Steven Wright has made a name as one of the most original comedians in the game.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Steven Wright scored a Grammy nod for Best Comedy Album in both 1985 and 2007, won an Oscar in 1989 for Best Short Live-Action Film (he co-wrote and starred in The Appointments of Dennis Jennings), became the first inductee into the Boston Comedy Hall of Fame, made No. 23 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest stand-up comics, and is immortalized as DJ K-Billy of K-Billy’s “Super Sounds of the Seventies” in Reservoir Dogs, one of 20 movies in which he’s appeared.
But all the victories don’t prevent him from recalling one of the worst gigs of his career as if it happened yesterday. The year was 1980 at a Massachusetts spot called Scampi’s, a restaurant-disco which occasionally threw comedy into the mix. When Wright’s moment came to take the stage, everyone was in mid-dance.
“All of a sudden the music stopped and the lights went up and a guy walked out with a microphone to introduce me and the audience had no clue there was going to be comedy,” says Wright, who’s performing tonight at the Golden State Theatre. “That evening is pretty burned into my head. It set a record for silence.”
“I LIKE SURREALISTIC PAINTING AND KURT VONNEGUT. ALL THIS STUFF IS MIXED IN WITH MY OWN MIND. IT’S LIKE A SOUP.”
For more than three decades, Wright’s made a living by talking about the idiosyncrasies that nobody really bothers to think about, but that everyone can relate to on some level.
“Twenty-four hour banking?” he says. “I don’t have time for that.” On buying a new camera: “It’s very advanced. You don’t even need it.” Fine dining: “Last night I was in a restaurant called Bulimia’s – the line to the bathroom was incredible.” On his personal struggles: “I’m addicted to placebos. I could quit but it wouldn’t matter.”
For every three or four jokes Wright comes up with, usually only one will get a big enough laugh to stick around in his set. He likes to keep the retention process organic.
“It’s still hard for me to know what jokes will get a laugh,” he says. “Ultimately, the audience helps me build my act.”
To this day, one of the toughest things for Wright is acting like he’s not fazed when a joke goes south – his infamous deadpan stare and his monotone help.
“You have to appear like it doesn’t matter [that there were no laughs] but in your head there’s a small plane crash,” he says.
In addition for being known as “that comedian who always seems like he’s stoned,” Wright is known as one of those comedic rarities whose sets are pretty much profanity-free.
“I realized that if you swore during a joke that it would get an automatic bigger laugh,” he says. “I wanted the joke to get the laugh on its own without boosting it up.”
Starting out, his goal was to go on The Tonight Show; he didn’t want to pile up material that he wouldn’t be allowed to use.
“It’s also the way I was raised,” he says. “It was wrong to be swearing in front of a group of people.”
Wright cites Woody Allen and George Carlin as major influences but says he also draws inspiration from less likely sources.
“I like surrealistic painting and Kurt Vonnegut,” he says. “All this stuff is in my head and all of it has an effect when it’s mixed in with my own mind. It’s like a soup.”
At this point in his life – Wright is now 58 – not one part of the comedic process has grown old.
“Writing is thinking and thinking is writing,” he says. “You never stop thinking. I just notice things. I’ve been writing material for so long and my subconscious is always scanning for things that are funny.”
Wright used to carry around a pad and pen but now he texts himself when something funny hits him. And he always makes sure to thank himself when he receives his texts.
Wright’s so schooled in the art of stand-up, he ponders how he’d approach teaching a class on it.
“[The class] would be about 27 seconds long,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Like anything else, you learn comedy by doing it as many times as you can. You’re the teacher and the student.’”
And this student has become a master.
STEVEN WRIGHT performs at 8pm, Thursday, March 14, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $52.80. 297-2472.