Monday, November 3, 2008
The Wright Stuff
I saw Steven Wright at the River Rock Show Theatre on Saturday night. It was my second time seeing him. Human experience is a funny thing. I believe our moods shape our experience more than we ever admit. You could be sleepy or grumpy or, really, any of the other dwarves, and that will make your experience less pleasurable, no matter what's happening on stage (or on screen or whatever the art form you're taking in). The first time I saw Wright was at the Orpheum a few years ago. My take was that he was great for about 20 minutes, then his slow dulcet tones kind of put you to sleep. Now I think I just might have been sleepy anyway. It's no reflection on him.
On Saturday he went from 8:15 to 10:00 o'clock. That's a long damn show – and even longer, I'm thinking, for someone who essentially does one-liners. How does he store all those jokes? Yes, he'll do some drawn-out narrative pieces, but they're essentially one-liners stitched together. Same when he picks up his guitar and recontextualizes his jokes in song. But I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Wright doesn't have a single genuine word in his act – no references to Vancouver, no reactions to the reactions he was getting. Nothing. But it works. I guess so. The guy has been doing this for about 30 years.
Here's an example of how rote his act is:
Do you think in Europe Miles Davis is known as Kilometre Davis?
Funny enough line and it got a lukewarm response. I'm thinking that if he just acknowledged the fact that he was in a country that uses the metric system, the joke would have got a much bigger laugh. He could have asked us if that's what Davis is called here. I'm not sure how; that's his job. I just think that as soon as he said it, with Europe as the reference point, the natural inclination to laugh was hindered with the thought, "Hey, we use the metric system."
I know some of you won't agree. I've been told I'm too analytical, but I'm convinced I'm right on this. Let me go off on a tangent to prove my point. About five or six years ago I was at the Just For Laughs festival in Montréal. At one of the clubs I saw Christopher Titus do a joke that ended with the punchline "Cirque du Soleil". Only he, being an American with no knowledge of French, pronounced it "Cirque dee Soleil". It got a moderate laugh just because, I thought, people started thinking as soon as the laughs kicked in, "Ooh, he just butchered the pronunciation." Cut to a few days later. I'm hanging out backstage at the gala. Titus is there with his fiancée. Everyone had to get there hours before so there was a lot of sitting around. I had played basketball with him the day before so I got to know him a little bit. We're sitting around and I tell him the correct pronunciation of Cirque du Soleil. Just the "du" part. I say it seems insignificant, but I betcha it makes a difference. So he goes out there, says the joke with "du" instead of "dee" and it gets a huge reaction. Applause break, even. He and his fiancée made a point of coming up to me after and saying how right I was. (Yes, it could have been that it was the gala and the audience would have lapped it up anyway, but I'm sticking with my story.) So I think if Wright had made a simple change to his joke, it could have got a much better reaction.
Not that it matters, I guess, when he's got so many more coming down the pipe. Everyone in the world, practically, has their favourite Wright joke. How he keeps churning them out is beyond me. I think acid probably has a lot to do with it. He can get pretty bizarrely surreal. Here are some choice jokes of his I managed to scribble down:
The New Testement is pretty old. I think they should call it the Old Testament and the Most Recent Testement.
What did Jesus ever do for Santa Claus's birthday?
Next week I'm gonna have an MRI to find out whether or not I have claustrophobia.
When I was a kid I was told practice makes perfect. Then I was told nobody's perfect. So I quit practicing.
A friend of mine has Reverse Tourette's Syndrome. Random people just swear at him.
I'm addicted to placebos. I could quit but it wouldn't matter.
I think it's wrong that only one company makes Monopoly.
A friend of mine has a trophy wife. But apparently it wasn't first place.
I asked my girlfriend if she ever had sex with a woman. She said no. I said, "You should try it; it's fun."... So she did... Now she's gone.
I finally figured out what I want on my tombstone: "You're next"
Whenever I think about the past it just brings back so many memories.
When I was a little boy we had a dog that was born with two vaginas. And we named it Snatches.
Why are ballerinas always on their tiptoes? Why don't they just get taller women?
