Comedy King of Post-modern Weirdness
on Sunday - London, April 2, 2000
peculiarities, non sequitors, just everyday life: it all feeds
funny guy Steven Wright and his offbeat one-liners. Cole Moreton
met him on the eve of a rare UK date.
is weird. I'm walking down the deserted main street of Patchogue,
a seaside town in Long Island, at dusk. Wary old ladies with
sharp cheekbones hide behind the closed doors of neat little
boutiques. Nobody else is out in the rain, but an orchestral
version of "I Can't Stop Loving You" is blaring from invisible
speakers, loud and saccharine. The sound is inescapable, all
the way down the street. I feel like I'm in a suburban horror
movie by Wes Craven. Or a joke by Steven Wright.
people of Patchogue are found in the lobby of their old-fashioned
theatre, handing tickets to more silver-haired ladies. There's
a man in a tweed cap, another in a cowboy hat, and a boy wearing
a skullcap. A well-fed woman in black is wearing knee-length
white leather boots with tassels. These are ordinary folk
with ordinary bad taste - not cool or ironic, just happy,
fat, small-town Americans. They have come to laugh at themselves
with one of the world's most peculiar comedians, an Oscar
winner who appeared in Reservoir Dogs and whose act consists
almost entirely of deadpan one-liners that were being called
post-modern when Harry Hill was still cutting people open
at medical school.
Wright walks on stage, wearing a hangdog expression and a
fluffy beard to go with his Art Garfunkle dome hairstyle,
and the crowd starts to whoop and holler. Wthout looking at
them he seems to communicate pity. And without even a greeting
he starts saying one-liners. Some are brilliantly funny, some
peculiar, but there's always another along in a moment.
on for two hours, this scattergun examination of the absurdities
of American culture. There are fractured little half-songs,
and ragged shaggy dog stories about parrots and playing softball
in a planetarium, that tend to end with the same line: "And
then the guy started crying…"
be nice to quote one or two jokes but I've been banned from
doing so, in case any of you who go see him in London tomorrow
night read this and have your enjoyment spoiled. Wright is
possessive about his material, understandably, because people
have a habit of posting his best lines on the internet or,
worse, displaying their own feeble gags with his name attached.
his management has kindly sent an e-mail containing six "fresh"
gags that we can print. They're not nearly as good as the
live stuff (which must be why they didn't make it into the
show), but here goes: "I'm writing a book, it's going to be
just a book full of titles for other books. But I don't know
what I'm gonna call it."
how about this one: "Can you go as fast as you want if you
don't use the roads?"
funny though. Don't just take my word for it: Entertainment
Weekly magazine in the US named him as one of the 50 funniest
people alive. When last year GQ printed it's 75 greatest jokes
of all time, he was up there at number five with this: "If
I ever had twins, I'd use one for parts." He had four other
enteries, including this at 16: "I've been getting into astronomy,
so I installed a skylight. The people who live above me are
furious." And this at 25: "I went to a store and the sign
said, Open Twenty-four Hours. When I got there, there was
a guy outside locking it up. I said, 'What are you doing,
the sign says, Open Twenty-four Hours?' And he said, 'Not
in a row'."
better live than in print, which was why his debut album I
Have a Pony was nominated for a Grammy in 1986. His comedy
debut had been at an open-mike club in his home state of Massachusettes
four years earlier. The big break came indecently soon after
that with an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,
the Godfather of US television, who kept inviting Wright back.
His own specials followed, as did the hugely popular sitcom
Mad About You, and in 1989 Wright won an Academy Award for
Best Short Film, with The Appointments of Dennis Jennings.
It was about a man who kills his psychiatrist, and co-starred
while, Steven Wright became so famous in Britain that people
forgot to confuse him with the radio DJ. He acted in Desperately
Seeking Susan, Natural Born Killers, and his disembodied voice
spoke in Reservoir Dogs as a cop's ear was cut off. He even
played himself in The Simpsons. But Wright has not appeared
live here since 1995.
a year I was trying to go back, but they said it was hard
to get a theatre in the West End." He says when we meet in
New York two days after the show. "I don't know if that's
true. I love going there."
looks tired, and speaks in almost the same semi-comatose drawl
as on stage. Before each performance he insists on being alone
for hours. "I have a very limited amount of, I don't know…energy.
Ha. How long was that pause? Twelve seconds? It wasn't even
for comedy, it was for real. Talking to people drains me.
It's like a glass of water and I want the audience to get
the whole glass."
questions to ask about English phrases that are unfamiliar,
and seems aware of everything that's going on around him,
from a bell ringing to a horse trotting past the window. He
didn't see much of Patchogue but is fascinated to hear about
the inescapable music. "The world is just full of weird shit
going by. I'm reacting to the bombardment of insane information
that's coming at you as soon as your eyes open up in the morning."
This connoisseur of the absurd is served a choice morsel when
the black-clad waitress comes over to ask: "Are you waiting
for a chef?"
is a pause, and then the laconic chuckle in Steven Wright
grows until he is almost crying with laughter. We both are.
"No one ever asked me that question before," he tells her.
"I didn't really know it, but yes! I guess I am. I'd like
roast beef. I don't know what he's having. I'd also like an
architect, and a guy who does ice furniture…"
finished laughing, Steven Wright wanders off by himself, to
be alone. Funny guy.