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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Grove
by Phillip Zonkel
Press-Telegram, May 9, 2002. Anaheim, California.

Steven Wright was weaned on the comedy albums of Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, and Woody Allen. At 14, the teen-ager dreamed about the day he might make an audience laugh; however, Wright didn't tell anyone the punch line.

"It was my secret," says the 46-year-old comedian. "I was afraid if I told anyone, I would jinx it."

Nothing funny about that. After graduating from Emerson College with a mass communications degree, the Boston native still harbored the stand-up dream.

"I finally had to confront it," Wright says. "I didn't want to be selling insurance at 40, wondering what would it have been like to do stand-up."

Within a few yeas, he wouldn't have to wonder anymore. During an open mike night at Boston's Comedy Connection, Wright told his first joke: "I was in a bookstore, and I started talking to a French-looking girl. She was a bilingual illiterate. She couldn't read in two languages."

"I was scared out of my mind and just said this stuff that I had memorized in my apartment. I didn't even wait for them to laugh," Wright says.

But when they did, "What an amaaaazing rush! I was finally doing this thing that I had been thinking about since I was 14, and someday, I thought, maybe 'The Tonight Show.'"

On Aug. 6, 1982, that dream came true. Wright made his first of many appearances on the late-night, king-of-comedy show. "To go on there was incredible," says Wright, who showed the nation his now-trademark comedy, part catatonic delivery and part comatose expression. "Then, to have (Johnny) really like what I do, to the point that I was on there many times, it was a validation; it was a stamp of approval."

Carson wasn't the only one to appreciate Wright's wit. With that appearance, the funnyman went from performing in 60-seat Boston area clubs to joke joints around the country.

Tonight, Wright brings his skewered observations on life to The Grove of Anaheim.

His 1986 debut album, "I Have a Pony," earned him a Grammy nomination. Two years later, Wright starred in his first HBO special, "On Location: Steven Wright."

In June 1999, GQ magazine published a Comedy Issue, which ranked the 75 funniest jokes of all time. Wright had five on the list.

"He has a very direct and well-honed sense of timing," says the managing editor Marting Beiser, who was in charge of compiling the list. "Part of his humor is its terseness. He's a one-liner, and when they work, they're very funny."

And a little off the beaten path. "He has a very strange mind," Beiser says. "He probably saves his best lines for his shrink."

Take his shrink, please. Psychiatrists also have been fodder in Wright's stand-up routine and on the silver screen. In 1988, Wright starred with "Roseanne's" Laurie Metcalf and British comedian Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson in "The Apointments of Dennis Jennings." The 30-minute comedy film, which Wright co-wrote with Michael Armstrong, follows a waiter who shoots his psychiatrists with a hunting rifle.

The flick won the Oscar for best short film. "I remember going up there and saying, 'This is for the short film category, and we're really glad now that we cut out the other 60 minutes.'

"It was a pretty amazing experience. I never fantasized or daydreamed about (winning an Oscar)," says Wright, who keeps the golden boy on his bookshelf.

"It's great having one of those. It's very strange to see it. You usually only see it on television on that show on that night. It's surrealistc."

In 1999, Wright returned to the big screen as actor-writer-director in "One Soldier."

Wright's script took aim at pontificators - a civil war soldier, standing in front of a firing squad, contemplates the meaning of life, why people are alive and what it means to be alive.

"Then, right before he's executed, he realizes he's wasted his life thinking about this stuff and has no answers and should've gone out and had more fun," Wright says. "His last sentence is, 'Now I get it.'"

And Wright gets a thrill out of calling the action behind the camera. "I loved the millions of decisions involved. I loved deciding who's in it, where it's going to be shot, doing the writing, writing some of the music," he says. "You do that on stage but in a different way. The similarity is what information is going to be in the audiences mind?

"I want to do more of it, but I don't want to stop doing stand-up," Wright says. "I never went into stand-up to getr a big movie career going. I still love performing live."