He’s made his name as one of the most unusual and influential comedians of the ’80s, and as Steven Wright demonstrated Sunday night at the Orleans Showroom, his Grammy nomination for last year’s I Still Have a Pony (an album over 20 years in the making) was both well-deserved and proof of his continued relevance.
It’s all in the unique phrasing for the Boston native, and in keeping things succinct, and for an impressive hour and a half he delivered a far higher Laughs Per Minute ratio than any of the hopefuls yukking it up on the current incarnation of Last Comic Standing. Take, for instance, “I have a solution to the gas problem…make the gallon bigger.” “If heat rises, heaven might be hotter than hell.” “You know, the Earth is bipolar.” “Imagine Pulitzer Prize-Fighting.” “I’m addicted to placebos.” Slowly shuffling back and forth across the stage or standing with his head drooped and left arm resting atop the mic stand, he elicited laughter from as little as four words. A dark hat, dark jacket, dark pants, dark boots and equally dark outlook were apparent on the surface, but plenty of blinding “How’d he come up with that?” moments flashed beneath Wright’s deadpan baritone. When such winners as, “Friend of mine has a trophy wife. But apparently it wasn’t first place,” earned an applause break, his stubbled jaw lifted with a slight grin. Okay, more of a grimace. Wright was clearly enjoying himself, however, breaking from his Pony sure-things to test a fair amount of new material, riff on the two shadows his singular form threw on the back curtain and improvise a boundary-shattering bit with water glasses as he double-checked his set notes.
But it wasn’t just a barrage of quizzical one-liners that landed him at No. 23 on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time roster. For every, “Last night I was at a restaurant called Bulimia’s … the line to the restroom was incredible,” there was a massive (and massively absurd) story concerning off-balance tables and a trip to the store, or parrots whose affinity for dialing long-distance eventually resulted in Wright’s arrest (“That’s a true story. Other than what happened,” he noted of the latter). A chair at stage left also served as home to a handful of acoustic-guitar interludes. “This is a song I wrote when I was 3,” the sometime-musician mentioned before crooning, “Oh, I think the kitten’s trying to kill me / I better kill him first / Good thing mommy’s sleepin’ / Where are the big scissors? / Here kitty, here kitty, here kitty / We’re gonna play a different funny kind of game / Nothin’ ever gonna be the same.” It lasted all of 40 seconds, yet remained one of the evening’s most delightfully twisted highlights. It also served as a reminder that even as stand-up becomes ever-increasingly “entertaining” (i.e., sitcom-sanitized for the masses) at the cost of being inspiring, there are still some comics out there meandering along on their own journeys, and audiences are just along for the painstakingly deliberate yet overwhelmingly rewarding ride.