Today is the birthday of two comedians who, in spite of sharing a surreal style, are completely different. I’m starting with the one I knew first but look for a second post in a few hours.This placement is not meant to set one above the other but to treat them equally.
My friends and I were walking along the road when I noticed something white and plastic in the grass, so naturally I picked it up. I’d pick up almost anything I saw on the ground that looked unusual which led to me collecting a lot of odd stuff. On this particular occasion it was a cassette tape.
“Hey!” said my friend Jim. “That’s that guy who says Thanks.”
From the way he said it I knew immediately he was talking about Steven Wright. It was a cassette of I Have A Pony. I kept it and listened to it so many times I still have large chunks of it memorized.
I’ve heard it said that there are comedians and there are comics. Comedians, the saying goes, can improvise. They respond to the audience and can change their act at a moment’s notice. Comics on the other hand just tell jokes they’ve memorized.
This seems to me like it’s creating a hierarchy that sets some performers higher than others based solely on style, but, according to that definition, Steven Wright is a comic. In the book I Killed: True Stories Of The Road From America’s Top Comics Wright tells the story of how he once performed at a club with a rotating stage. While he was performing a fight broke out in the back of the room. He never commented on it and went on with his act but every few minutes he came back around and could see how the fight was going.
It’s a funny story and it doesn’t make me think any less of Wright as a performer. In fact I think it’s pretty impressive that he never let it interfere with his act.
A few years ago when Steven Wright came to Nashville he talked to the Nashville Scene about his career and how comedy never gets easier.
Voila! More evidence of my December birthday theory!
In the 80s, I went to lots of comedy shows in Boston. I watched Steven Wright from the beginning of his career. He always stood out, even when he was obviously and nervously inexperienced. (That actually worked fine with his on-stage persona and his material.) While I was taking standup comedy classes with Ron Lynch, Steven got his break on the Tonight Show. The talent scouts came to a Boston show to see a different comedian, Lenny Clark. They spotted Steven and invited him on instead. I remember being so nervous for him and then so happy when he killed his appearance — he attained the Holy Grail of comedy: he was invited over to the couch by Carson.
Here’s another, earlier memory I have of Steven. Even before his big break, my perception was that some of the local comics were jealous of him — they knew he had something special. So on this particular night — probably the third time I saw him — some of the other comics were rudely talking while Steven was doing this set. Then, one of them threw a wadded up piece of paper, which hit him on stage. Steven paused (as he often did during his set) and simply walked off, without a word. I thought that was great.
Now, this might be rude self-promotion, but I’m going to let you know that if you search my posts for “Steven Wright,” you’ll see that he’s also gotten several mentions in my blog.
Thanks for this wrighteous post, Chris.
There’s nothing rude about it–I thought you might have mentioned Steven Wright but hadn’t checked. I’m glad for the reminder and will be looking up those posts shortly. It’s sad but not surprising that other comedians were jealous of him but I think your story highlights his strange but intense self-confidence. Another comedian, I wish I could remember who, said a few hours before Wright filmed his first HBO special he was sound asleep in his dressing room. Most comedians would be nervously pacing. I remember hearing him talk about achieving the Holy Grail of comedy of being invited over to the couch by Carson and he seemed pleased by it. He’d also be offered the next big goal in comedy, his own sitcom, and would turn it down.
He’s a remarkable character.