A friend of mine does voodoo acupuncture. You don't have to go. You're just walking down the street and you go, "Woah, that's much better!"
The beauty of his work is that it translates so well to the page. But at the same time, the page (or computer screen) doesn't do him service. He adds so much more through his pauses and tone of voice. I was going to say 'persona', but I'm convinced what you see on stage is pretty much what you get in real life. I interviewed the man once six years ago. It was the most awkward interview I've ever done – and I've done a lot. Again, through no fault of his own. That's just the way he is. I'd ask a question and he'd think, then think some more, before finally offering a brief answer. If you know someone well, not a problem. But if you're talking over the phone to a stranger who you figure probably doesn't want to be talking to you, those pauses can be painful. In each one I'm thinking, "Is he mad at me? Was that a stupid question? Is he ignoring me now? Should I move on to my next question?" Often, he'd give a short sentence then stop. I'd wait, then wait some more, and just when I think I should move on to the next subject, we'd start talking at the same time. So I figured that's just the way he is. S-l-o-w. Or maybe just t-h-o-u-g-h-t-f-u-l.
I got to meet him after the show this time. Well, "meet" may be the wrong word. The River Rock and the Red Robinson theatres both do these horribly awkward meet-and-greet sessions with about a dozen lucky fans after the show. And I'm always invited and usually go. I'm not sure why I go. Maybe because they take your picture with the artist and you can show it to your grandkids and they can think you hung out with them or something. But nothing could be further from the truth. What happens is the dozen or so of you are herded down the elevator and led into a room where we stand around trying to look like we belong. Then the star of the show is ushered in and led to the front of the room. One by one we're introduced to said artist, who shakes our hand, and we turn to the camera and smile. Occasionally the comic makes it worthwhile. Dana Carvey, for example, is always on and seems like a helluva nice guy. Lisa Lampanelli was full of life and had everyone in stitches while calling everyone a "cunt". Don Rickles, though, was the best. He shuffles in wearing a tuxedo top under his robe (no pants). He's in full Rickles mode. As soon as the photo is snapped he says, "Now get the hell outta here!"
Steven Wright walked in and looked much older than he does on stage or TV. I mean, the guy is in his early 50s, so maybe he looks his age. It was just surprising. He also didn't look like the healthiest person alive. And it appears he's got the Howie Mandel germ phobia thing going. He wouldn't shake hands. We each got a fist bump. And when he put his arms around people for the pose, I noticed his hands were kept back so as not to touch their outer garments even. It was just the illusion that he was hugging them.
After the show, my friend and I were sitting out in the bar and Steven came wandering through looking like he was really looking for someone. He went back and forth for probably 15 minutes. Nobody looked twice at him. Odd, that. I figured he'd be quite recognizable.
Another thought on the evening: I'm always loathe to assume anything a comedian says has any basis in fact in their lives. And I probably wouldn't with Wright, either, if it weren't for the fact that I've been reading a lot lately on the suicide death of my favourite writer, David Foster Wallace. I'd read him for years and never had an inkling he was depressed or suicidal for decades. He'd make references on occasion, but it seemed like an abstraction. While waiting for my friend outside the show, I, in fact, was reading a Rolling Stone article on Wallace, so it was fresh in my mind. With Wallace, I thought how, I guess, you can never really know what's going on in someone's head unless you're really close to them. And not even then sometimes. So, anyway, when Wright made his first suicide reference, my alarm bells went off.
I got a papercut from writing my suicide note. That's a start.
A funny line and I'm sure it's just an example of great joke writing.
I'm insane. You think it's a show.
Hmm... that could very well be true. Then he sang a song about suicide:
I wanna put a closure on my mirth.
I realize he could completely be playing to his deadpan persona. It wouldn't fare that well if he talked of puppy dogs and lollipops and had a rosy outlook. It wouldn't match. So let's just hope he's much happier in real life than he lets on under the spotlight.
Check out some Steven Wright video over there in the right-hand panel ––>
Wow, that was long. No wonder editors hate my guts.