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New York Times – Headwaters for a River of Stand-Up

Arts | On Comedy

Credit: Gary Miller/FilmMagic, via Getty

When Steven Wright started appearing on “The Tonight Show” in the early 1980s, he was such a change of pace that Johnny Carson once introduced him with the tone of a teacher taking a class of jittery kids to their first play. “Just let your mind go at ease here to follow Steven Wright,” he said, gingerly preparing the audience. “He’s unique and you have to listen to what he says.”

Mr. Wright, a frizzy-haired, dead-eyed Boston comic, then emerged to applause, picked up the microphone, paused and without looking at the camera, cracked his first joke: “Thanks,” he said quietly with an offhanded, even indifferent affect. That killed.

No other comic would have gotten that laugh, in part because his low-energy, lethargic delivery was so unexpected. Comedians typically opened their sets with love-me grins and charismatic aggression, but this sleepy equanimity was unusual. No longer. Partly because of the “Tonight” show seal of approval — no single career better demonstrates Carson’s now fabled star-making powers — Mr. Wright soon became the most improbable star comedian, filling theaters with fans roaring at cerebral punch lines as if they were bluesy guitar chords from an arena-rock band.

While Mr. Wright’s star has faded over the years, his legacy has only grown. If you made a family tree of modern stand-up, he would top one of the few major and expanding branches. Nearby would be Mitch Hedberg, another master of low-energy, skewed one- and two-liners, who died in 2005. The children of Mr. Wright pack the comedy scene today. Demetri Martin and Ben Kronberg are direct descendants, but you can also hear Mr. Wright’s dry deadpan in comics as diverse as Todd Barry, Tig Notaro, Flight of the Conchords and Zach Galifianakis. These comedians not only make you laugh, but they also lean forward and listen.

You wouldn’t naturally put Louis C. K. in Mr. Wright’s artistic bloodline, but he has cited him as an influence, cast him before on “Louie” and made him a consulting producer for the new season; after a two-year hiatus, the show returns on Monday. In 1985, when Louis C. K. got started in comedy, Mr. Wright, also from Boston, was at the height of his fame, just releasing his first album, “I Have a Pony,” which laid the foundation for his career.

Mr. Wright still tours and has become a popular talk-show guest. (Craig Ferguson has frequently had him on for long, rambling chats.) But while he did win an Academy Award for “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings,” a short film about a daydreaming writer, and played the D.J. talking on the radio in the famous torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs,” Mr. Wright has only dabbled in film and television. Because he has remained primarily a stand-up comic who plays theaters, rarely appearing in clubs, he’s become a revered but often overlooked figure in comedy.

Over the years, his style has changed only slightly. His follow-up album, “I Still Have a Pony,” released two decades later in 2007, is quite similar to its predecessor, if in a deeper, smokier voice. For Mr. Wright, reinventing himself may be unnecessary because the culture has come around to him. Long before Twitter, he made brevity cool (“Lost a buttonhole” is one of his characteristically quick jokes), and his material trafficked in subjects like punctuation marks or the relationship between space and time before alt-comedy exploded.

In his dense sets, packed with sculpted punch lines, Mr. Wright doesn’t do transitions or crowd work. He just fires off lean joke after joke. His concision nods to borscht belt comics, but his material has more in common with great musical-theater songwriters who can create an entire world in a punchy lyric. His jokes are built on conceptual shifts that hint at back stories that you have to build for yourself. For instance, “I used to be a narrator for bad mimes” is a one-liner that is silly. But the more you consider it and imagine what led to this scenario, the funnier it gets. It’s a joke with an aftertaste.

Though he likes to take bizarre scenarios to extreme conclusions or tweak a piece of rhetoric (“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time”), Mr. Wright’s quintessential joke leans on almost childlike confusions, treating figurative language as literal (“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”) or conflating two concepts and then merging them with conviction (“I was in a speed-reading accident,” he says, pausing. “I hit a bookmark.”).

These jokes are tightly crafted gems, and while he pumps them out with the efficiency of a comedy machine, there is more finesse to his delivery than at first appears. When I saw him live in the late 1980s, what surprised me was how much he paced the stage, occasionally grabbed his head or rubbing his eyes, as if sleepy or in pain. His wild, frazzled hair contributed to a mad-genius persona that would have evoked Bob Dylan if not for the Boston accent.

By speaking flatly, often in droning style, subtle variations in pacing and emphasis stand out. Mr. Wright is ingenious at ending a joke. Most comics forcefully hit their punch lines; Mr. Wright ends jokes by slowing down and elongating the last word, stretching it out and working the assonance until he sounds otherworldly, even poetic.

His jokes are disconnected in terms of content, leaping from one subject to another, but in their rhythm, they complement one another, building a pleasing momentum and mood that are easy to plug into.

In that regard, his stand-up shares some qualities with “Louie,” an innovative show that pieces together disparate parts while always seeming integrated in its own distinctive world. Mr. Wright and Louis C. K. are artists who understand that comedy is not about continuity or consistency or even making sense. It’s more like the opposite.

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