The face, slack-jawed, stubbled with a few days' growth and floating like an oblong moon under a shaggy mess of dark curls, belongs on a Not Wanted poster. The barely heard voice, a dry monotone absent of emotion or energy, delivers everything in an absolute deadpan.
Steven Wright is a guy who speaks softly and carries a big shtick, big enough to turn him into one of the most popular young comedians in America. His humor is abstract, minimalist and surreal, full of twists, turns and spins on language and perception and dispensed with a droll combination of nervousness and awkwardness that would be painful if it weren't so funny. It is theater of the absurd, handed out one punch line at a time. Wright's mind doesn't just wander, it goes on a world cruise, and you have no trouble believing him when he says he puts tape on his mirrors so he won't accidentally walk through into another dimension.
Hot on the heels of his first album and an HBO special, he's taking his one-man show on the road, with a stop tonight at the Warner Theatre.
Wright, a comedian with a permanent parking space in the Twilight Zone, appears perpetually puzzled. With his furrowed brows needling under a receding hairline, he looks like Simon and Garfunkel.
"Except I could never break up," he says.
Offstage, Wright is not noticeably different than on -- still laid-back, detached, bemused. But he spices his conversation with low-key laughs and quick smiles that would undoubtedly surprise his fans.
"Most comedians get people expecting them to be funny," Wright explains. "It's a double whammy. If I laugh offstage, they say 'Oh, you laugh.' If I don't, they say 'Oh, you're really like that' . . .
"I sometimes crack up on stage," he continues. "Not at the jokes, because I laugh out loud when I make them up, but when I see an older couple laughing at some insane thing that I've thought of. When I see that me and these real normal-looking people, accountants or something, are connected because of my idea, that cracks me up."
Still, he says, "It's a serious job to get them to react like that. If I was building a house, I wouldn't be cutting wood and laughing hysterically, I would be cutting the wood. And that's what I'm doing."
Wright, one of three children of an electronics company executive, grew up in Burlington, Mass., a Boston suburb. He says he was funny as a child, though not publicly until high school. "It was there all the time, though I wasn't the class clown. I didn't want the whole class looking at me . . . But with my friends, I was cracking up all the time."
Back then, he says, he laughed "at a lot of stuff. What I do now is concentrated madness for an hour, and it's what I like to do when I'm on stage, but that's not the only thing I find funny." His influences were classic: the Three Stooges ("every Saturday"), the Marx Brothers, Jackie Vernon ("I love him but I don't do this deadpan because he did it . . . I am laid-back"), George Carlin, Bill Cosby. "My first concept of a stand-up comedian is probably him."
And then there's Woody Allen, to whom he's often compared, though Allen's humor seemed based in the real world and Wright's is a combination of the unreal and the surreal. "It's weird to find myself in the same sentence with him because he's my hero. I definitely learned how to write a joke from listening to his albums. There was something more [to his humor] than it was just funny. It had romance . . . There's Woody Allen and then there's everyone else."
By the time he was 17, Wright knew he wanted to be a comedian, but pragmatism took him to Boston's Emerson College, where he studied for a radio career, graduating in 1978 into a series of odd jobs, none of them in radio. He headed west and five months later headed back east. "When I came back to Boston, I came across a comedy club [the Ding Ho] that I didn't even know was there, it had just opened. This was what I wanted to do my whole life and I didn't have to go to New York, I didn't have to go to L.A. It was unbelievable."
Wright stopped in and was "blown away because I thought I was a funny person but I saw these five guys and realized I wasn't the only funny person and that this was going to be hard as hell."
Two weeks later, he went back to an open audition. He hardly made it through the night.
"I would rather write 180 papers than do an oral presentation in school," he confesses, "so to go in front of an audience was totally against my nature. I was literally shaking, like I was going to be executed. I had two minutes of material prepared and I went out and I said it and it was over and they laughed at about half of it. My immediate reaction was they didn't laugh at everything, this is harder than I thought."
Luckily, a fellow comedian told Wright that getting that much reaction his first time out was good. Walking home, he says, "rather than thinking that half of it didn't work, I thought that half of it did work. By the time I got home, I got an incredible rush realizing that the audience had laughed at something I had thought of."
