VIDEO: a clip from Steven Wright's When the Leaves Blow Away
The autobiography on Steven Wright’s Web site reads: “I was born. When I was 23 I started telling jokes. Then I started going on television and doing films. That’s still what I am doing. The end.”
It’s true enough, and it has the spare, direct tone of Wright’s madly deadpan humor, but it’s hardly sufficient to describe the life and career of one of contemporary comedy’s greatest voices. Although, Wright’s humor is damn hard to describe.
When I reach him by phone in Los Angeles, he explains it’s part George Carlin, part Salvador Dalí. “I was really inspired by Dalí. I do Surrealism with words rather than pictures.”
The 50-year-old Carlisle resident comes off as a mongrel of absent-minded genius and benighted idiot on stage, where he appears in his new DVD When the Leaves Blow Away (Comedy Central). Wright slowly, deliberately unspools a seemingly endless reel of observations, quickie stories, and one-liners that blend the utterly absurd with the oddly penetrating — a formula he developed and has followed since his early stand-up days in Boston clubs. “My problem,” he says in the film, “is that I was reincarnated without ever having been alive the first time.” Reminiscing about an ex-girlfriend, he remarks, “In her spare time, she liked to waste time.”
The performance was taped as an HBO TV special in 2006. The disc also includes Wright’s 1999 short film “One Soldier” and three minutes of footage from a 1988 Boston Comedy Connection appearance.
Wright broke out of the Hub’s flowering ’80s comedy scene when Johnny Carson’s producer tapped him for The Tonight Show. He killed on TV, and Carson, one of Wright’s heroes, took him under his wing. “It was so magical. Going on that show on August 6, 1982, was the best thing that happened in my career. My whole life changed in five minutes.”
Since then he has taken his stand-up act across the world, made the Grammy-nominated album I Have a Pony (Warner Bros.), and acted in nearly 20 films that include his own Oscar-winning short “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings,” Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. And Wright doesn’t waste his own spare time. His site offers examples of his paintings, music, and short stories.
Despite his productivity, When the Leaves Blow Away is the first Wright comedy performance committed to screen in 15 years. So that’s where our conversation began.
You’ve been performing live regularly, so why did it take you so long to make another stand-up film?
I do about 60 cities a year, and I like to look out from behind the curtain before the shows start. Last year I realized there were mostly people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. I thought I should do another HBO special for the people who know me and to try to reach a new generation. I didn’t do it earlier because it didn’t really hit me until 2006 that the last one was in 1991.