To truly explore Steven Wright’s comedy, you must first go online. And not because the deadpan comic is a huge fan of the Internet. He doesn’t Facebook or Twitter, and while he has a website, it provides little insight into his raison d’etre. It’s because there are myriad fan websites devoted to quoting Wright’s hilarious bits — and nearly as many that will warn you that half of what you think he said, he didn’t.
Steven Wright shambles out onto the stage of the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial on Saturday, October 16. Over the last two decades, reviewers have struggled to describe Wright and his comedy. Words like “ironic,” “lethargic,” “laid-back,” and “bizarre” crop up. All true, perhaps, but none of these words covers the big picture. None of them captures the intelligence and playfulness of a man who says, “Last night, I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house, and four people died.” And, “My grandfather invented Cliff’s Notes…It all started in 1912…well, to make a long story short…” Or, to quote one of his most famous lines, one that audiences now expect and anticipate, “I bought some batteries, but they weren’t included.”
It’s probably fitting that people wrestle with words when they try to capture Wright’s essence. He has spent a quarter of a century playing with the concept of language. He loves non-sequiturs and wordplay. There’s a hint of Woody Allen in his work and a Groucho Marx line like “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know,” could have come straight out of Wright’s act.
“I love language. I love words,” he says, speaking from his cell phone, which on this day has a three second delay that makes him sound even more like Steven Wright. “Sometimes I write a word, just thinking that I might use it sometime later on — the sound of the word, what it means. My material is like fooling with reality through words.”
Makes sense for a guy who was a communication major at Emerson College in Boston. The native-born Bostonian (or Boston suburbanite, to use words as carefully as he does) says, “I wanted to be a comedian, but I didn’t think it would happen. So I figured I gotta have a reality side to my brain, so I thought I’d study mass communication and thought I’d be a guy on the radio, maybe I could be funny.”
It’s hard to imagine a guy who talks as slowly and deliberately as Wright getting his material in before the station break; fortunately, his career took a different turn. Boston had a burgeoning comedy scene in the late ’70s. Denis Leary, Lenny Clarke, Paula Poundstone, and others led the invasion, and Wright was in the middle of it. As documented in the film “When Comedy Stood Out,” Wright, like many others, got his start at a peculiar little place in Cambridge, Ding Ho, half comedy club, half Chinese restaurant.
“I graduated in 1978, and then went out west for many months,” says Wright. “When I came back in ‘79, I heard of Ding Ho, and that’s when I started doing the clubs. It was great — there were so many places. Around 1981 through ‘84, you could do three shows a night — start at one club, go to another, and finish up late at the first club. I was very lucky to start up when (the scene) was flourishing.”
Wright isn’t sure why the Boston area became such a comic Mecca. He says, “I think there’s a regular guy, blue collar, working guy attitude. The comedians are very real — well, they probably are everywhere. But there’ve been such characters out of the Boston scene.”
What the Ed Sullivan Show was to comedians in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Tonight Show was to ‘70s and ’80s comics — Valhalla. Boston comics were no different. Everyone had their three minutes; material specifically designed for when that clarion call came. And when Peter Lassally, the executive producer for Johnny Carson, was in the audience one night in Boston, everyone hoped they would get the nod. Only one did — the frizzy-haired, sad-eyed master of falling inflection.
On Friday, August 6, 1982, Steven Wright stepped onto the Tonight Show set, introduced by Johnny Carson as “a little different.” He hadn’t played anywhere outside of New England. “The Tonight Show had 400 or 500 people in the audience. It was the biggest audience I had ever played, even if it didn’t go on television.”
Was he nervous? “I was so scared that I got numb, then I got kind of not scared because I was too scared. It was very surreal.”
In comedians’ parlance, he killed. Comics wait their whole lives to get the kind of reaction Wright got from the audience that night. And then, the anointment. Johnny actually asked him to sit down on the couch, something that was usually reserved for a comedian’s third or fourth appearance. It was the ultimate stamp of approval.
Wright remembers, “They said, ‘When you’re done with your set, look at the audience, then look over at Johnny, then look back at the audience, and then go through the curtain and leave.’ So I was done — I looked at the audience, and looked at Johnny. And there were people working the floor waving at me to go towards him. And if you see the tape, it’s like I take a step and I hesitate because I’m not sure, it was confusing. But I had watched the show since I was 14, and I knew that it was a big thing.”
On the tape, Wright sits next to Carson looking like a parrot whose cage has just had the cover removed. He doesn’t seem to know whether to perch on Carson’s finger or nip it. But he got a few more good lines off, and when he walked off that stage, he had a career — and an invitation to come back the next Thursday.
“(The effect) was immediate,” he says. “Within a few days, I had an agent. Peter Lassally guided me and told me which agency to go with, because I didn’t know anything. Then everything happened. I went on Letterman and Saturday Night Live and then HBO. I don’t think that can happen now — where in five minutes everything can change. There’s so much more media now. That stage had more of a giant presence then.”
In 1985, Wright released his first album, “I Have a Pony,” which was nominated for a Grammy. That led to an HBO special that further increased his appeal, especially at colleges. In 1989 he and Dean Parisot produced “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings,” starring Wright and British comedian Rowan Atkinson. The film won an Academy Award for best short film.
Another surreal experience? “Absolutely. We made it to go on HBO, and they decided to put it in theaters first. It was like a dart; we made this dart, and we were throwing it towards the TV board, and then a gust of wind blew it 50 miles off to the right, and it went into the bull’s eye of the film industry.”
Wright has taken occasional film and TV roles since then, mostly playing some form of the persona he is known for. He pops up irregularly on talk shows, particularly the Late Show with Craig Ferguson, where he was recently a guest on Wednesday, October 6.
“We’re getting so comfortable with each other,” he says of Ferguson, the fast-witted Scottish host. “It’s like we’re hanging out in a restaurant or something, but it’s on TV. I think our minds go good together, working off each other. He’s so fast, so smart. I’m really blown away by his brain.”
Wright also speaks admiringly of other famous wordsmiths like Woody Allen and Charles Dickens, and his literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut. “I read all his stuff, some of it several times,” he says. “Reading him would inspire me — he just jazzed my mind up.”
In 2007 Wright released another album, “I Still Have a Pony,” which was also Grammy-nominated. He works when he wants, and still lives in New England, and they still love him. In 2008 he was inducted into the Boston Comedy Hall of Fame. In a Wright-ish twist, he is the only member. “And there’s no building or anything; you can’t go to it,” he says with a slight laugh. “My friend, Barry Crimmins, another Boston comedian, was at the ceremony, and he said it fits me that the place is just a concept.”
Wright says that he has no particular projects for the future, just live performances now and again. He still enjoys going out and experiencing those pause-filled moments when the audience takes a few nano-seconds to get what he just said. “Sometimes some of the jokes are like little mental gymnastics, and there’s a little mental gap while they’re filling the joke in, in their heads. After so many nights of the same reaction, I know it’s going to happen.”
Another unusual reaction also occurs regularly. When Wright picks up the mike after his introductory applause, and says, “Thanks,” the audience always laughs. “It just happened by accident,” he says, “I don’t even think about it anymore. But it’s interesting, just because it’s such a non-energetic opening. Great contrast: here’s an audience, and then here’s a guy with absolutely no enthusiasm.”
Steven Wright, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Memorial Drive, Trenton. Saturday, October 16, 8 p.m. A comedian since the early 1980s, Wright has been in films — “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Mixed Nuts,” and “The Muse;” wrote and directed “One Soldier’; and has been on Comedy Central and HBO. He has been a guest with Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and Craig Ferguson. $19 to $45. 609-955-5566 or www.thewarmemorial.com.