Steven Wright


As well as making four appearances on this month’s Wogan shows, American comedian/surrealist Steven Wright pops up in probably the strangest and, infuriatingly, the shortest film in London this month, namely Jim Jarmusch’s seven-minute short of Wright and Roberto Benigni meeting for ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’.

Benigni, following up his hilarious, wholly endearing character from Jarmusch’s ‘Down by Law’, proves the perfect foil for Wright: broken English meeting broken logic.

Though the credits are almost as long as the film itself (little more than a bizarre, fragmented conversation) the film captures both Jarmusch’s dazzling cinematic style, Benigni’s brilliant comic instinct and provides further evidence of Wright’s nascent genius. The two discuss their burgeoning fame, their addictive taste for black coffee and cigarettes.

Benigni, in typically hapless, haphazard fashion asks Wright, ‘Do you know-a my mother?’ Wright, as ever, isn’t sure. He tells Benigni he likes drinking black coffee last thing at night so that his dreams whizz by – ‘like when they put a camera in a car in the Indianapolis 500.’

According to Jarmusch the film isn’t finished and they’ll continue adding bits into it when they have time. The most enjoyable thing about the film is watching the way Benigni and Wright seem to understand each other perfectly. The film ‘ends’ when Benigni offers to go to the dentist in Wright’s place, Wright accepts and Benigni departs.

Wright was first seen over here on ‘The Bob Monkhouse Show’ before hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’, playing a cameo in Madonna’s ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ and releasing a live album on WEA, ‘I Have A Pony’, which has just been re-issued.

Wright’s comedy is a product of his fuzzy surrealistic observations and his very real confusion with modern-day living. He is laid-back and spaced-out. Way, way out. His is a stream of puzzling, puzzled one-line thoughts, with none of the traditional scene-setting, story-telling or build-ups, each line made still stranger by Wright’s bewildered drawling delivery: ‘Right now, I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time… Some people are afraid of heights. Not me. I’m afraid of widths… I bought some powdered water, but I don’t know what to add… The first time I read a dictionary, I thought it was a poem about everything.’

Some of them sound as though they make perfect sense until you actually think about them a little. He says he learnt Spanish from a Learn-As-You-Sleep Record, but the record was scratched so now he can only stutter in Spanish; he fell asleep in someone’s satellite dish and his dreams were beamed on to TV sets across the world; he puts Instant Coffee in his microwave and nearly went back in time. He asks, ’If I melt Dry Ice, can I swim without getting wet ?’ His answer phone has a recording of the engaged signal; he lost a buttonhole; he likes to reminisce with people he doesn’t know; he likes Abstract Painting -‘Extremely abstract. No paint. No canvas. I just think about it.’

He has a dream that all the babies prevented by the Pill showed up: ‘Boy were they mad’. His philosophy is: ‘You can’t have everything… Where would you put it ? ’
They go on and on. He has millions of them.

Wright is 32, comes from Boston, Massachusetts and lives – inevitably – in the dazzling confusion that is New York.

At university he studied Mass Communications and began auditioning at a local comedy club: ‘I was confronting my fantasy and it just kept going from there. I never really thought it would happen’ he explains in his low drawl.

His earliest inspiration came from the show that gave him his first break, The Johnny Carson Show, watching George Karlin and Bill Cosby.

‘I learnt to write jokes from listening to Woody Allen’s early stand-up records. Truly, he is a genius.’
Wright cracks up when he remembers Allen’s story about being kidnapped: ‘My parents took IMMEDIATE action. They rented out my room.

He became the first newcomer for ten years to be invited back into The Tonight Show for consecutive weeks and became a regular on Saturday Night Live, alongside Eddie Murphy, Dan Ackroyd and Steve Martin.

Almost inevitably, we soon get on to the subject of drugs which he denies using: ‘I don’t need them. People usually assume that’s the explanation for the material but honestly it isn’t. I’ve always thought in a very abstract way.’ I tell him quickly that I wondered if he’d been using things as drugs you weren’t supposed to use: snorting space-dust, inhaling microwave beams, injecting instant coffee or Persil. For instance, that story about doing Jury Service in a case where 600 ants dressed up as rice and robbed a Chinese restaurant (‘I know a few of them and they wouldn’t do a thing like that’).
‘Oh that!’ he laughs, ‘That’s a true story… Yeah, they got off… I started at school, in Junior High, the first joke was about my friend with the sideburns behind his ears. There’s no method, no preparation for writing. They just arrive and the way I write them down is the way I say them on stage. Sometimes I put them in little groups of three but usually I just say them at random. The first joke I ever did on stage was about the illiterate bi-lingualist who couldn’t read in two languages. I’m very fond of that one.’

Have you always been confused by life?
‘No. The older I get, the more confused I become. When I was 5 I had it all figured out. Now everything’s gotten very complicated for me. I used to think it was just the jokes, but now it’s everything. I think I was born in the wrong century. I really feel like I’m 110 years old. But then, maybe I am. We’ve only got their word for it.’

In the States, Wright plays to venues for 4-5000 people. He’s writing a script for Woody Allen’s Orion for a film he will star in and is a regular on Saturday Night Live. Most of these jokes feature on his live LP ‘I Have A Pony’, a line which does crop up during the record, but why is it the title ?
‘I used to imagine if I ever went seriously crazy, and I could only keep one line of the act which it would be ? I imagined myself wandering the corridors saying ‘I have a pony, I have a pony…heh-heh.’

I tell him that he is very weird and ask him what he thinks is his strangest line ?
‘Oh, I’ve never been asked that. Maybe the one about the guy with wooden legs and real feet.’

Hard to argue.