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I Was Trying to Daydream ...
But My Mind Kept Wandering

Steven Wright Beams Down In Kingston

by Gary Alexander

He stands there like they just woke him up from a nap on a train, brought him into the club car with dream chunks still falling like flakes in a snow globe, and asked him to explain his whereabouts during seventh period civics class in 1974. "Let's see..."

No, he's a census taker on a block that has a moving truck in every driveway....

Wait a minute, he's really a theoretical physicist teaching a sewing class to a group of Bible salesmen...

Actually, he's a little kid with one foot in the air, waiting for the perfect instant to take that first step onto an escalator...

Okay, he's Steven Wright and he'll be at the Ulster Performing Arts Center for a one-night only performance on Thursday, June 29th [2000].

My girlfriend asked me how long I was going to be gone on this tour. I said, "the whole time."

If you've never seen his comedy specials on cable or his appearances on late night shows like Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, Leno and Letterman, you won't know that Wright is a boxer in the style of Sugar Ray Robinson. He'll kill you with jab after jab until each punch line is a haymaker that leaves you helpless on the ropes, breathless with laughter...

I went into a bookstore and asked the saleswoman "Where is the self-help section?"
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.

Placidly monotone and reflective, always stunned by the familiar cultural incongruities we all consciously overlook, the 44-year-old comic from Burlington, MA. was discovered at 23 while performing his mind-bending routines at a Bostonian Chinese Restaurant but released on his own recognizance for an appearance on the Tonight Show in 1982. Life was never the same.

In Las Vegas I got into a long argument with the man at the roulette wheel over what I considered to be an odd number.

Backstage, prior to the performance
Keeping it short, he began showing up in brief roles in films like "Desperately Seeking Susan," "The Muse," "Natural Born Killers," "Canadian Bacon," "Stars and Bars," "So I Married An Axe Murderer," and as a featured voice in children's films like "Swan Princess" and "Babe 2: Pig In the City." (In July, his own brilliantly amusing existential short film "One Soldier" will air on the Independent Film Channel.) But the stand-up weirdness he's bringing to Kingston remained close to his heart. We catch him in a mid-day hotel room in the middle of a stack of phone interviews. You can put in the mulling pauses between sentences yourself...

Wright: Hello? Sorry I was on the phone. A guy was asking me a lot of questions.

Alexander: Oh....(long pause)...Well, it's been nice talking to you...

Wright: (laughs)

Alexander: (relaxes) Have you ever been mistaken for someone else?

Wright: (laughs louder, pause) Wiley Coyote in The Road Runner.

You can scarcely find a reference to Wright which doesn't employ the word "deadpan" but, offstage, you have to suspect that he's keeping a straight face while everyone else is somber about the Great Pan being dead but he's thinking "I'm going to party anyhow. Pan would have wanted it that way." You mention this to him.

Wright: (laughs) I laugh constantly...to the point of being sedated and taken away. The only reason I don't laugh on stage is I'm trying to remember the damn jokes!

When I die, I'm leaving my body to science fiction.

But Wright doesn't just tell jokes. Like a surreal cartoonist, he does concepts. You wonder if there's any special routine he has for provoking ideas.

Wright: No, it's just the way I think. I just notice things. The world is nuts and I'm just going around noticing it; that's my whole career. There are billions of bits of information floating around and you take one bit from over that and another here. You match them but they don't quite fit....I used to paint. I still paint and draw now and I think that's what exercised my mind to noticing things because, when you draw, you really observe stuff. Then it turned into noticing things ‘wordswise' and socially...

It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to have to paint it....

Ablur in the glow of the spotlights, Wright picks his guitar and drones an inimitable ditty.
His artistic nature compels Wright to travel with his guitar. "Yeah, I play it all the time. Every day. It's very relaxing." The simple 3 or 4 chord songs he writes leak into the act once in a while, like on his sole comedy album, I Have A Pony, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1986. Why didn't he record another? Was he afraid that people with his album were laughing behind his back?

Wright: What happened was, an album kills the material. The idea is to choose a lot of material they don't know. So, I had enough to do a second one but I didn't know if I could write a third one. I didn't know how many things I could think of but if I did them anyway, I'd be on my fifth one. Then I just forgot about it. Now I could do another one and it would be fine. I could call it I Still Have A Pony. Maybe I'll do one a century.

