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Volume 90, Issue 82
Thursday, February 20, 1997
Performance: 'Hermits have no peer pressure'
By Tom Everett and Bob Klanac
Do you remember that inane Canadian game show called Talk About? I had a dream that I was a contestant. . .
"OK Tom, 30 seconds, talk about. . . Steven Wright."
"Uh. . . comedian, monotone, movies, TV specials genius, talk shows, I have a Pony, bad hair, funny, uh, monotone, imagination, original, Letterman, Carson, Leno, Oprah, Arsenio, uh. . ." I was stopped dead by the buzzer. Then my dream mutated into something about a kangaroo in a china shop and plastic pasta.
Reading about Steven Wright can make your mind do weird things.
I was readying myself for the comedian's appearance at Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall Feb. 16 a show I would never see, but more about that later. Wright was in town to kick off the Toronto Comedy Festival. Unfortunately, no amount of research can prepare you to actually see Steven Wright live. As monotone and almost motionless as he is, he's got a stage presence as big as active comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. Sometimes with other funny types, the on-stage antics get in the way of the material. Steven just has a stool, a microphone, a glass of water and, of course, his imagination. A demented, twisted, bizarre imagination that he honed as a child.
Comedy was as much a part of Wright's childhood as baseball and bike rides. He used to lay awake listening to far off broadcasts of comedy records by Woody Allen, Bob Newhart and Jonathan Winters. Wright finally got up the nerve to step forward at an open mic night at Boston's Comedy Connection. He quickly became a hit among the largely university crowd and turned his quirky, observational humour into a weekly gig.
The prerequisite big break came when one of the producers of The Tonight Show, Peter Lasalle, caught Wright's act when in town with his kids to look at colleges. Two weeks later he was on Carson. Less than a week after his first appearance, he was on again, a feat that has only happened a few times in the history of The Tonight Show. Carson led to Letterman which lead to Saturday Night Live which led to small roles in movies which led to being nominated for a Grammy for his 1986 record, I have a Pony, which led to regular TV appearances and headlining major comedy festivals. Now he is working his way up to a feature-length film.
I mentioned that I would never make it to the show. Whatever. Bad weather. Bad drivers. Blah blah blah. So here's a view of the show through the eyes of Bob Klanac:
Wright sauntered onto the stage looking for all the world like he was strolling into a bus station. Rumpled jacket, untucked shirt and the attitude to match. Throughout the almost two hours he loped around the stage, he held the crowd of 2,800 in an odd state of fascination. He would talk about an exchange between himself and a police officer (always ending with the officer about to cry from frustration) and then walk across the stage, stumble to a stop and mumble something like, "Hermits have no peer pressure" or "There's a fine line between fishing and just standing at the edge of a river like an idiot."
Where in the past he would simply stand motionless at the microphone and drop existential one liners one after another, now he works his ethereal observational humour into anecdotes about his life or even his childhood.
For such an unassuming person, it's remarkable how well he holds the stage with his personality. There's a stylized shtick you expect from a stand-up comedian, a verbal rhythm of sorts. Steven Wright has none of that or maybe he's just got such a unique style that he's virtually unique in the history of stand-up. Call him a sit-down comic.
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