The average Steven Wright joke goes something like this: "Everywhere is walking distance if you have time." Lines like that a staple of Bartlett's and the "senior quote" section of high school yearbooks have made Wright a very famous guy.
His wit lends itself almost equally to laughter and introspection, with a delivery that's spare and effortless. It's comedy as Zen koan. His style is instantly identifiable and ultimately unforgettable, with a voice like gravel and a pace as placid as a January lakefront.
To call his pace deliberate is an understatement: it's glacial. You could read a short novella during his pauses, yet his timing is devastating. Good comedians tend to make characters of themselves, amplifying their tics for the act, but offstage, Wright seems just as laconic, lacking any of the antic neediness found in most pro comics. "Inside my mind I go through all the same worries and concerns anybody else does, but it just comes out a little differently," Wright says.
Though he didn't stand in the bright lights until he was 23, the seeds of his comedy future were planted in the fertile loam of his teenage years in New England. "I loved Johnny Carson. He had all the best comedians on his show, guys like Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, David Brenner. It was the ultimate."
Imported media of all sorts inspired him: "There was a radio station in Boston that once a week would play two comedy albums back to back. So I would sit up in bed late at night with the radio turned low listening to all these great albums, studying them. I just absorbed them, and sucked up the jokes and the pace. I heard all kinds of things Bob and Ray, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who I loved best of all."
Though not in an obvious way, Wright's work does resemble that of the brilliant young Allen, at least structurally. Like the gag men of old, his set is based on basic setup-punch line format: all funny, no fat. Wright also takes after Allen in his tendency toward the surreal, mashing the ludicrous and the ordinary together like a peanut butter and salsa sandwich.
Another of Wright's heroes and of any American comedian worth mentioning is George Carlin, whose clever examinations of everyday nuisances were just as influential as his more outrageous political diatribes. A generation of acts followed in Carlin's wake, making observational humor the toast of the overheated '80s stand-up scene.
But from the get-go, Wright stood out. His unique and timeless material has kept him popular long after the flash-in-the pan Emo Phillipses and Yakov Smirnoffs of the world. "I just talk about everyday stuff, just the real basic, common things," Wright says. "I also try to probe the cosmos, but I talk about the little everyday shit everybody deals with." And his appeal is truly universal; he just returned from Australia, where he says he's a hit with soccer moms and surfers alike. "I look out at the faces in the crowd, and they look pretty normal to me. I appeal to a pretty broad audience."
Over the years, Wright has had numerous dalliances with Hollywood, none long, but some more rewarding than others. One project he was especially fond of was Jim Jarmusch's recent Coffee and Cigarettes. Shot piecemeal over a number of years, the film featured a vignette starring Wright and Italian actor Roberto Benigni. "It was weird seeing that, 'cause we did it in 1986, and they showed it back then on Saturday Night Live. You see it now and it's like a time capsule. I hope people don't come to see me expecting to see that guy."
And there was Wright's unforgettable role as the couch-crashing pothead in the Dave Chappelle stoner classic, Half Baked. "I was putting gas in my car in L.A., and a guy came up to me and started yelling, 'Hey, you're the dude on the couch!' At first I wasn't sure what he was talking about. That was four years ago, and I still hear about that movie. Mostly it's kids between 18 and 22. They probably don't even know I do stand-up." Fortunately, a throng of loyal fans still know him first, last and always as a stand-up.
His upcoming date at Meadowbrook is one of a select few summer gigs, because he prefers, fittingly, to take the hazy, lazy months in stride. "Summer is my favorite time of year, so I usually don't work that much. Starting in the fall, I really hit the road, but I don't mind it. I don't mind getting off the plane in Milwaukee when it's 17 degrees." This is a man at peace with his role in life. Ask him. "You can't have everything," he says. "Where would you put it?"
8 p.m., Friday, June 17, at the Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills; 248-377-3300. $29.50 pavillion, $15 lawn.
Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org