Steven Wright has enjoyed an enormous groundswell of success from brief TV and club appearances in which his string of imaginative one-liners suggests a mind that can shake the fat of habit out of language and lead us to see how tenuous common phrases and assumptions can be.
For example, when a traffic cop asks him, "Did you know the speed limit is 55 miles an hour?" he replies, "Yeah, but I'm not gonna be out that long."
Other characteristic Wright lines: "I hate it when my foot falls asleep, 'cuz I know it'll be up for the rest of the night." "My girlfriend got poison ivy on the brain. She could only scratch it by thinking of sandpaper." "I fell asleep in a transmitter dish. My dreams were televised all over the world."
Wright is a favorite of the stressed-out. His monotone and his faintly catatonic delivery suggest nervous exhaustion, and the odd juxtaposition of his images must strike a sympathetic feeling in someone, at final exam time, for example, who's spent days cramming so hard that categories begin spilling into each other in a low-key delirium.
That's about as far as he goes, however. Wright is very good at filling the abbreviated attention span TV requires, but when it comes to a full-scale concert in front of a live theater audience--as we saw Saturday night at the Universal Amphitheatre--he has no act.
Wright comes off as a current cross between Henny Youngman and Jackie Vernon. He offers a rack of one-liners, like a bummed-out salesman--you take your pick of the ones you like and go home with a couple of small packages. There's no shape, or build, or energy, or a point of view. You don't go away with the feeling of having been worked over, or at least thoroughly engaged, the way you do with a great comedian who knows how to play a house.
Wright works out of a modern version of Sad Sack, a figure who can't cope with the images and pressures of daily living and whose energy is dissipated in imaginative, impotent musings.
Wright could be--behind Woody Allen--a true metaphysical comedian, someone undone by his sense of the absurd. But his passivity is draining on an audience, and aside from his occasional claims to prideful eccentricity ("I like to skate on the other side of the ice"), there isn't the sense of a real character here that has been thwarted or oppressed.
His appeal is reactionary, which is to say that he offers himself as a basic blank into which people can read their own enervating frustrations. His one-liners are often a tease and he has a great sense of imagery, but we miss the hub of coherence that gives an act its center and makes us willing listeners to a someone who feels enough of a sense of urgency to stand up and engage us en masse.
He's not a contemptuous performer; that is, he doesn't treat his audience with hostility if it doesn't give him huge responses. A lot of people think his freaked-out imagery is a hip product of media overload, the flight of a delicate sensibility from the stimulus of too much news, political wind, advertising, the ubiquitous pollution of commercial claim--leaving a collapsed personality behind.
On the other hand, there's nothing to suggest that Wright hasn't taken a gimmick--the random association--and run with it. His routine is to comedy what MTV is to the depiction of an experience. It doesn't matter where you pick it up, from beginning to end; you always wind up with the same thing.