The comedy of Steven Wright: Cerebral, offbeat and politically incorrect?

These days, even the ostensibly innocuous comedy of Steven Wright is coming under scrutiny from some quarters.

steven wright
Credit: Jorge Rios

From Dave Chappelle to Joe Rogan to Louis C.K., standup comedians have increasingly become victims of “cancel culture.” In the cases of the above-mentioned jokesters, the nature of their acts (and, in the case of C.K., personal life) make them obvious targets of those who come down on the side of political correctness. But who could ever imagine veteran funny guy Steven Wright earning the wrath of the woke?

After all, the 66-year-old Boston-area native has gained fame and fortune with cerebral, kooky lines like: “A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me. I’m afraid of widths.” And, “If you are in a spaceship travelling at the speed of light and you turn on the headlights, does anything happen?” But it turns out even he has raised the ire of the politically correct.

“I had this joke: ‘A friend of mine has a trophy wife, and apparently it wasn’t first place,’ offered the comic who is on the road throughout this year “Now, [people are] upset over it for two reasons. They’re upset because a ‘trophy wife’ obviously is a woman based on how she looks. I didn’t invent this concept. The ‘trophy wife’ has been around for 50 years. But they’re outraged by this.”

But being Steven Wright, he has conjured an offbeat defense to such responses. He explained that he prefaces the joke by saying, “Would you like to hear a politically incorrect joke?” Receiving an affirmative response from the audience, he then says: “You sure you want to hear it? The ushers are gonna bring down a piece of paper. You’re gonna have to sign a release, that you agree to hear this joke.

“And then I tell the joke, and then they’re still upset, but I just bow [and say], ‘I asked you. And you said, yes. And you’re still upset, but I got to tell the joke anyway!’”

In a more serious vein, Wright, whose onstage delivery can be described as deadpan-bordering-on-catatonic, added he has a line that he has yet to use in a performance: “If you minded your own business, you wouldn’t be offended.”

Crediting Carlin

Although their public personas and use of language (Wright’s act is devoid of four-letter words) couldn’t be more different, Wright has always counted the late George Carlin as a major influence on his particular brand of comedy. That, he said, is because, “he talked about every day, little things, like just all the little things that everyone sees and deals with, and that’s what I do. I’m talking about the most mundane things. I’m talking about microwave ovens and sponges. So that’s how he influenced me: What to talk about.”

Wright added that he was sure he knows what Carlin, a vociferous defender of free speech who died in 2008, would think of cancel culture. “I would love to hear what he would be saying about this,” he said. “He would rip this. He would shred this.”

steven wright
Credit: Jorge Rios

Human radar screen

Whether the subject is dating, sex or politics, so much of standup comedy is the result of personal experiences on the part of the performer, who exaggerates common, relatable happenstances to comedic effect. But Wright deals in concepts so bizarre and surreal that most people could never conceive of them, much less relate to them. So how does he mine his comedy gold? 

“I just notice the world through my day, whatever I’m doing,” he explained. “I’m like subconsciously scanning. Airport control towers have that radar with that arm that sweeps around, and the little blips are the planes, you know? 

“So I have one of those in my head; it’s just sweeping around, scanning for something weird. I mean, I don’t get up and go to the store [expecting] there will be something weird. I just automatically, notice stuff. That’s where the jokes come from.”

No interest in series TV

Wright’s unique, intrinsically hilarious space-cadet character would seem perfectly suited to be the foundation of a situation comedy. But that has never happened and, he insisted, never will.

“There were a couple of situations that were presented, but they just seemed overwhelming to me,” he admitted. “I didn’t know how my humor would go into that situation, although my persona could have gone into it. It wouldn’t have to be my jokes of course, but the idea of going into something that large with all those people in a network and everything, it seemed too much to me.

“I’d rather just be alone or off to the side.”

    • Chuck Darrow headshot

      Chuck Darrow has spent more than four decades as a writer and broadcaster specializing in covering the Philadelphia region's arts, entertainment and casinos. He is still afraid he may one day have to work for a living. 

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