Newcastle was en fete last Wednesday. No, the Toon Army of football fans wasn't celebrating another victory by its team; rather, Newcastle was heralding the opening night of its Comedy Festival. Music from a Metro FM roadshow blared out from the Quayside, and pleasure steamers chugged up and down the Tyne, apparently fuelled by Newcastle Brown. Hufty, the former presenter of The Word, showed off her Mohican hair-do, and the reclusive James Bolam was even spotted in a local eaterie. Fireworks lit up the night sky over the Tyne Bridge to the rather incongruous sound of the theme tune from Steptoe and Son.

The appeal of Steven Wright, the American comedian whose only British show this year opened the festival, lies in his complete lack of fireworks. Standing stock-still with his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his black corduroy jacket - which blended in perfectly with his black beard, black jersey and black jeans - he scatter-bombed the audience with slow- burning one-liners in a distinctive monotone that sounded like Garrison Keillor on downers. (Wright used those same blank tones to great effect as the DJ in Reservoir Dogs, where his colourless voice was the ideal counterpoint to the colourful mayhem going on around it.) Even the expressionless way he said "thanks" raised laughter. In a riveting one and half hours on stage, the only time he cracked a smile was the grotesque rictus he flashed during the ovation at the end. He could have patented the word "deadpan" long before it became devalued by comedy magazines.

In Newcastle's Evening Chronicle last Wednesday, Wright claimed to be insane - not in the "you don't have to be mad to work here but it helps" manner of his British DJ namesake, but in a more dark and disturbing way. The catchphrase that he used with increasing frequency as his lines became more and more deranged was "and then he started crying". Many of the anecdotes concluded with Wright being thrown in jail by exasperated policemen. Bald at the top of his head and bearded at the bottom, he certainly looked strange, like a weird computerised amalgamation of Simon and Garfunkel.

The madness may run in the family. When Wright told his grandfather he was five, "the old man replied, `When I was your age, I was six.' Then he cackled madly and threw a spoon against the window." As a child Wright used to tell people, "I'm somebody else's imaginary friend."

Much of his act communicated his problems with communication: "I bought one walkie-talkie. I didn't want anyone else to hear what I was saying." This is a man out on several limbs. "I can levitate birds, but nobody cares," he lamented.

The backdrop to the stage proclaimed, "The One and Only". The phrase may have been referring to the sponsors Newcastle Brown, but it could just as easily apply to Steven Wright.

n The Newcastle Comedy Festival continues to Sat at various venues around the city. Brochures: 0191-232 2660