducted into the Boston Comedy Hall of Fame, Steven Wright went on national television and announced he had a dog with two vaginas who he named ‘Snatches.’ So they all have different critera.”
Barry Crimmins, who lives in upstate New York these days, said he never really feels comfortable until he crosses the state line, where the signs read, “Welcome to Massachusetts. Please drive…like a fucking asshole.” Bob Lazarus, whose performances have been rare in the last few years as he undergoes cancer treatment, had a strong set that riffed on some of the side effects of the treatment. It’s not unimportant to note the degree to which both Lazarus and Crimmins have been assisted by benefit shows that featured their old Ding Ho chums (including Wright).
The night could have felt a little cold and corporate – just an excuse to sell tickets on a Monday night – had it not been for the obvious affection and warmth the comics expressed towards each other. Proceeds from the show will be used to set up a fund, spearheaded by Boston City Councilor John Tobin, to help needy comics, who often live paycheck-to-paycheck and without health insurance. “There have been cases where guys can’t perform, and if you can’t perform, you don’t get paid,” Tobin explained after the show. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
Tobin virtually grew up in the Boston stand-up scene, working the door and sometimes introducing comics six nights a week at some of the most famous clubs during the city’s comedy boom. He says the things he learned about public speaking by dealing with the city’s notoriously hostile crowds made the transition to public office easy. Tobin hopes the Hall of Fame will continue to hold smaller events in between yearly inductions, and he promised onstage at the end of the show that all of the night’s performers would someday be inducted.
After a tribute video that included Leno, Conan O’Brien and a hilariously faux-humble Steve Martin (who thanked the crowd for the standing ovation he imagined it was giving him), Wright took to the microphone for a wonderful moment of anti-climax.
The crowd seemed ready for a set, but Wright looked overwhelmed by the night and the announcement that the Mayor Menino had declared that Monday to be “Steven Wright Day.” “I think he was touched,” Tobin said later. Wright gave a moving, modest speech, opening by acknowledging the large debt he owed to luck. He thanked his managers, the club owners who booked him in the early days and mentioned every comedian in the room by name, starting with Mike McDonald.
“When I went to my first open mic night in July of ’79, I did three minutes of material and they laughed at about half of it. It was the first time I ever did material. I came off stage, and I was very disappointed, because I was naïve thinking they would laugh at all of it. I was sad, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ And, Mike took me aside and he said, ‘Come back the next week and take out the stuff that didn’t work and write some new stuff and put it in.’”
Wright also offered a warm tribute to the man whose show made him a national celebrity. “I’ve watched The Tonight Show since I was 14. Johnny Carson changed my life twice. When I was first watching it, I decided I wanted to be one of those guys that he had on there, because I loved watching him and watching the comedians he had on there. Every night, I was watching and seeing Pryor, Robert Klein, David Brenner, and Carlin, and my dream was to be maybe one of those guys. It was a real fantasy to do that. Then, Peter Lassally saw me, and he put on The Tonight Show, and Johnny Carson changed my life again by having me on and having me come back. I’ll be grateful to Johnny Carson and Peter Lassally for the rest of my life.”
The show ended with all of the comics onstage together, but there was no big group bow, that’d be too pretentious for this bunch. Since the Ding Ho closed and the comedy boom ended, Boston’s comedy scene has gone through expansions and contractions. It’s produced Louis CK, David Cross, and Eugene Mirman, among others. Now, the city is a vibrant mix of daring acts and upstarts, hardworking pros and the old guard.
You wouldn’t know it, of course, from last Monday’s show, and that’s the way they wanted it. It was back to the beginning, and for one night, next to a football stadium miles and miles from Boston, the Ding Ho seemed to live again.