Steven Wright’s mental radar leads him to TI

Steven Wright loves walking around and looking at stuff.

The rest comes naturally.

“I’ve always loved observing. I’m very visually oriented,” says Wright, who has built a formidable stand-up career with his observations. “It’s like all my material is just noticing things, noticing the world, generally.”

Wright plays the Strip on Friday night, a one-off at TI’s Mystere Theater. A veteran of nearly 40 years of talk shows, movies and live performances, Wright became famous with his 1985 album “I Have a Pony” and his HBO special “A Steven Wright Special.”

Often overlooked in his long career is that Wright starred in “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings” (co-starring Rowan Atkinson), which won an Oscar for best live-action short film in 1988. Particularly impressive is his No. 15 ranking on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 50 best stand-ups of all time, behind Andy Kaufmanand ahead of Billy Connolly.

Wright has remained consistently busy as a working comic and more recently as a consulting producer on Louis C.K.’s FX series, “Louie,” and he has appeared as himself on the show.

Wright has played the Strip repeatedly for more than 30 years, debuting at the Sands Copa Room in 1982, just after his first appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” which so impressed Carson he was invited back the following night .

After those consecutive performances, Wright hit Vegas and the Sands, remembering only that ‘it was one of the places they blew up eventually, with the old booths, but I loved how the city looked, even back then.”

Wright has never played TI (formerly Treasure Island). He’s eager to give the resort a once-over.

“Treasure Island is the one with the fake pirate ship, right?” Wright says, rightly. “Las Vegas is such a different city. You have a fake Eiffel Tower, fake pyramid. MGM is the big green place, right? I love it. I love being there and looking at the city and taking mental notes of what I see.”

He says he’s often impressed by how Las Vegas locals are so unaffected by their surroundings.

“People don’t stop and say, ‘There is a giant, golden lion staring at me,’” Wright says. “You’ve become used to living on one of the most insane physical places in the world.”

Wright attributes his observational acumen to his talent for painting, his favorite pastime when he’s not developing jokes.

“Painting requires a look at detail, if you think of it that way, so my brain has always been trained to pick up specifics,” Wright says. “I used to go to museums, but I never went there to get jokes. My mind was just registering what I was seeing. If you look at a glass on a table, you notice its shape, how the light hits it, the shadows, if there are any words or labeling.”

Wright says he dropped the process of actually sitting down to write jokes early in his career. Instead, whenever something funny hits him, he might jot it down and refer to it later.

“When I first started as a stand-up, in the first eight months, I would look through the paper for interesting words to use in my act,” he said. “And after eight months, I would just notice things without sitting down and trying to write a joke.

“It’s like, my mind was registering what was out there like a control tower with a radar detector, and my subconscious is sweeping across and finding the little blips.”

Upon hearing that his advice could serve as a tutorial on how to develop a stand-up act, Wright didn’t miss a beat.

“I sometimes laugh about how I would try to teach a comedy class,” he says. “It would take about a minute. ‘Think of something funny, write it down, say it to an audience. If it works, leave it in. If it’s not good, take it out and think of something else.’”

It’s a simple process that has served Wright well.

“I still love just doing stand-up and being in front of an audience,” he says. “To write and perform on my own is great. I’ve been doing it for 38 years, and I’ve been lucky to have been doing it this long.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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