From his first appearance on The Tonight Show in 1982, it was clear Steven Wright — who performs at the Taft Theatre on Friday — was clearly no standard-issue comedian. His razor-sharp yet demented observational skills were cloaked by a stoned, somnambulistic delivery that guaranteed every punchline landed with roundhouse power and left-field surprise.
The audience reaction was so overwhelming, and host Johnny Carson so enamored of Wright, that the comedian was invited back the very next week.
Three years later, Wright’s debut album, I Have a Pony, was a smash hit and earned him a Grammy nomination. People began quoting his deadpan, off-kilter jokes and sayings like, “When I die, I’m leaving my body to science fiction,” “Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time” and “I bought an ant farm. I don’t know where I’m going to get tractors that small.” Their twisted logic sounded so wrong they just had to be Wright.
Then, he won an Oscar for writing and producing the 1988 live-action short The Appointment of Dennis Jennings. After the accolades of the 1980s, he never looked back.
Long before that, however, there were dues to be paid to get to such success. Wright took his licks, like so many other stand-ups of the era, by opening for bands. “There was Manhattan Transfer in Atlantic City,” says Wright, from his Massachusetts home, recalling the time he opened for the Jazz-Pop vocal group. “I wasn’t really known yet, so (the audience is) like, ‘Who is this guy mumbling up there?’ They might have even thought I was testing the microphone, in a very wrong way. ‘Can you hear that guy?’ ‘No, I can’t.’ ‘They must be trying to fix the mic.’ ”
On paper, Wright’s act sounds improbably doomed to failure: one-liners, non-sequiturs and convoluted set-ups presented in a deadpan monotone that implies a gene-spliced hybrid of George Carlin and Henny Youngman overdosing on Xanax.
Although he eventually was cited by Rolling Stone as the 15th best stand-up comedian of all time, Wright broke with comedy conventions to get there. He only has a handful of releases — 1985’s I Have a Pony and 2007’s I Still Have a Pony albums, the videos of HBO’s 1985 The Steven Wright Special and Comedy Central’s 2006 When the Leaves Blow Away.
He also has appeared in movies. One of his performances became a classic, in a suitably (for him) off-kilter way. In Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, he is the voice of radio DJ K-Billy, who plays Stealer’s Wheel’s 1970s hit “Stuck in the Middle with You” during a notoriously memorable torture scene. Last year, he gave voice to a character in The Emoji Movie. (Tarantino and The Emoji Movie… sounds like a Wright one-liner.)
Wright also took a long hiatus from TV appearances, save for rare late-night talk show visits, but continued to perform live. It was his passion for the stage that kept him from pursuing the write/record/release/tour/repeat cycle of his comedy peers.
“I love being in front of the audience. It’s very intense out there,” Wright says. “Everything is exaggerated. Everything that goes great is fantastic, and when there’s no laughter, it’s horrible. It’s like walking on a tightrope, except that it’s on fire behind you.”
Although it seems like much of Wright’s material comes from the same moment of clarity that signals the need for a roach clip, he only admits to the regular use of a single mood-altering substance.
“I have a weird reaction to caffeine,” he says. “It kind of makes my imagination get going. I don’t sit down to write jokes, but a lot of this stuff will come into my head when I’m high on caffeine. There’s like an hour-and-a-half window where my mind goes crazy. I already have a good imagination, but then you add this drug and stuff comes to me. I wander around the rest of the day and do whatever I do, and then the next day I get high on coffee again. I’m like the receptionist for my own brain. Whatever my mind thinks is funny, I write it down. Coffee is one of my top five favorite things of being alive.”
And in keeping with his low-key approach to, well, everything, Wright is no coffee snob. “I’m addicted to Dunkin’ Donuts,” he says. “It goes well with my brain.”
Other revelations about Wright include his adoration for the Boston Red Sox, though he does not watch entire games because, he says, “It’s too slow for me.”
In addition to having used guitar in his act, Wright is a music fan who raves about a recent discovery. “A good friend was a big Grateful Dead fan and I never really cared for them,” he says. “I started listening to them about two months ago just because he listened to them for years, and now I can’t stop listening to them. I’m addicted. I’m becoming a 63-year-old Deadhead. I’m looking to see if I can go see the version that they now are this summer. Now I get it. It’s not that I’m late; I’m just behind.”
Over the years, Wright’s material has had a relative lack of topicality. He decided early on in his career that he would ignore politics and the celebrity-du-jour angle for straight (well, somewhat straight) observation. He admits that he does have a joke about the current political climate, but it doesn’t really fit in the arc of his current routine.
So what is Wright focused on this time around? “I’m talking about the expansion of the universe,” he says. “And lint.”
Must have been a double Dunkin’ kind of morning.
Steven Wright appears 8 p.m. Friday at the Taft Theatre (317 E. Fifth St., Downtown). Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org