Warner Bros. // 1985 // 54 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // June 15th, 2009
"I got a postcard from my friend George. It was a satellite picture of the entire Earth, and on the back he wrote 'Wish you were here.'"
Boston comic Steven Wright was already a veteran of clubs and The Tonight Show when his first album, I Have a Pony came out in 1985. The material on Pony -- recorded at gigs in San Francisco and Chicago -- captures Wright at his most iconic. The light switch that doesn't do anything. His bowling ball impression. The diary he kept as a baby. French toast during the Renaissance. A dog named Stay. Playing poker with Tarot cards. Scalping low numbers at the deli. It's all here.
Over the course of 40-ish minutes, Wright takes his audience on a surreal comedic journey, flitting from one random joke to the next with such rapidity that the names of the album's 14 tracks feel more like broad suggestions than helpful markers. Not that anyone listening to Wright's performance knows where they're going, let alone where they've been. The Warner Bros. deluxe anniversary edition of I Have a Pony includes not only the album, but also Wright's 1985 HBO comedy special -- named, aptly enough, A Steven Wright Special. Though the jokes on Pony have been told, retold, and sent around the internet a hundred times, that shouldn't keep Wright fans from going back to the original.
I first encountered Steven Wright when I was a nerdy teenager, and thought his unique style of clever deadpan absurdism was just about the coolest thing ever. Some comedians milk their jokes, leaving plenty of space for laughs. Steven Wright barely pauses between one-liners. He certainly doesn't seem to care whether or not his audience gets a joke. Not that it matters much. If you don't like one joke, wait a few seconds. There's a new one coming, and it won't have anything to do with the one you just heard.
Most stand-up comics use stories as a framework for their jokes. It provides an entry point and makes getting strangers to laugh a lot easier. Steven Wright doesn't do that. In fact, the closest thing to "stories" on Pony are little more than non sequiturs with recurring characters like Winny and Rachel. The reason a Steven Wright routine is more enjoyable than that sounds is because everything he talks about fits into the insane alternate reality he's created for himself -- a world where tow away zones disappear, ants dress as rice to rob Chinese restaurants, and an airline can get you a flight back on the Friday before you left. That Wright's world is just similar enough to our own makes his twisted observations so funny.
This new release of I Have a Pony comes with the bonus DVD A Steven Wright Special, which aired on HBO the same year Wright's first album was released. The stand-up performance is bookended by a largely silent film piece that shows Wright waking up in a decrepit stone house in the middle of the desert, walking to his gig, then leaving the show afterwards. It's full of real-world versions of things from his jokes, like powdered water, a midget dwarf posing for trophies, and a blonde Chinese girl with an affinity for Jewish cowboys. The rest of the special is mostly the same as the album. While it's not the same performance, apart from a few additional jokes it's the same material.
The problem with buying any stand-up comedy album is that once you've heard the jokes, there's not much reason to listen to it again. I Have a Pony has the same problem, twice. Having the HBO special is nice from a historical perspective, but once you've listened to the CD you already know what to expect on the DVD. The mildly frustrating thing is that the DVD has a few jokes the CD doesn't, but the CD performance is a little better, so neither can really be considered definitive. Of course, the question is moot for most Wright fans, who'll have heard all these jokes before anyway.
As a combination CD/DVD release, I Have a Pony is solid. As a DVD release, though, it would have felt thin. There are no extras on the disc. Heck, there aren't even chapter stops. The video source material looks like it's from the '80s. The picture is soft, with some minor tracking problems. It's cool enough that this special even exists to forgive the barebones treatment (after all, it is a bonus disc), but you probably shouldn't buy this set solely for the DVD.
I Have a Pony is a strange release. As hilarious as the jokes (and the man performing them) are, its target audience has heard them all before. If you're a big enough Steven Wright fan that repetition doesn't bother you, this is a fine tribute to one of the world's best comedians; and if you're new to his work, this is the best way to see (and hear) Wright at his finest. But if you're a casual fan looking for something new, you might want to give it a pass.
Bizarre, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 54 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated