This Guy Still Finds the World Baffling. Blame the World.
by Bruce Weber
New York Times, June 18, 2002.
Life doesn't seem to be getting any less baffling for the monotonal comedian
Steven Wright. His intellect remains dedicated to misreadings of the world's
ordinary signals to its citizens, and in his comic persona he seems
incapable of sharing commonly accepted tools of communication. Where his
mind lives - in the vacant spaces that language creates - confusion,
ambiguity, absurdity, irony, and paradox grow like mold.
"What's another word for thesaurus?" he asked, apropos of nothing, during
his appearance Thursday night at the Beacon Theatre. And at another moment,
as if it had just occurred to him: "Imagine how weird phones would look if
your mouth was nowhere near your ears."
Mr. Wright, who said he was 46, has been mining for such random nuggets of
nonwisdom for two decades now, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about
his comedy is the seeming inexhaustability of the lode. Dressed oblivious to
the season, with jeans tucked into black boots and a car coat over a work
shirt (he also wore what looked like a lacquered straw fedora), he wandered
back and forth across the stage, tripping regularly over comic bafflements:
"Sponges grow in the ocean. That kills me. I wonder how much deeper the
ocean would be if that didn't happen."
"I was wondering how my life would have been different if I'd been born one
day earlier, and I thought maybe it wouldn't be different at all, except
that I'd have asked that question yesterday."
During his 90-minute show, a presentation of the 10th Toyota Comedy
Festival, Mr. Wright did offer a handful of set pieces. One was a loopy
fantasy involving a pet parrot that talked in its sleep; another, a
hilarious, stream-of-consciousness riff on the subject of clothes-dryer
lint. In the same oddball vein he also sang a couple of songs, accompanying
himself listlessly on the guitar: "She stands standing up/She sleeps lying
down/She's a red-headed girl with long black hair."
But the show consisted mostly of brief anecdotes and even briefer asides. He
reminisced about his family ("One of my grandfathers died when he was a
little boy"), talked about people he knew ("A friend of mine is a pilot, and
we were going somewhere in his car, and for no reason at all he waited 45
minutes before pulling out of his driveway") and reported on his own odd
behavior, which by his own account frequently makes other people cry with
frustration. One was a woman at a tourist information bureau, whom he
greeted by saying, "So tell me about some people who were here last year."
Compulsively honest, he even recounted some pillow talk with his girlfriend.
She asked him, he said, "If you could know how and when you were going to
die, would you want to know?"
"Forget it, then."
It is a signifying element Mr. Wright's stage persona that his remarks seem
to arise unbidden, conjured up in an unpredictable sequence that makes it
seem as if he is constantly being startled by preposterous revalations. If
his unshakably deadpan delivery makes him sound depressively stunned, it's
no wonder. After all, with a mind like his, how will he ever fit in with the
rest of us?
"I'm a peripheral visionary," he said, not inaccurately. "I can see into the
future - just way off to the side."