Signs of life

Deadpan comedian Steven Wright isn't just laughing on the inside

By JULIA ANN WEEKES
NH Weekend Editor
October 04. 2017 12:45PM
Steven Wright's Twitter bio is succinct: “I was born. When I was 23 I started telling jokes. Then I started going on television and doing films. That's still what I am doing. The end.” (Jorge Rios)
If you go...
WHO: Steven Wright

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 So. Main St., Concord

TICKETS: $39.50-$49.50

INFO: 225-1111; ccanh.com

Age is a subjective thing for comedian Steven Wright. Right now, he’s admitting that he has the attention span of a junior high kid.

“Don’t you think we’re all different ages (in our minds)?,” he says, that dazed-sounding monotone ambling into reflection. “ I’m 61 ... yes, if counted from when I was born to where I am now, I’m 61, but the guy running the show in my life and in my head varies from probably 10 to 18 to 29, ... and then sometimes, 61 — but most of the time, it’s not 61. The number is almost a digital disguise of what you’re really like.”

To add to the confusion, there’s a polite greeting that’s been bumming him out lately.

“For 10 years, I’ve been getting more and more ‘sirs,’ — ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘Right here, sir.’ And in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Sir? I’m 12, and I’m on my paper route. And it’s never gonna end, ’cuz I know people in their 80s, and they tell me this: Their number doesn’t match up.”

It’s that kind of deceptively rambling rationale — is it profound, absurd or a bit of both? — that has served him well in his multi-decade career from standup stages to TV and film.

But when Wright starts talking about deadpan comedy, it’s not his trademark mumble and sleepy pauses that come as a surprise.

It’s his laugh. It isn’t his usual understated, expressionless one-liner. Yes, it still takes its time, but it’s unexpectedly unrestrained — a hearty string of “HA-ha’s” that stops the conversation and takes on a life of its own for a couple of seconds. It’s like a flat-lining hospital monitor suddenly shooting up into those squiggly spikes of life, only way more funny.

Wright, who comes to the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord for an 8 p.m. standup show Saturday, is a master of surreal comedy. His lethargic manner of speech is a perfect vehicle for mediations that drift back and forth from the simplistic to the philosophical.

But it takes a quick mind to deliver those seemingly stream-of-conscious musings.

“See, I’m known for talking slow — ‘he’s a monotone, slow guy,’ — but when you see the show, really things are going past you ... the trucks are going by you like passing lines on the highway,” Wright says. “Like when you look down and (the dotted white lines are zipping past) like chuh-chuh-chuh.”

It explains why it’s typical to be listening to Wright but still processing what he said two jokes ago. Behind that casual, meandering pace, he’s mind-numbingly quick.

“People who go the show tell me, ‘I can’t even remember two jokes,’ ‘cuz it goes by so fast,” Wright said, slowly. “There’s so much information that it almost sort of cancels itself out.”

Which brings up a question about whether Wright’s brain, beneath that familiar frizzy hair, is always on hyperdrive.

“God, no, can you imagine? You know when they show a film speed up? Imagine if someone’s mind was going like that. I would be in an insane asylum long ago — in elementary school. I’d be strapped down,” he says, with a gravelly chuckle.

“What happens is ... occasionally these thoughts come in; I see a joke once in a while, and I write them down. But when I’m doing a show, I’m saying these things one right after the other. (But) they certainly weren’t thought that fast.”

At which point the interviewer accidentally blurts out, “Oh, I’m glad for you! That would be exhausting to be on a mental hamster wheel 24-7.”

There is a moment of silence. Then a bark of laughter.

“Oh, my God, that’s the funniest thing a writer has ever said to me,” said Wright, the “HA-ha’s” bringing on a mini coughing fit. “’’I’m glad for you.’ Oh my God, I’m going to be telling my friends (that) ...”

“I am very laid-back, but my mind is noticing,” he explains. “Comedy is based on noticing things. So, I’m always noticing, even if I’m not trying to. You know, your subconscious is so powerful.”

Wright has always been fascinated by taking artistic license with how he sees the world.

“When I was a kid, I used to draw as realistically as I could, junior high through high school,” he says. “Then, when I was in college, I completely changed to abstract.”

Suddenly, he wasn’t concentrating on drawing just the featured objects, such as a glass on a table, but the spaces in between and around those items that formed their own kinds of shapes. Things had a greater depth for him.

Enter “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the sketch comedy show of observation and absurdity than ran on BBC from 1969 to 1974, and by extension, John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers” from 1975 to 1979.

“If (surrealistic artist) Salvadore Dali had gone into comedy, he would have been Monty Python,” Wright says, a flicker of awe creeping into the flat tone. “That to me is just surreal, what they did. It’s incredible. Monty Python is in my top five comedy creators. I love them.”

That type of comedy — equal parts common sense and nonsense — propelled Wright, a Burlington, Mass., native, into the late-night, talk-show circuit in the early 1980s. Then came Grammy nominations for 1985’s “I have a Pony” and the 2007 followup, “I Still Have a Pony”; an Academy Award for the short film “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (which he wrote and starred in); comedy specials on HBO; and roles in films including “Desperately Seeking Susan,” Mike Myers’ “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” “The Muse” and Nora Ephron’s “Mixed Nuts.”

He’s also explored some animal instincts in digital and animated films, including 1994’s “The Swan Princess,” in which he played a turtle ironically named Speed (and Cleese was a frog named Jean-Bob who longs to be human.)

Talk of voice-over work has Wright, who lives in Carlisle, Mass., remembering how strange it is to go from doing the lines in the studio to seeing the finished product in a theater.

“There was a (1998) movie I was in called ‘Babe, Pig in the City 2,’ and I played the voice of a chimpanzee ... named Bob,” Wright says in that droning phrasing that couches his amusement. “When you go to the movie and you see a big monkey head on the screen and your voice is coming out of it — that, in itself, is weird.”

In the new “Emoji” movie, Wright, in a part written especially for him, is Mel Meh, the only emotionless emoji in the app world of Textopolis. Mel has droopy eye lids, an unimpressed downcast to his mouth and vowels that stretch out struggle to catch up. (The stellar voice-over cast also features the voices of James Corden, Anna Faris, Jennifer Coolidge, Patrick Stewart, Sofia Vergara and Maya Rudolph.)

Wright’s recent projects also includes the Louis C.K. web series “Horace and Pete,” a dark comedy about a run-down bar and its quirky inhabitants. Wright played a downcast-looking bar patron with a surprisingly positive outlook on things.

“Louie’s a genius,” Wright says. “He’s from another planet. I loved being in that with him” and fellow cast members Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Laurie Metcalf and Jessica Lange.

“I met Steve Buscemi a long time ago; we were both in (the crime thriller) ‘Reservoir Dogs’, but to see all these actors working out scenes ... You know, I’d seen them in the movies and on TV, but to see them rehearsing and everything ... it was fascinating,” Wright said.

“(Alda) turned 80 years old when we were doing that. He had these giant speeches, paragraph after paragraph after paragraph, and he would nail it. You’d see him walking around and going over it in his head, and then would do the take and he would get it. It’s unbelievable.”


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