The Speed of Wright
Comic Steven Wright Teaches Our Reporter To Go With The Slow
Time Out New York June 17, 1999
By Greg Emmanuel
In what are the two fastest-moving decades in the history of human civilization, comedian Steven Wright has made his career by walking, molasseslike, back and forth across a stage and telling jokes at the speed it takes paint to dry. Watching the bushy-haired, droopy-eyed comic perform is like being in the waiting room at the dentist's office: Time stands still. "I spilled spot remover on my dog," he'll say in his nasal Boston accent, stretching each syllable of each word to its absolute breaking point. And then, after what feels like weeks, when the setup has all but disappeared from thought, he delivers the punch line: "Now he's gone."
So when TONY asked the 43-yeard old comedian to tell us about life in the slow lane, we were surprised he chose to meet us in the epicenter of New York hyperbustle - Times Square.
"Too much..." Wright announced to no one in particular when crossing Seventh Avenue at 42nd Street. "Sensory overload."
His hands were pressed firmly into the pockets of his jean jacket; his head, topped by a Red Sox hat, moved slowly from side to side like one of those animatronic elves you see in malls at Christmastime.
"I mean," he paused, and then paused again, "look at all these people."
Eventually, we retreated to the relative peace of the Times Square Brewery. It was now after the lunch rush - a time when a fastphobic comedian and on-deadline magazine reporter could settle in and possibly find some common ground. "I ... I have an overall theory," began Wright after leisurely sipping his Coke. "That everything is going too fast. And I try ... lots of times ... to ... slow things down."
My foot began tapping up and down uncontrollably under the table.
"It's just ... it's like everyone is caught up in a raging river, in rapids. It's just ... you know ... the call-waiting and the faxes. And I try to, like ... I try to," he continued, "get out of the river sometimes. Try to grab onto a branch on the shore ... but I can only do it sometimes. I think it's too fast."
I kept waiting for Wright to drop the act and start talking normally. Then it dawned on me that this is the real him, that, in fact, he takes offense when people assume otherwise. "How could they think I would make up a new way of talking?" he wondered. "It's amazing. They thought not only did I make up the jokes ... but I made up another personality, too?"
Wright's deliberateness extends beyond his walking and talking to every facet of modern life. He has no cell phone, for example, and no call-waiting. "I don't have a computer," he said. "I write on drawing paper ... I don't even have lines on the paper."
And he's got plenty more to say on the subject; it just takes a while for it to come out. "The thing is ... all this stuff is supposed to be better, but I think it makes things worse," he said sluggishly, eyes downcast. "It causes more commotion ... the speed causes more commotion. It's removing the moment ... it's like shredding, like a paper shredder that shreds ... you're shredding ... the present is being shredded. The technology ... you might come home and there's five messages. So you might have to call five people back ... there's an hour that's gone."
And there's about five minutes vamoosed. Of course, the truth is, Wright is on to something. Doctors, psychiatrists - our parents - they're all warning us that we're going to speed ourselves into oblivion. For Wright, interaction with our hyperactive culture is more than comedy material; it's a battle for survival. A resident of L.A., a city not too far beyond New York in the commotion department, he's constantly driving up the coast to Zurma Beach to spend hours sitting alone, just reading and writing. The humor is his one way of fighting back. In assaulting us with his slowness, Wright forces us to slow down, just to keep from dying of anticipation.
"Honestly," he told me, "I feel like I'm from Vermont in the 1870s ... and for some reason they let me drive." Wright deliberately glanced out the window at the people below darting to and fro on Seventh Avenue. "I'm not insulting people who live in cities ... it's just that ... things are moving too fast. For what? For what? It's not like they go so fast so everyone has four hours of peacefulness. Like they can get more done in a half hour. So now they can do more of this ... they're not leaving a gap. It's just more fastness. It goes all the way until you sleep. If you don't watch out ... you can be ... the next thing you know they're burying you - and you just ran around all the time.