"I'm living on a one-way dead-end street. I don't know how I ever got there."
"I've been getting into astronomy, so I installed a skylight. The people who live above me are furious."
"Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."
You know the guy. Big balding forehead surrounded by a halo of frizzy hair (usually topped with hat), facial expression stuck halfway between peeved and astonished, a philosophical cross between Henny Youngman and Zippy the Pinhead, one non sequitur after another coming out in a throaty voice. He's got a million of 'em, none of which seem connected to any of the others.
Steven Wright, 56, grew up in the Boston area, cut his teeth in that city's comedy clubs starting in 1979, and still makes his home in Massachusetts. Wright is respected by his peers as a comic's comic, someone who not only thinks outside of the box but has apparently never owned a box.
Reached recently by phone, Wright says his deadpan stage persona was less premeditated than some might think. "I just got up there and did it," he said. "I did not think at all on how I was saying what I was saying, I was just focused completely on the writing. But I was also really nervous, introverted to be in front of an audience. So I didn't laugh, because I was concentrating on the next joke. It was lucky that the abstract material just meshed well with my voice and how I am, and my demeanor and everything, but that was never even thought about."
When I suggest to Wright that he was doing the equivalent of Twitter posts and Facebook status updates onstage nearly three decades before those websites existed, Wright just laughs and says, "Coincidence. But I did go on Twitter about a year and a half ago."
However, instead of tweeting the concise one-liners he's known for, Wright reposted a long story he wrote years ago for Rolling Stone magazine, a few lines at a time, over several weeks. "And I got feedback like, ‘What the hell is he doing? Doesn't he know what this is for?' Some people were just disturbed by it. But other people thought it was funny."
It doesn't take Wright long to come up with jokes. "It comes all at once," he said. "There's no work on it later and change it later. It's like there's no joke, no joke, no joke, and bang, there's a joke, the whole joke. Then the wording comes right after, in half a minute or 20 seconds. I don't know how I got like this, but I just convey the thought with the fewest amount of words as possible. To me it can only be said one way, really, so there's really not a lot involved in figuring out the words."
Like the late George Carlin, Wright gets credit for a lot of material posted on the Web that he's not responsible for. "The Internet is like the Wild West," he said. "I never think about it unless I'm being asked about it. Some (jokes) I wish I did think of. I've never taken one and put it in my act, but some of them are really excellent. Then some of them are just all right, and there's a lot of them that are really horrible and stupid. And that makes me cringe, that the people think that I even wrote that."
Another misconception Wright would like to correct is that his material was drug-inspired, which, admittedly, his persona might lead some to believe. Do people really think he walks around high all the time? "They did for years," he said. "I don't get that anymore, but when I first came onto the scene, like on television, people would say that. The only thing that bothered me about it was they thought I needed to be stoned to make the stuff up. Well, if I was stoned — which I was sometimes — whatever I thought of was so (expletive) insanely weird that it would never work on stage!" And a booming laugh ensues.