Soon, Wright had become a regular on the Boston comedy circuit, a small affair that inspired great camaraderie among the two dozen or so comedians who traveled it. "It was very pure, very innocent. No one had agents, no one knew what the hell they were doing."
Comedy, perhaps even more than music, depends on breaks, and for a stand-up comedian, the biggest break imaginable is an appearance on "The Tonight Show." Wright's came when the show's producer, Peter Lasally, went to Boston to scout colleges for his children and decided to drop in on the Ding Ho. On Aug. 6, 1982, Steven Wright, who had never done television, and who had never worked a room that seated more than 110 people, found himself doing his stand-up for 15 million people.
"The studio audience was bigger than anything I'd ever played to, never mind that each camera was worth 3 1/2 million people," Wright recalls. "I liked the idea of it, if only the time would never come where I actually had to do it. I could have just gone on living off the idea of it.
"In the end, I just played the studio audience like I did in the club. They told me to look in the cameras but I just could not do it."
Worse, when he finished, Wright saw Johnny Carson waving him over to the guest couch -- a rare occurence for any comedian or musical guest. "My mind didn't believe it. Sitting down was like a car accident: What happened? Being a 'Tonight Show' freak, watching it since I was 16, I knew that that was something." Somehow, Wright survived the experience. "It's like adrenaline, like when people lift up buildings because their wife fell under it . . . or maybe they put buildings on the wife. I was so nervous, but that was getting laughs. The audience identified, they knew it was like taking someone out of the audience."
Carson did another unheard-of thing, inviting Wright back less than a week later. Since then he's been a regular guest there, on the David Letterman show, on "Saturday Night Live" and on a number of specials, including his own solo show on HBO. Which might suggest that Steven Wright has had to accelerate his writing.
"That's part of the game anyway," he says. "When I was starting in the clubs, I had about half an hour of material and probably about 20 minutes of solid stuff. When I did the 'Tonight' shows, that was 10 minutes. I said to the talent coordinator , it's an amazing thing but that's half my act gone in a week. And he said, yeah, but you're going to run out anyway."
The pressure is there, he concedes, but "I've been running out for years, this is not new to me. I already freaked out about it three years ago. By the time I did the third 'Tonight' one, when the show was over and I was shaking hands with Johnny, I had no more material. It was like, nice meeting you, maybe I can come back if I get more jokes. And it really threw me because you have to keep the thing going."
He turned down offers to write for Carson. "I know how hard it is to produce a good show," he says, "and then to give it to someone for money is just insane. It would never be worth it. If I have a joke, I can do it for as long as I want. Half the rush I get out of this is that I think of it myself, to just be out there saying this stuff. It would be like being a painter and hiring another guy to paint, it's insane."
He's also turned down sitcom offers, though he has signed a deal to develop a film, in which he will probably also star. His only screen credit so far is as the quirky Jewish dentist in "Desperately Seeking Susan." Wright, who's Catholic, notes that "everybody's thought I'm Jewish since I went to Florida in 1975. It's weird. Before I went there on vacation, nobody ever asked me if I was Jewish. But when I went down there everybody asked me and it's been constant ever since. I think it's connected to the water in Fort Lauderdale."
He decided, he says, that he'd "rather be in a movie every three years than be in a sitcom. I wanted to be known for my work, for what I did. I didn't want to walk down the street and have people say, 'Oh, there's the janitor on "Where's The Hardware Store".' "
His Catholicism may also help explain why Wright's humor is always deadpan but never bedpan, which goes against the modern smut grain. "Pretty much from the start, I didn't want to do that. I laugh at it, I love it, but when I'm doing it it's another story. For me, swearing enhances the reaction automatically, which means that the idea isn't really living on its own."
*The public has certainly given Wright a wealth of reaction, elevating him into the upper ranks of American comedy in a very short time. In those ranks, he says, there is still an element of camaraderie, but "you move around so much, it's not like Boston, where you'd have four guys get in a car and go to New Haven.
"The ride down and back was what the audience should have seen."