Comic Orny Adams may find everyday life maddening, but he’s not mad
“I’m starting to really hate people, let me start out with that,” says Orny Adams at the beginning of his 2017 stand-up special “More Than Loud.” What’s setting him off? A multitude of things, from gluten allergies to warning labels on bottles. For this particular intro, it’s a simple handshake.
“I went to shake a guy’s hand the other day. He goes, ‘Oh, no no no no no, I just washed.’” Adams pauses and then delivers a furious reply: “That’s when I want to shake your hand.”
Adams often looks like he’s about to explode when he’s onstage, like he can’t quite contain his anger about, say, the way a computer keyboard is organized. It’s all the little grievances that drive him nuts. When he calls the Globe for this interview, in advance of his show Saturday at the Wilbur Theatre, the first thing the Lexington native talks about is how he misses the 617 area code. “We were 617 in Lexington, and then became 781,” he says. “I mean, these are things they shouldn’t do to a community.”
All of those things do actually bother Adams, but not nearly as much as it appears when he’s onstage. He will even tell you he’s hardwired to be optimistic. “I’m definitely not angry,” he says. “That’s for sure. I’m passionate. And I’m definitely intense. “If you think I’m that guy onstage all through life, I mean, I would have died of a heart attack by now.”
“It’s a show,” he adds. “It’s like if you look at art in a museum, a Picasso, you say, did that person’s head really look like that? No! I’m there to express myself and there’s, to me, something funny about getting worked up about small things.”
Adams has a big presence onstage. When he has played smaller venues in the area like the Comedy Studio, the room barely contained his energy. That’s by design.
“Some people like to divide an audience and create tension that way,” he says. “I create tension by getting big onstage. And getting worked up about things we all feel to a small degree but I feel to a greater degree onstage.”
Adams has been drawn to comedy since he was a young boy, checking out books by Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman from Lexington’s public library, then expanding his search to Boston’s library to read the writers who influenced them. “I studied how to write, how to be as concise and laconic as possible,” he says. “And then I would listen to comedy tapes, like a Robin Williams, and I’d count the beats and how many laughs per minute, and I would scientifically sort of write it out. As crazy as that sounds.”
He studied at Emory University in Atlanta, and came back to a Boston comedy scene overflowing with headliners to learn from. He cites Lenny Clarke, Don Gavin, and Steve Sweeney from the older crowd, and peers like Bill Burr, Patrice O’Neal, and Dane Cook. “Boston has such a rich history for comedy,” he says. “It’s amazing that I was even able to work there. I got my chops there.”
It’s easy to draw a line from older generations of Boston comics to Adams’s style. “I’m very fast,” he says. “There’s sort of a filibustering, like you just keep going on and on and on about a subject. So when I watch Boston comics, I go, ‘That’s me!’ ”
Even with his training and pedigree, his comedy career didn’t turn out like he had thought it would. “I always thought, once I pursue this full time, it’s gonna happen fast,” he says, punctuating the thought with a burst of laughter. “I thought, you know, I’m funny, I’ll do a couple of shows, get discovered, and then, here we go! And that has never happened.”
Adams isn’t a household name, and he doesn’t have a smash hit film or TV show to his credit. The closest he’s come to a zeitgeist moment was his part in Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary, “Comedian,” in which Adams seemed like he was about to burst from the pressure of trying to break through. That attitude is gone. “As I think about it right now, if I was my younger self looking at myself where I am right now, I would think, ‘Wow, what a failure. He never made it!’ ” he says.
But he has had success — three one-hour comedy specials, the ability to get booked in theaters like the Wilbur, and the respect of legends like Seinfeld and the late Garry Shandling. And that brings him tremendous satisfaction. “I believe what I don’t have in commercial success I certainly have in emotional success,” he says. “I would take that in a heartbeat. I still love getting up onstage. My biggest fear is that I wake up and I don’t want to do it anymore, that my first instinct isn’t to start writing. That’s my fear. I love what I do, and I think that is fortunate.”
At the Wilbur Theatre, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. Tickets $25, 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.com