ARCHIVE: Steven Wright, Peripheral Visionary

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Steven Wright takes the stage at the Count Basie Theatre Friday night.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on RedBankGreen June 1, 2010)

This shouldn’t come as any surprise, but Steven Wright in conversation comes off sounding an awful lot like Steven Wright in performance — maybe even more so.

We have no doubt that the qualities most associated with the 54 year old comedian — the methodical, mumbly, molasses-paced delivery; the tournament-grade poker face, and the entire physical being that seems an extension of his battered porkpie hat — are the stuff of utmost sincerity.

We also believe that the poker face masks a genuine love of life and sense of wonder — a fully rounded persona that the Oscar and Grammy winning writer, actor and musician carries with him like a notebook of observations. While other standup stars of his era (think of the younger versions of Steve Martin and Howie Mandel) hung their manic shtick up on the bedpost each night, Wright has moved through the decades at his own deliberate pace, never really slipping out of style and never appearing anything other than at home in his lived-in skin.

The performer who was called upon to voice Speed the Turtle in The Swan Princess would be the first to admit that he doesn’t work too fast — his two albums of songs were released 12 years apart, and his second DVD came along more than 20 years after the first — and that when he does hit the road these days, he prefers to “go out for a couple of weeks” rather than do a coast-to-coast blitz. It’s on just such an early-June jaunt around the northeast that the Boston-bred Wright comes to Red Bank this Friday night, as the latest comic legend to tread the boards of the Count Basie Theatre.

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Clockwise from top left: young Steven Wright in an early 80s standup gig; as The Guy on the Couch in HALF BAKED; with Roberto Begnini in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES; on his Grammy winning album I HAVE A PONY; in his short film ONE SOLDIER; onstage with guitar; in the Madonna movie DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN.

In case you were wondering what Wright has in store for the local theater-size audience, the standup star puts to rest any speculation about all-singing, all-dancing multimedia extravaganzas with a terse promise of “the same bizarre things you come to expect… abstractions, insane songs. And the next thing you know, it’s over.”

If anything, that might be too conservatively Wright-wing a take on the comedian’s stock in trade. Alternating between musings and music, a Steven Wright set is simple in structure, but conceptually as complex as the universe in which he wanders and ponders. At his slightly surreal best (”I Xeroxed a mirror. Now I have an extra Xerox machine”), Wright is the witness to a world whose debatable “logic” we tend to take at face value; the guy who turns common sense to nonsense, deconstructs our loopy language and pokes at all the “givens” until they give. Not unlike the comedy pioneer that he cites as “a major influence,” the late George Carlin.

Also like Carlin, Wright is an unorthodox comic mind that navigates the entrenched orthodoxies of the talk show circuit (he demurs from taking sides in the whole Leno-vs.-Conan thing, professing to like  and respect the skills of the hardworking broadcast perennials). He’s also forged an identity as a wordsmith — one who received an Academy Award for the script of his first short film, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, a twisted little tale of betrayal and revenge that memorably paired the stoic Wright with the mugging Rowan Atkinson.

“I’ll go out, see something, and write about it when I come home,” Wright says of his preferred work habits. “It’s just lines on paper at first, but when you read it you get the jokes.”

An Oscar statuette was not forthcoming — but should have been — for Wright’s titanic turn as The Guy on the Couch in the stoner comedy Half Baked; a performance that resonates with truth, and one that takes its place alongside such brilliant Wright cameos as those he essayed inNatural Born KillersThe Muse, and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes.

Onstage, however, with little more than a mike stand and a passionately played guitar, Wright is the whole show; a “peripheral visionary” whose “eyeglass prescription ran out” — and who you can be sure is very happy to be there.

“I make a living from my creativity,” the comic observes. “I tell jokes, play songs, I get to be on TV and movies…it’s the only life  I know.”

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