Laughing Matters — Steven Wright’s first appearance on The Tonight Show

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I was watching The Tonight Show one summer night in 1982, when host Johnny Carson introduced a stand-up comedian making his national television debut. “I think you’re going to find him a little different,” Carson said. Then out strode Steven Wright, who proceeded to get his first laugh with the bone-dry way he said “Thanks” in response to the crowd’s initial applause. He then moves through five and a half minutes of brilliant, absurdist jokes, all delivered with a sedate calm. It was indeed a little different, almost entirely unlike anything else offered by a any other comic given the opportunity to fill a few minutes of network airtime up until that point. It’s easy to imagine Wright tanking that night, in front of audience perplexed by his odd concepts and odder cadence. Instead, he slayed. In a trajectory that basically stopped being possible when Carson retired, Wright became a comedy star on the spot.

Nearly forty years later, Wright spot still represents one of the most thrilling flashes of new comic genius ever captured live to tape.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

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