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Surprise visit by Steven Wright at Catch a Rising Star

STEVE WRIGHT DROPS IN AT CATCH A RISING STAR

CATCH A RISING STAR

Featuring Jimmy Tingle and Bob Somerby.

Catch A Rising Star Comedy Club,

Harvard Square.

Continues through Saturday, March 18.

By DAVID M. J. SASLAV

THOSE FORTUNATE ENOUGH to have caught the show at Catch A Rising Star Tuesday night got a special treat -- an unexpected six-minute cameo appearance by national superstar (and former MIT Coop employee) Steven Wright. Wright, in town for the Marc Beres Memorial show at the Berklee Performance Center and for Comic Relief Week, provided further glimpses into his profoundly disturbed, conceptually distorted world.

The first words out of his mouth were "I'm not really here. I'm actually a fictional character." Things never looked back (or forward, for that matter) as Wright pursued matters such as his neighbor's circular driveway ("he can't get out"), his new "decaffeinated coffee table," and how fortunate we are that gravity exists ("if there wasn't, dead birds would just hang around up in the air"). Wright was evidently trying out some new material to use in the "Comic Relief" benefit show on Wednesday night.

Wright's sudden appearance followed a very strong half hour with Bob Somerby, whose caustic analyses of cereal boxes, children, teachers, and modern gadgetry were consistently excellent. Somerby's witty perceptions, coupled with unrelenting but non-threatening sarcasm, highlight a personal charm which radiates non-stop from the stage.

After he introduced himself to a few members of the audience and learned their names, he located a retired schoolteacher in the crowd. Her refusal to give her first name was a marvelous moment, particularly when Somerby rejoined with "Yeah, when you become a teacher, you have to have your first name surgically removed, don't you?" A former schoolteacher himself, Somerby had ready a huge arsenal of relevant material, and a sense of humor which must have made his the best class in school. After he called for a round of applause for the former teacher, he demonstrated the high-class nature of his act and reaffirmed that the greatest humor of all is to be found not in the comedian, but in the very society he hopes to entertain. Somerby is, to my mind, a consummate comedian, everything David Letterman tries to be but isn't. His act alone is worth the price of admission.

Closing the evening was local-boy-made-good Jimmy Tingle. Tingle made his debut on national television three weeks back, and seems to be a true "rising star" these days. His Cambridge-cum-Watertown roots make him a sure-fire draw everywhere in town, especially now that he's a "hot item." Tingle's style, unlike Somerby's and Wright's, plays to the lowest common denominator. While all Boston audiences seem to enjoy the complex political comedy of a Barry Crimmins -- also hot these days -- they also seem to go for the less timely, less daring, and more visceral humor of Tingle's.

Reading from a notebook, which is literally unheard of for a headline act, Tingle repeatedly drew upon grass-roots elements. After boiling away all complexities in the topics he chooses, he proceeds to make jokes with the residue. Unfortunately, a first-year college course in political science would render nearly all of Tingle's material unfunny and disturbing. A somewhat distilled example: "We're building chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, and what's the Ayatollah scared of? A book! We should be building bigger and better books!" Half of his jokes were old (by audience request, no less!), he was generally underprepared (at one point he even remarked, "By Saturday night, this will be one tight set!"), and he apologized a lot. Perhaps by this weekend he'll have had time to memorize his jokes.

All three performers Tuesday night received the undeniable acclaim of the audience. Wright's appearance made the experience unforgettable, and Bob Somerby's personable sarcasm was a delight. Somerby and Tingle play Catch again tonight and tomorrow night; this is definitely a recommended show. And who knows: Jay Leno may even show up!