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The Comedy King of Post-modern Weirdness
Independent on Sunday - London, April 2, 2000

Suburban 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.

This 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.

The vanished 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.

Steven 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.

It goes 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…"

It would 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.

So instead, 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."

No? Then how about this one: "Can you go as fast as you want if you don't use the roads?"

He is 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'."

They work 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 Rowan Atkinson.

For a 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.

"Twice 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."

The 45-year-old 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."

He interrupts 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?"

There 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…"

When he's finished laughing, Steven Wright wanders off by himself, to be alone. Funny guy.