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TV Comic Steven Wright Sets Off, Worriedly, on a Steep Ascent

updated 03/13/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/13/1989 01:00AM

Steven Wright is not a man possessed by possessions. A casual inventory reveals that he owns one guitar, three rocking chairs, one painting and two suits, though he is not sure of the suits' whereabouts. His Manhattan apartment is occupied by little more than oxygen. In one room, the only signs of possible habitation are the picture hooks left behind by a former tenant. Every few days Wright redecorates by moving his painting—a portrait of a little girl in an empty room—from one hook to another. "Open space is very comforting to me," he says. "Plus I can move in a cab."

Wright's uncluttered modus vivendi seems fitting for an artist whose most valuable asset is his imagination. At 33, he makes his living by making up things that make people laugh. For the past nine years he has traveled across the country—often dropping in on Johnny Carson and David Letterman—introducing audiences to his tilted perceptions of the planet earth. Or as Wright puts it, "seeing the world through the eyes of a child and getting to use the words of an adult."

Now the comedian has taken one step beyond his stand-up act with The Appointments of Dennis Jennings. The 30-minute film, which premieres on HBO this week, has been nominated for an Oscar in the short live-action category. Wright stars with Roseanne's Laurie Metcalf and British comedian Rowan Atkinson in a plot that pivots on a paranoid waiter's sessions with his shrink.

Wright's humor fuses the abstract with the absurd. Who else would have written jokes like, "I kept a diary right after I was born, Day 1: Tired from the move. Day 2: Everyone thinks I'm an idiot." Or this, "I spilled spot remover on my dog. Now he's gone." Or, "I went to a place to eat. It said, BREAKFAST ANYTIME, SO I ordered French toast during the Renaissance."

"He's a complete original," says television writer Mike Armstrong, a friend for 10 years. "With Steve, we're pretty sure there's no one else in the entire world who thinks like he does." Onstage, Wright delivers his observations in an adenoidal monotone, his facial expressions somewhere between catatonic and comatose. Offstage, he is every bit as animated. At noon, he looks like he's been jerked awake from a rough night on a dorm couch. His shirt is a riot of wrinkles, his pants are clearly an afterthought, even his hair looks confused. But beneath the packaging lurks a creative talent as lively as a firecracker.

Go ahead. Ask him if he ever wore pj's with plastic feet. "Yes," he says. "But I only wore the feet." Pause. "My mother bought them at a surrealistic pajama store." Ask if there's a woman in his life and he observes, "I'm seeing three women, Triplets. They are all 27 and blond. I like one better than the others, but I can never remember which one it is." But don't try to get personal by inquiring about the contents of his refrigerator. "I never discuss my refrigerator," he says. "There are many things there. Some are for eating purposes."

Comedy was as much a part of Wright's boyhood as baseball and minibikes. He remembers fondly his adolescent years, when on Sunday nights, while the rest of his family slept, little Steven would climb into his bunk bed with a tinny transistor radio and tune into a midnight review of comedy albums by Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart and Woody Allen. At age 14, Wright dreamed that one day he too could make an audience laugh, "It was my secret," he says. "I was afraid if I told anyone, I would jinx it."

One of four children, Wright was raised in Burlington, Mass., where his father is a truck driver. "Childhood was very nice," says Steven. "The only thing wrong was that I was so introverted, everything became a big deal.... 'Oh, no, here comes the bus. Where am I gonna sit on the bus?' " In the seventh grade he was amusing a few friends with his inventive way with words. "I liked to think of strange combinations," he says, "like 'flocks of false teeth' or 'a herd of clothespins,' which I thought was just hilarious."

Wright graduated from Boston's Emerson College with no clear focus on his future. He shoveled snow off rooftops in Aspen, Colo., parked cars in Las Vegas and painted dormitories at Emerson while still harboring the same dream. "I finally had to confront it," he says. "I didn't want to be selling insurance at 40, wondering what would it have been like to do stand-up.' "

He found out at 23, during Open Mike Night at Boston's Comedy Connection. His first joke: "I was in a bookstore, and I started talking to a French-looking girl. She was a bilingual illiterate. She couldn't read in two different languages." Says Wright: "I was scared out of my mind and just said this stuff that I had memorized in my apartment. I didn't even wait for them to laugh." But when they did, "What an amaaaaazing rush! I was finally doing this thing that I had been thinking about since I was 14, and someday, I thought, maybe The Tonight Show."

Or, to be precise, Aug. 6, 1982, Wright was so unprepared for Johnny's invitation that he had to borrow a decent pair of pants. The next week, when a man asked for his autograph at the Los Angeles airport, the pleasantly shocked comedian asked the fan for his in return.

Appearances with Carson begot appearances on Letterman, Saturday Night Live and HBO specials. In between there were so many dates at college campuses, comedy clubs and arenas across America that Wright's address seemed to be a blur of anonymous hotels. "Traveling was incredibly exciting the first year," he says. "The third year, it was more like, 'What am I doing here? I'm in Seattle.' "

His terror of planes, cars, motorcycles, elevators, tunnels and bridges made appearing in as many as 95 cities a year all the more stressful, but Wright's grueling itinerary has never dampened the exhilaration that comes from working with a live audience. "Doing stand-up is like running across a frozen pond with the ice breaking behind you," he says. "I love it because it's dangerous."

When Wright is not working, he spends his day in a normal way, noodling with his guitar or walking around the city, stopping at museums and movies, sometimes with friends. "I'm not even close to being married," says Steven, "so I guess I'll have to keep seeing the triplets."

He spends several nights a week collaborating on script ideas with Armstrong, who co-wrote Dennis Jennings. Writing a screenplay doesn't come as easily as writing lines like "hermits have no peer pressure," but, says Steven, "film is a whole new way for me to present my perspective." He has been developing fresh material ("Yesterday I went out and bought a decaffeinated coffee table") in preparation for an appearance on HBO's upcoming Comic Relief III and a five-week tour starting later this month. And sometime in the future, Wright would like to have children. Not just because he's nutty about them but also, he says, "because I don't know how much longer I can keep writing this stuff myself."

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