Steve Wright's G-rated humor is comic relief
Claremont, Calif. — HE'S definitely ``hot.'' He's the latest version of ``hip.'' And, surprise, he's G-rated. He's the fastest-rising young comic in America, with a new style, a unique delivery, and material that will make you think rather than smirk. His sold-out audiences from here to England include everyone from young teens to retirees. And he makes them laugh without four-letter words; references to sex, violence, drugs, politics, race, class; or personal insult.
What's left, says 29-year-old Boston native Steven Wright, is the far richer comic mother lode of ``everyday life.'' In Hamlet-like soliloquy, he spins out comments and observations on the contemporary scene filtered through a half-fantasy comic lens he calls ``bizarre/surreal.''
Some critics say the technique -- anomalous distortions of time, space, and reality -- is like, say, cubism or abstraction in painting. It makes audiences consider a whole new way of seeing. Standing-room-only crowds at the beginning of his recently begun 25-city United States tour just call it funny.
``I went into a diner and the menu said `Breakfast, anytime.' So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance,'' says Wright with the otherworldly monotone and deadpan expression that have become his trademark.
``I once lived in a house that ran on static electricity. Whenever I wanted to cook something, I had to take off my sweater real fast. When I wanted to use the blender, I had to rub a balloon on my head.''
His presentation is slow-paced, low-key, and cerebral (he has been called the thinking man's comic, but disdains the title). He uses giant pauses and unflinching stares to hilarious advantage, punctuating one-liner after one-liner with occasional use of props: guitar, water glass, microphone stand.
``I bought a microwave fireplace. Now I can read in front of the fire for an entire evening in eight minutes.'' Topics seem unconnected by anything save his offbeat point of view and Darth Vader delivery.
``Steven Wright represents a whole new style of comedy,'' says Barbara Contari, president of the New York-based Association of Comedy Artists, an organization dedicated to comedy as a serious art form. (In April the organization, which annually honors top comedians in the country, will present Mr. Wright with its ``Charlie'' Award, honoring the best comedian on the Eastern Seaboard.)
``In the old style, comedians like Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, Jackie Vernon, and others often put themselves and society around them down,'' Ms. Contari says. ``Unlike even those in his own generation like Eddie Murphy, Steven uses a reverse type of humor, turning the truth inside out, helping us to see other angles, other ways of feeling. He makes you think.''
Like the growing number of followers who are repeating Wrightisms to their friends and families, Contari can rattle off a number of her favorites as if they are being logged into a Smithsonian of Americana. ``He's the only person I know who sits around and tries to round off infinity,'' she says.
Wright has also gone fishing with Salvador Dali (``He used a dotted line and caught every other fish,'' says Wright), and frequently visits his favorite children's museum (``All the pictures are up on refrigerators'').
Some may find occasional references obscure, like his Escher staircase (``Walking down it takes forever,'' he says); or the philosophical underpinnings behind a comment such as: ``I was walking in the forest when a tree fell down right in front of me and I didn't hear it.''
But Wright made Johnny Carson producer Peter Lassally ``think'' and laugh so hard in 1982 that Mr. Lassally signed him for the show three weeks later. And Wright generated so much interest on his first appearance that Mr. Carson asked him back a week later. Such a fast recall for a young comedian has not occurred in 10 years, producers say.
Wright's career has since skyrocketed, with numerous appearances on David Letterman, ``Saturday Night Live,'' his own HBO special, and a bit part in the recent film ``Desperately Seeking Susan.'' Besides his current exhaustive national tour, he is also writing a film for Orion Pictures and will appear on British TV in March.
An interview with Wright backstage after a performance here revealed his onstage and offstage personas to be remarkably similar. But a smile he never deigns to break in his onstage demeanor betrays his great delight in pleasing audiences.
``I feel lucky that I can have people laugh solidly for a whole hour by just saying what I think and getting paid for it,'' he says.
Simply dressed in corduroy jeans and plain blue shirt, he seems gentle, pensive. He explains that his older brother, Bob, who had control of the family TV, always watched the Johnny Carson show, so Steven had no choice.
``I watched it night after night until I got hooked on stand-up comedians,'' says Wright. ``I didn't know much about my schoolwork, but I could tell you where [comedian] Shecky Green was playing.''
He played Woody Allen records over and over, listening for the comic rhythms and formulas for getting a laugh.
``I was just listening because he was funny, but then I discovered there were certain rhythms he set up, beginning, middle, and end, and he always left other parts the audience had to fill in with their minds,'' says Wright. Eventually stand-up comedy became a fantasy for him; ``like other kids wanted to become firemen or astronauts, I wanted to make people laugh.''
His chance came when a Boston club called the Comedy Connection opened up. ``I wanted to do it and fail or succeed, but not go on wondering,'' he says. The first night's ratio of successful jokes to failures was about 30 to 70, but he got such a kick out of the former that he continued. ``The ratios got better every time I went back,'' he says. When Lassally from the Carson show ``discovered'' him, he was performing at Ding Ho's Comedy Club and Chinese Restaurant, in Cambridge, Mass.
With three years of success behind him and ever-growing fame beckoning, Wright says the only thing in his act he wants to change is to keep developing more and better material.
``I don't go off and sit down and try to write material, because then it's contrived and forced. I just live my life and I see things in a word or a situation or a concept, and it will create a joke for me.''
A lover of twists in language and perspective, Wright thinks laughs should come from ``pure ideas'' rather than ``gestures or situations that have nothing to do with the original concept. Sex will always get a big laugh; so will drugs, swearing, and television. It's too easy. So I don't do it.''
The majority of his jokes -- which he says now number about 300, given extemporaneously in 50- to 70-minute monologues -- hold up so well in writing that Wright has been criticized for lack of panache on stage. He is also taken to task for monotony of delivery and repetition of material. Mostly, however, audiences are impressed with his stamina and recall in finely worded quips that apparently follow no pattern.
He has written down the words ``electrolysis'' and ``cement mixer'' as grist for later jokes. ``A few weeks later, my subconscious will come up with a joke for those,'' he says. He also says he gets help from five friends in Massachusetts who ``are as funny as me. We sit around barnstorming, and that keeps the ideas fertile.''
What he most dislikes about his fame is the constant offers to do commercials and guest appearances on sitcoms.
``I'd rather just be known for what I create rather than that stuff,'' he says. ``Besides,'' he says, ``you can't have everything. Where would you put it?'' A Steve Wright sampler: ``I have a large seashell collection which I keep scattered on all the beaches of the world. Perhaps you've seen my collection... I got some powdered water. But I don't know what to add... Yesterday, I saw a subliminal advertising executive, just for a second... I finally got contacts, but I only use them when I read, so I got flip-ups... It's a small world, but I wouldn't to paint it... I just had a speed-reading accident. I hit a bookmark... I used to be a proofreader for a skywriting company... I used to be a narrator for bad mimes... I have a map of the United States. It's actual size. It says one mile equals one mile. People ask me where I live and I say E-5. Last summer I folded it... I put some instant coffee into the microwave and almost went back in time...''