I Was Trying to Daydream ... |
But My Mind Kept Wandering
Steven Wright Beams Down In Kingston
by Gary Alexander
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
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 .
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
I went into a bookstore and asked the saleswoman "Where is the
She said if she told me, it would defeat the
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.
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
Backstage, prior to the performance
Wright: Hello? Sorry I was on the phone. A guy was asking me a lot
Alexander: Oh....(long pause)...Well, it's been nice talking to
Alexander: (relaxes) Have you ever been mistaken for someone else?
Wright: (laughs louder, pause) Wiley Coyote in The Road Runner.
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
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....
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?
Ablur in the glow of the spotlights, Wright picks his guitar
and drones an inimitable ditty.
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
Wright mentions that he's moving back to Massachusetts this summer.
Like any other red-stockinged American guy, Wright bleeds
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
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
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!
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...
"Er, as a matter of fact, no... I didn't happen to bring any
Pink Floyd tapes or hatchets... Did you?"
There was a power outage at the department store
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?
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.
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 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
So, what's the very last thing you'd expect to be saying to Steven Wright?
"Calm down, man."
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
Posted on July 18, 2001