Comedian Stephen Wright, known for his distinct voice and deadpan delivery, describes his life this way: “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.”
Actually, there is a lot more. Wright was ranked 15th Greatest Comedian by Rolling Stone in their 2017 list of the 50 Greatest Stand-Up Comics. He has an Academy Award for co-writing and producing the short film The Appointment of Dennis Jennings, in which he starred with Rowan Atkinson. He also has two Emmy Award nominations as the producer of Louie. He appeared in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where he mispronounced the word “behemoth” in the opening of the film. He is known for one-liners, non sequiturs, irony and paraprosdokians, the latter being when you start a sentence normally and end it strangely. In an interview, Wright said that he never knew it had a name.
Wright grew up in Massachusetts and got a degree from Emerson College in Boston. He began performing stand-up the year after graduation at the Comedy Connection in Boston. In 1982, an executive producer at The Tonight Show saw him on a bill with other local comics and booked him. He impressed Johnny Carson so much that he was asked to appear again the same week. His first album, I have a Pony, was released in 1985 and was nominated for a Grammy. That landed him an HBO special in the “On Location” series at Wolfgang’s in San Francisco. The popularity of the special and of his laid-back delivery gained him a cult-like following and a place on the college circuit.
In a 2019 interview, for Las Vegas magazine, Wright talked about his comedy. “When I think of a joke, the sentences come immediately, within 10 seconds,” he said. “My mind is like a factory that only makes jokes one way. Jokes can only be made one way in my head and that’s the fewest number of words to get the concept out. There’s not one wasted word, because an extra word will throw the rhythm off. It’s almost musical, really where you’re like, ‘This should change. This should end right here.’ The world is like a giant mosaic painting. In these little squares is the whole world. And sometimes I’ll see a square and think, ‘Oh, that has the same meaning as that over there, but it could be taken in a different way.’ That’s how it happens.”
Don’t worry if you see Wright in person and bring up one of his jokes or paraprosdokians. He’s very happy you know who he is. Otherwise, he has said that he might be digging ditches. He’d probably manage to find a mosaic there, too.