ORONO — Comic Steven Wright has made a career out of taking the figurative literally. His punch lines, delivered deadpan and at a lethargic pace, reveal his unique way of seeing the world, an approach late-night king Johnny Carson pointed out at Wright’s national television debut in 1982.
“I think you’re going to find him a little different,” Carson told “The Tonight Show” audience.
Carson, of course was right. Wright’s cerebral humor, with its contextual shifts, was different than many of his contemporaries. His low-key demeanor set him apart even further.
Wright will be in Orono Nov. 6 for an 8 p.m. appearance at the Collins Center for the Arts. Tickets are $42 and $52 and available at (800) 622-TIXX or online at collinscenterforthearts.com.
At lot has happened in the 33 years since Wright’s television debut. He has gone on to appear in his own television specials, receive Grammy nominations for his comedy records. earn an Oscar for a short film he co-directed and become a consulting producer for the FX television series “Louie.”
Despite that list of accomplishments, Wright still considers his “Tonight Show” debut as “the highlight of my life.”
“It was my dream, my goal,” the Boston-based comedian said of appearing on the show. “I was so nervous I was numb.”
Wright not only credits Carson with his big break, he said the late-night host was a model for his choice of career.
“I watched the Johnny Carson show when I was 16 and 17 years old,” Wright said. “I loved him and I loved the comedians he had on. I thought that’s what I want to do.”
Wright knew he was funny. While not the class clown, he did keep his buddies amused. After high school, he attended Emerson College. After graduation, he got up the nerve to take the stage at an open mike at a Cambridge comedy club.
“I forced myself to do it because I wanted to do it so bad,” Wright said.
He became a regular at open mikes, honing his act based on feedback from the audience.
“They laughed at about half of it,” he said. “I kept rewriting the jokes and coming back.”
It was while working at Boston area comedy clubs that Wright, who was then 26, was tapped to appear on “The Tonight Show.”
Wright doesn’t maintain a schedule for writing material. Instead, he lets the material come to him.
“I just go around in my life and occasionally I notice something that might be a joke,” he explained. “I write it down and try it as new material.”
Onstage, Wright doesn’t exactly fire off his jokes in rapid-fire manner. The material flows without interruption, but his laidback style and monotone delivery can be deceptive. The punch lines don’t end with a bang; the result is more like a hockey player slipping a puck into the net behind a goalie’s back.
The shows are scripted. Wright admires comedians who can improvise, riffing off a comment from the audience, but he’s not one of those people.
“I know exactly what I’m going to do,” he said of performing. “It’s like a play.”
“There are two parts to stand-up, writing and performing,” he continued. “I’m performing what I’ve written.”
He arranges the sequence of jokes much like a musician compiles a set list of songs for a performance. Audience reaction determines whether the order should be changed.
“You just keep moving them around,” he said. “It’s like a giant puzzle.”
In 2014, Wright was nominated for an Emmy Award for his work as consulting producer on “Louie.” The show, starring comic Louis C. K., is a fictionalized version of his life as a divorced stand-up comic raising two daughters in New York City.
“Louis is an absolute genius to me,” Wright said.
As consulting producer, he gives feedback on scripts, attends shootings and editing sessions. The best part, he said, is bouncing ideas off other comedians.
“I love it because stand-up is a very alone thing.”