- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Steven Wright couldn’t be the same person offstage as he is on. Could he? . Surely, that depressed-sounding stream of absurdist non sequiturs is as much a stage invention as Bobcat Goldthwait’s mangled cry or Emo Philips’ man-child warble.

Isn’t it?

A few minutes into an interview with Mr. Wright, who appears at the Warner Theatre tonight at 8 for another round of disconnected stand-up, and we’re no longer so sure.

He perks up when the interviewer laughs, as if inspiring a chuckle is the Paxil to cleave through his gloom.

But most of what Mr. Wright offers is delivered in that familiar somber monotone, which off-mike betrays hints of a Boston accent.

The stand-up comic may not have landed a sitcom of his own or reached the heights of comedy glory like Tim Allen, Roseanne and other comics from his graduating class, but he’s still plugging away at cultural mores and getting paid for it.

Maybe his humor never stood a chance at nationwide acceptance.

Either you laugh at classic Wright-isms like, “I bought some batteries … but they weren’t included,” or you don’t. There’s no middle ground.

The comic arrived on the scene during a comedy glut but insists the industry hasn’t changed much over the past two decades.

“The only difference I see is that there isn’t one show you can go on and have your whole life change with one appearance,” says Mr. Wright, whose stand-up so impressed then-“Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson in the early ‘80s that the comedy arbiter quickly asked him back after his debut appearance, sparking a career.

Mr. Wright, who won an Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1989 with his “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings,” says he never worried his arcane humor wouldn’t find a mass audience.

“I was only trying to write things that were funny,” he says. “I’m never thinking, ‘How is this going to be received?’” He simply plugged away with his fellow Beantown comics.

“There were no agents, no producers, only the guy who ran the club, and he didn’t know about comedy,” he says.

In retrospect, working the isolated Boston circuit let him hone his comic persona without unnecessary feedback. Mr. Wright trusted audiences to untangle his dry musings, unprepared for the possibility of incomprehension.

“I couldn’t adjust,” he says of his approach. “There was no ‘Plan B’.”

Mr. Wright grew up in Burlington, Mass., which explains the slight accent as well as his affinity for No-mah and the rest of the Red Sox Nation.

He studied communications at Emerson College in Boston, but soon took up with fellow Emersonian Denis Leary to hit the local comedy clubs.

Mr. Carson gave him a career, but at times it seems like Mr. Wright isn’t sure what to do with it. He recorded one Grammy-nominated album, “I Have a Pony,” more than a decade ago but never even considered a follow-up disc until recently.

When his fame peaked, the de rigueur sitcom offer came his way, to which he politely replied, “No, thank you.”

“I did stand-up because I wanted to, not to get somewhere else,” he says. “I love the art of doing it. I just couldn’t imagine my angle on things in a context like that.”

Besides, he says, the gig would go against his nature.

“I’m a loner type,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to work with 150 people.”

Mr. Wright, who can be seen in the new Jim Jarmusch film “Coffee and Cigarettes” (he shot his segment in 1986), recently completed work on “Son of the Mask” with Jamie Kennedy.

He’ll play the president of a comic book company, a role which will probably sound very much like Steven Wright, the comedian.

“They never wanna explore [it],” he says of the typical casting director’s approach to his comic persona. “They know what I am, and they just want that version, which is fine for me. I never went into this to become an actor.”

In something of a return to his comedy origins, these days he is integrating his characteristically mordant observations into stories again instead of stringing them together in a largely discrete succession.

Mr. Wright credits his longevity to tackling “everyday common denominator stuff” into which anyone can buy.

His famously detached, almost disembodied, persona, however, still leaves the people he runs into offstage scratching their heads. Not that he’s bothered about it.

“If I’m laughing, they say, ‘Oh, you really do laugh.’ If I’m serious, they say, ‘You’re like that all the time.”

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