Entertainment & Life

Imagination fuels Steven Wright’s quirky quips

The blank-faced Wright will pull from an extensive library of one-liners at his Sept. 17 show at the Mondavi Center.
The blank-faced Wright will pull from an extensive library of one-liners at his Sept. 17 show at the Mondavi Center.

Steven Wright’s dull, monotone voice would almost put audiences to sleep if it weren’t for his hilariously aberrant observations.

When Wright takes the stage at the UC Davis Mondavi Center on Sept. 17, he might bring up the one animal he hunts (butterflies). Or maybe he’ll tell about why he blew through a stop sign (he doesn’t believe everything he reads). More likely, though, he’ll make this kind of observation: “It doesn’t matter what temperature a room is. It’s always room temperature.”

Much like deceased comedy legend Mitch Hedberg, many of Wright’s jokes are entertainingly absurdist or surreal one-liners. His slow, lethargic delivery is more pronounced than Hedberg’s, though it is no act.

“Basically, I talk like that. This is just how I speak,” Wright said. “I’m just a regular guy with an unusual imagination.”

Virtually none of Wright’s quips, like the one about a friend being arrested for producing counterfeit pennies, are rooted in fact. In 36 years on stage, he has only told two truthful stories – and even those were exaggerated for comedic effect, he said.

The 59-year-old Wright jumped onto the national scene in 1982, when he appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Carson liked Wright enough to have him back for another performance later in the week, a rarity for a host who could book virtually any entertainer.

His 1985 comedy album “I Have a Pony” earned Wright a Grammy nomination, though he eventually lost to Whoopi Goldberg. It took 22 years for him to release a follow-up album, titled “I Still Have a Pony.”

Wright has also been featured in small roles in a collection of feature films such as “Reservoir Dogs,” “Half Baked” and “Babe: Pig in the City.” He wrote and starred as the titular character in “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings,” which won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.

“The Late Late Show” host Craig Ferguson took a liking to Wright’s deadpan personality, and brought him on as a guest in the show’s inaugural season back in 2005. Wright appeared on “The Late Late Show” 18 times over Ferguson’s 10-year run on CBS, the only improvisation work he has ever done.

“It was like eight minutes of insanity,” Wright said. “It was fun, it was dangerous, it was a whole different experience for me. We were like two guys in an insane asylum, like we were in a room waiting for our doctors to come in (for) our appointments.”

When not performing, Wright works as a consulting producer on FX’s Emmy-winning show “Louie,” starring Louis C.K. as the show’s director, editor, producer, writer and lead actor.

Wright called Louis C.K. “a genius” and said he could have a successful career in any of the five roles, not to mention his distinguished record as a stand-up comedian.

Away from the show, Wright counts Hannibal Buress and Bill Burr as two of his favorite comedians. He and Buress met while opening one of Louis C.K.’s shows in Buress’ home city of Chicago, and Wright made a point to see the 32-year-old rising star when he performed in Boston.

A proud native of Cambridge, Mass., Wright occasionally has appeared on talk shows in a Boston Red Sox hat and became the first member of the Boston Comedy Hall of Fame in 2008. He moved back to his home state after 15 years in Los Angeles and five in New York City.

An hour and a half of one-liners can prove taxing, as Wright delivers more than 300 jokes per show. His slow delivery belies the mental and physical effort spent on a night’s work.

“Even though it looks like it’s not any energy at all, there is a lot of energy involved,” he said.

Steven Wright

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17

Where: Mondavi Center (1 Shields Ave., Davis)

Cost: $20-$40

Information: www.mondaviarts.org, (866) 754-2787