Steven Wright doesn’t answer when I call him at the agreed-upon time for our interview. But there’s a familiar deadpan voice at the other end.
This is definitely Wright’s voicemail. Who else could sound less interested in whether you leave a message?
Wright has spent nearly four decades perfecting that persona on stage. He promises jokes about “Hawaiian shirts and the expansion of the universe” when he returns to New Hampshire on Saturday for a show at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord. But don’t call him on it. He’s just messing with us. He’ll actually be talking about “trains, birds and coasters.”
Wright’s near emotionless delivery only serves to amplify the comedy in his absurdist brand of stand-up, the stuff he serves up in a series of one-liners one after the other like he’s flinging Frisbees at the audience in slow motion: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
When Wright returns my call a few minutes later, he apologizes for the delay, and for a while it’s two guys talking about the weather and the darkness that arrives these days at 4 p.m.
We learn we both moved away from our native New England to sunnier locales only to return 25 years later.
Then Wright’s the one asking the questions, which is not the way these things tend to go, but it’s certainly refreshing.
It recalls an exchange Wright had during an appearance on Conan O’Brien during which the late-night host called him out for not being sincere when Wright asked him how he was doing. How much did he really care?
“Medium,” Wright responded with a grin.
On the phone call from his home in Carlisle, Mass., Wright sounds genuinely interested.
And he doesn’t get annoyed when the first question arrives with a thud. I had just watched a YouTube clip of Wright and O’Brien that was sent by Wright’s publicist as an example of his many appearances on the show. During the clip, O’Brien asked Wright about his return to Massachusetts as if it were a recent development — as least that’s how I remembered it.
So how long has Wright been back in Massachusetts?
Ah, OK. Why did he come back?
“I went to L.A., New York City, back to L.A. And I liked New England so I wanted to go home. Where you grow up can really get into your being,” said Wright, 63. “It’s fun in the beginning. It’s an adventure. It’s great, and then eventually it’s like a little tap on your shoulder happens, and it’s like, yeah, I want to go home now.”
Wright missed his family, nature and the seasons.
“The country is so big. Different parts are so different from each other. It’s like seven countries all named one thing. I wanted to go back to the country of New England,” he said.
The Emerson College graduate got his start in Boston. He had been watching “The Tonight Show” since he was 16 and was a huge Johnny Carson fan.
“I really loved him. And I loved the comedians he had on there,” said Wright, who cites George Carlin, Woody Allen and Robert Klein among his greatest influences. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I would like to be if I could.’ And I’m a very introverted person.”
Wright eventually summoned up the courage to give it a try.
“When I was in college a club opened up in Boston, and I forced myself. One of the biggest fears people have is public speaking in their life, and it was for me, too,” Wright said. “I wanted to try it so much that I made myself do it, and it was very, very scary for a long time.”
The deadpan delivery that became Wright’s act grew from both his natural speaking voice and his nervousness on stage. He was too terrified to laugh at his own jokes because while the audience was laughing he was busy retrieving the next one. Thus the serious demeanor. But now that’s part of his stagecraft.
“All that worked for me by accident, too, because there I am with a complete straight face, and I’m saying this insane stuff, and I talk deadpan and that’s just how my voice is anyway. All mixed together. No real plan to it,” he said.
The guy who sounds like he’s rattling off whatever pops into his head is constantly refining his show.
“If you see an 80-minute show, that’s 80 minutes that worked. There’s two times as much that didn’t work that I try out as I go along,” he said.
Wright learned early on that not having his material memorized would lead to disaster. There’s no room for hesitation — that’s a sure-fire joke killer.
“It’s like a play. You know the whole play all the way through. And that’s how I know the show,” Wright said. “Even though the jokes are so short, I still know what’s coming next.”