Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Feast of Saint Steven

My Fellow Comedists,

This weekend we celebrate the feast of Saint Steven. Steven Wright, the Salvador Dali of observational comedy, turns 54 this weekend. A Boston-area native, he did it the honest way, working ope-mics at Ding Ho, a half-Chinese restaurant/half comedy club when he quickly was made a regular and put on the Tonight Show where he absolutely killed and cemented his place in contemporary comedy.

In some sense, what he was doing was nothing new. Observational comedy had been flourishing. Robert Klein had been doing it for years. Cosby and Carlin were masters, the one making it narrative while the other tinged it always with his "see how stupid things are" aggressiveness. Gallagher took off the edge, but had to add in his smashing bit. Wright took it in an entirely different direction. His slow stoner delivery -- only Abe Vagoda can deliver a line slower -- and his ability to make the normal absurd and the absurd seem normal creates a surrealistic comedic space where the Gestalt remains fuzzy.

As magnificent as his delivery is, he is an absolute master craftsman of a writer. His jokes are flawlessly written, sharp, smart, magnificently structured, his rhythm and timing impeccable. And because there is no fat in a Steven Wright set -- no segues, no rambling set ups or diversions -- he has to write more jokes than other comedians. He writes more and better than anyone I can think of.

I got to see him years ago at the height of his fame in the late 80s when he had Randy Newman opening for him. Great show, but you could tell he was suffering from a bit of what Steve Martin describes in his autobiography. For a number of jokes, the crowd would laugh at the set up and be settling down during the punchline. He was getting laughs for free, earning them, but not getting them because he earned them.

Favorite Steven Wright lines? A few of mine:

"I met my girlfriend at Macy's. She was buying clothes and I was putting slinkies on the escalators."

"As a hobby I collect sea shells. I have an immense collection. Maybe you've seen it, I keep them scattered over the beaches of the world."

"I poured spot remover on my dog. Now he's gone."

Here's the set that started it off:"

Happy birthday Steven Wright. What are your favorite Steven Wright lines?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve