Talking to comedians can be difficult for one of two reasons: Either they don’t make you laugh at all, or they make you laugh too much.
Deadpan king Steven Wright, appearing Friday at the Regency Ballroom in The City, has the same measured, monotone delivery in conversation as he does onstage, making it difficult to know (especially over the phone) when to speak or when to wait for him to say something.
“I, oh, I’m sorry, you go ahead,” he drawls.
“No you go ahead.”
“No you go ahead.”
Comedians also have a knack for making you feel conversationally inept. All your best responses come to mind after you hang up the phone.
“Are you really typing this?” Wright asks.
No, I’m fake typing. It’s a troupe of “My Little Ponies” tap-dancing on my desk. Those are fascist-trained, telepathic typing fairies. It’s raining inside the office — anything but my flat “Yes.”
Rated No. 23 in Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time, Wright is the opposite of a stereotypical extroverted comic.
He is an inert presence. He hardly gesticulates. His devastatingly quick-witted, punlike jokes often play with language and cut like a razor, his cracks resting somewhere between Shakespearean and Oscar Wilde-ian pithiness.
His 1990 HBO special, “Wicker Chairs and Gravity,” a comedy classic, is a string of piercing paradoxes. While he has broad appeal, his jests engage the mind. He is the thinking-man’s comic, and a comic’s comic.
“Have you ever taken an IQ test?”
“What’s that?” Wright says flatly.
Before his big break on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in the early 1980s, Wright, a graduate of Emerson College in Boston, had a string of odd jobs. He shoveled snow off rooftops in Aspen, Colo., handed out change to Reno, Nev., gamblers and boxed books in a warehouse in Massachusetts, his home state. “Curious George” still haunts him.
“To this day, when I see ‘Curious George,’ I see that place,” Wright says. “I don’t even think I saw ‘Curious George’ until I worked there.”
“What was a favorite children’s book then?”
“‘Are You My Mother.’ You know it? Blue cover? I remember the bird asking the car, ‘Are you my mother?’ That’s what I’m going to remember before I go to the electric chair.”
“You got an appointment booked for that?”
Pregnant pause. Belly laugh. Silence.
“No. No, I don’t. Hopefully I’m joking,” Wright says.
For all his removed coolness, Wright remains surprised by his success.
“I don’t take it for granted,” Wright says. “I know people who do things like music or painting and they have a regular day job. For me to be able to do this and make a living is unbelievable.”