"I was doing peyote when I took my SAT's. I scored an 1800."
Something about Steven Wright makes you wonder whether the above statement is really a joke. I have an inkling the guy might just be telling the truth. I've long been determined to understand the near-comatose man behind the one-liners-the man behind the lint.
I erroneously thought that an interview with him would shed the necessary light.
This is a guy who was involved in a speed-reading accident. A guy who experiences amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. A guy who accidentally spills spot remover on his dog and the dog disappears.
One Christmas, he was given a humidifier and dehumidifier. He put them in the same room and let them fight it out.
The bottom line is that Steven Wright is quite possibly operating on multiple planes of existence. There's the world we know, full of dubious wars, raging wildfires and suck-ass football teams, and then there is Steven Wright's world. Like George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, Wright's comedy is concerned with the minutiae of everyday existence.
"I'd rather talk about lint," he's been quoted as saying.
Wright's world of lint began back in the early '80s when he landed a guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Like thousands of others, the deadpan man made Johnny laugh, and was invited back numerous times. More TV appearances and one Grammy-nominated comedy album later, Wright is able to sell out theaters across the U.S. while audiences eat up his barrage of non-sequiters. He's even won an Oscar for his short film, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings.
Like Carlin, Wright is not on stage playing some imaginary character. His delivery is identical to the man I spoke with on the phone. For the length of the conversation, it was unclear if he is truly as apathetic and witty as he seems onstage, or if this was an extension of the act.
"I like to tease my plants. I water them with ice cubes."
Wright was indeed serving me conversational ice cubes. I needed to dig deeper and ask the tough questions, ones that he has asked audiences before:
"Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song?"
"Why is it a penny for your thoughts, but you have to put your two cents in? Somebody's making a profit."
Statements like these give some insight into Wright's world. His thought process is vastly different from yours and mine. Attending one of his shows or listening to his comedy album, one gets the impression that Wright feels like an outsider, and his wry observations are his way of having us fit into his world.
Take that, Dr. Phil.
To paraphrase Wright himself, interviewing the comedian is a bit like reminiscing with someone you don't know.
He called, running late and apologizing in his thick, monotone Boston accent-the one that perfectly served as stoned DJ segue on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. During our short conversation, he wasn't "on." His statements were rather boring, to be honest-so boring that my editor cut almost every one of them from this article.
To hear Wright sound as bland as the rest of us mortals was rather comforting. My scripted questions soon disappeared, and we ended up discussing music and his love for traveling to gigs by bus.
I found out he plays guitar everyday, even recording songs with a buddy back home. A song on his website has a heavy Bob Dylan-Neil Young vibe.
When asked about this, he praised Dylan as one of his heroes. Steven Wright, just another slobbering Dylan fanboy.
"I guess when you love something, you're automatically influenced by it," he said, his ultra-relaxed phone manner adding a certain Zen wisdom to the simple statement. I noticed myself relaxing; the vibe was rubbing off.
That's when I realized that Wright could also be the Neil Young of comedy. Both prefer to travel by bus, despite having to frequently cross the country for gigs. Both have long, storied careers and retreating hairlines. Both fly under the hypersensitive radar of Hollywood, following their muse whenever and wherever it may lead them. Like Young, Wright prefers to work only when the inspiration hits-consequently, he spends a large portion of the year simply hanging with friends and observing life.
"Creating to me is thinking, and I like to think," he told me.
I couldn't argue with the guy. Lord knows the world could use a few thinkers, people who pause to ponder the order of the alphabet and the great injustice of getting short-changed for thoughts. Or even about science:
"When I die, I'm going to leave my body to science fiction."
"I think the universe is underrated. People don't pay attention enough to the galaxy and the rest of the universe. Humans are obsessed with the Earth. And I think that's narrow-minded."
It was narrow-minded to think I could figure out a guy like Steven Wright. He short-changed me on his thoughts, obviously busy thinking. ©
Steven Wright thinks aloud at The California Center for the Arts, 8 p.m. on Nov. 7. $28-$34. 800-988-4253.