Wright's own first venture as film maker, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, won the 1989 Academy Award for Best Short Film but his latest film did not. Does that piss him off?

Wright: Yeah, it pissed me off! That's when I knew it was fixed... when I didn't win the second time...

My watch is 3 hours fast, and I can't fix it. So I'm going to move to New York.

Like any other red-stockinged American guy, Wright bleeds Fenway angst.
Wright mentions that he's moving back to Massachusetts this summer. Why?

Wright: Because I'm been in New York and California for 20 years now and I want to go home... I'm going to try to keep making my own little short films and I can still be in the occasional Hollywood movie. They know what I do and where to find me... My next film I'm going to make three times as long, even if it makes no sense (laughs) because, then, at least it can be shown somewhere. But what am I saying? One Soldier will be on tv next month. I need to take the medication...

Wright makes a point that the way he is on stage is the real him. When he plays a movie role, is he out of character?

Wright: Acting is not a big thing, in my mind. My idea of acting is to say something as I would say it in real life. I'm not trying to be other characters or anything. I have a very narrow, simple, childish view of acting. So it IS me....Hmmm... I've never even tried it actually. Maybe I'd be great at it! (Laughs) Thank you for bringing it up! A whole new world opens because a guy asks me a question! You know, like a lawyer type (speaks with a faster, sterner voice) We've got to go in there right now! These papers have to be finished! Three o'clock appointment, dat dit da da dat! I can do that! Thank you!

Alexander: Er, Steven, I know you do this sort of thing all the time. What is it you haven't talked about in an interview?

Wright: (laughs) That's hilarious. That's strange. I haven't talked about my desire to chop furniture up and burn it out in a field with big speakers and Pink Floyd blasting...

Alexander: That's fascinating (laugh)...

Wright: That's fascinating?

Alexander: Yeah, that's something I've always wanted to do, too!

"Er, as a matter of fact, no... I didn't happen to bring any Pink Floyd tapes or hatchets... Did you?"
Wright: There should be a club for people who want to do that but never talk about it because people would think they're nuts...Eighty people meet at a big farm in Michigan with chain saws and hand saws...

There was a power outage at the department store yesterday.
Twenty people were trapped on the escalators.

Wright's bio sheet says he did odd jobs before stand-up comedy. What sort of jobs?

Wright: I was a toy trains accessory repair man. No...I painted apartments; worked at M.I.T. in the bookstore, running the cash register; shoveled snow off of rooftops in Colorado so the buildings wouldn't cave in; parked cars at Harrah's in Reno; shipped books all over the world from the warehouse of Houghton Mifflin Publishing. Curious George was one of their books. Now, when I go in a children's store and see the Curious George books, I scream at them "I've carried hundreds of you bastards!" and I get ushered out.

Alexander: Excuse me, Steven. You have three siblings. Are they anything like you?

Backstage, following the show, one of Kingston's finest (crouching figure) ducks the camera. The fact that four on-duty policemen left their cars parked by the hydrant near the stage door to pose with Wright for souvenir photographs, despite his routines which playfully tweak the police force, testifies to their sense of humor.
Wright: They're amusing but they have their wives and their houses and their kids. You know what I mean? I'm on the phone with a guy in New York, telling him I'm going to burn furniture in Michigan...and he's agreeing, saying it's a great idea. They wouldn't be having this conversation.

Wright is wondering if his cameo role in an Amy Heckering film due in theaters within a few weeks will survive a film editor's efforts to tone it down from an ‘R' rating. Known for her direction of Fast Times At Ridgewood High, Johnny Dangerously, National Lampoon's European Vacation and others, Heckering is concerned about the box office appeal of the new one (called Loser) and Wright's scene may be on the chopping block.

Wright: I may be cut out of it because, in the movie, there's Nina, who played the cheerleader in American Beauty, and I'm trying to buy her underwear off of her. They're afraid it may narrow the audience but that doesn't mean that I wouldn't want to buy them. (Voice rising, shouting into the phone) They can't cut that stuff out of my real life ‘cause I'M in charge of that, dammit!... (laughs wildly) You taping this? Fourth interview in an hour and a half. (Laugh) I snapped....Sorry...

So, what's the very last thing you'd expect to be saying to Steven Wright?

"Calm down, man."

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on July 18, 2001

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