You may have only seen Steven Wright's Irish-American fro in a movie, or heard his rumbling, cracking voice on a talk show or soundtrack, but rest assured: it was indeed Steven Wright that you heard. The one thing the veteran comedian cannot do is pretend to be anyone but himself. "Acting for me is about acting how I am," Wright drones through our interview, set between a flurry of southern California club appearances. "It's not a focus of my career. I really don't give a shit about it." In the 1985 comedy Desperately Seeking Susan, he was a dentist version of himself. In Quentin Tarantino's 1992 death-wank Reservoir Dogs, Wright was a radio DJ version of his Desperately Seeking Susan character. In Natural Born Killers, a television psychiatrist. In So I Married an Ax Murderer, a pilot. In Babe: Pig in the City Wright even submitted to a chimpanzular personification of his expressionless croak. Directors just can't seem to get enough of his dead-eyed, ultra-awkward punch lines, as Wright summed up the scope of his career, "[Filmmakers] know what I do and where to find me."
What Wright does, has done since first appearing on the Tonight Show in 1982 and will do on a May 2 stop at Boise's Egyptian Theatre, is say things that wouldn't seem comical coming out of any other comedian's mouth, in a style that seems bent on not being funny. In stand-up comedy mode, Wright paces back and forth across a stage, eyes locked on his toes, delivering a sleepy storm of short and absurd one-liners: "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to have to paint it." "When I die, I'm leaving my body to science fiction." "My theory of evolution is that Darwin was adopted."
These and dozens of other tiny nuggets of non-wisdom crowd his single Grammy-winning 1985 album I Have a Pony, two HBO specials and scores of Wright-dedicated Web pages (although he maintains that a good chunk of the lines cyber-attributed to him are done so wrongly). Wright's best jokes sound philosophical at first, but by the end a listener finds the urge to wax philosophical is precisely what is being targeted. "If you could know how and when you were going to die," he recalls asking his girlfriend in one such tale, "would you want to know?" When she replies in the negative, Wright simply says, "Forget it, then." That's the joke, and it may not even seem funny until several long seconds of silence hammer the concept through a listener's skull. Nobody may ever make a cheesy biopic like Man on the Moon about Wright's life, but rest assured: he, not Andy Kaufman, is the master of making hilarity out of a hush.
On stage and in film, Wright's fostered image is of a man bewildered, perhaps bludgeoned, by a thoroughly incomprehensible world. In interview, on the other hand, he comes across as an introvert—alone, but not lonely—who spends every day inexorably rapt in his own head. Rapt, not trapped. Trapt, maybe. Hence, his explanation of why he didn't accept numerous offers to do a television show, a move which has proven to be revolutionary for other former touring comedians like Dave Chappelle and Dave Attell: "I really didn't want to work with a hundred people every week—it just didn't go with my gut feeling."
Likewise, as this 46-year-old Massachusetts native has wandered into middle age, his compulsion to internalize has only strengthened—or perhaps his ability to engage in human interaction has weakened. In either case, Wright explains, "I used to have people I knew hanging around backstage before a show, and I'd talk with them. Now, as time has gone on, I need more and more time alone before I do a show, sometimes the whole day." Part of this need is undoubtedly rooted in the difficulty of settling down after Wright's numerous daily cups of coffee: "The absolute highlight of my day is when I drink a few cups and my mind is just on fire," he tells me with a feeble conviction as hilarious as almost any joke. Another element of the solitude is simply, "The show drains me so, so much. It may not look like it, a guy just walking around, back and forth, looking down and telling jokes, but somehow being alone fills me up for what I need to do that night."
This is not to say Wright's on-stage humor is more subdued or darker than it has been in the past. On the contrary, his content is so enduring that his planned follow-up to I Have a Pony is tentatively and appropriately titled I Still Have a Pony. But "material" aside, there is a purposeful, even verbose deviance in a mature Wright that is difficult to reconcile with the abrupt humor on which his career is built. He showed this side when we chatted about his great non-caffeinated passion: the Boston Red Sox, from whose cap Wright's thinning curls can usually be seen poking.
"Being a Red Sox fan is like being in a Charles Dickens book—in the orphanage," Wright begins. "Some guy in the orphanage is like (in a gentle voice), 'Come over here and look at this cake. Come and get this cake.' And the cake is all the way over on the other side of the room, and you walk over very slowly and he's saying, 'Chocolate ... you like chocolate, don't you?' And you get right up to the cake ... and the guy beats the shit out of you. And then the next year, the guy's right there again saying 'C'mon, it's chocolate ...' and because it's been a year, you kind of forget about the beating. After 40 or 50 beatings, you're trying not to come over to the cake, but the cake is all you can think about by then. It's really a built-in thing to be hopeful like that." Don't count on such pontifications at Wright's May 2 show—not unless Wright hits every coffee shop on Idaho Street. Instead, expect what Wright expects you to expect: quotable insanity that is clever, concise and above all ... calm.
Friday, May 2, doors at 7 p.m. show at 8 p.m., $35 all ages, Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main Street, tickets at Ticketweb.