Interview: Steven Wright, Stand-Up Comedian
Steven Wright, to my mind, is probably the most influential comic of our time. His unique delivery of one-liners can be traced like a family tree to many comedians both directly and indirectly. To me, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a young audience out there who may have never seen him perform stand-up. That’s about the change this Saturday at 9PM with Steven Wright’s first comedy special in 15 years entitled “When the Leaves Blow Away” airs on Comedy Central. (If you haven’t seen it yet, you can see a clip of Steven Wright’s performance here.) I talked to Steven about his style being just him, the logic of jokes and Johnny Carson as someone he never want to be measured against.
It’s funny how many reporters ask you how your style developed. Why do you think so many of them are flummoxed by the way you talk because that’s always your answer: “This is how I talk.”
I think that somehow… I don’t know. They think I’m making it up. I don’t know why though. I’m so used to the question because of so many years of that question. I used to think, “What do they think I’m making up?” Not only I’m making the jokes up I’m making a whole way of talking up too. And I didn’t understand why they ask me.
All I can think of is maybe in their mind because it’s distinct – the style of my voice is distinct that they think that it’s not real. I’m only guessing.
It always sounds like that to me that they assume that is where the humor is coming from. That it is what is making the material funny. Or funnier.
I think that too. I think that they think that. I don’t know if that’s true because I’ve only ever talked this one way my whole life. (laughs)
Part of me thinks by accidentally that is making it work and good. But it might have worked with other voices too. I think that definitely it’s a good match.
But I didn’t decide. That’s just how I wrote jokes. This is just how I speak. There’s no big meeting. There’s no game plan.
Right. I saw the documentary When Stand Up Stood Out and what struck me about it is that you were so innocent of show business. Of how it would happen.
Yeah. Definitely. We didn’t know anything about the business side of show business when we were in Boston. We were just going to the club and doing our act on the stage and keep working on material. So the whole other side we didn’t know anything about it.
That movie kind of makes your first appearance on Carson emblematic of the 80’s stand-up boom.
Well the boom was going already, that was just mixed in with it. I think that guy did a good job on that movie – Fran Solomita.
I really enjoyed it because I came of age after the boom so I only knew what made it to TV. I didn’t know the rawness of the roots of it.
He really captured that. Definitely.
One of the things you mention in that film is how you feel like that your appearance on the Tonight Show was lucky – that is was a fluke.
That producer Peter Lassally, he came to Boston and he saw a bunch of people. He saw me and he put me on the show. If he hadn’t come to Boston, I really don’t know what would have happened.
The reason that he came there was there was an article in the LA Times about this club in Boston, this half-Chinese restaurant half-comedy club.
Yeah. And that’s how he even knew about it. He was coming to Boston to look at colleges for his kid. They were going to Boston and then to New York to figure out where they were going to go to college. He remembered the Ding-Ho before the trip and he called up and said he was going to go in it.
If he didn’t do that, maybe I would still be in Boston.
I don’t know what would have happened. I know in show business there’s luck involved. Maybe I would have gone to New York. I had gone to New York already to Catch a Rising Star. Maybe I would gone to LA and got seen in the Comedy Store. It may have happened. But it maybe wouldn’t have happened.
I know some musicians who are as good as people who play Madison Square Garden and they’re in this tiny little clubs. And I don’t understand… there’s a luck to it. You must know people…
Like Sandi Caroll (from his short film “One Soldier”). She is as good as anybody in these big Hollywood movies. She’s amazing. I know this musician Ruth Gerson who writes incredible songs and her voice is amazing. And she plays little clubs in New York. I know comedians who I thought are incredible but they never got their break or they got a break and it didn’t go far. I know all of that so I can’t really say… I know what I do is good and it’s unique but that doesn’t mean if he didn’t see me that I would have made it. I don’t think that.
One of the things you mentioned that was critical for developing your comedy and for a lot of people in Boston’s comedy was isolation. But it seems like with everybody being in show business now, that that’s impossible. Do you still feel like isolation is necessary?
I don’t think it’s a necessity. I just think for us it was better for us that it was isolated. I don’t think Boston… I go in the clubs sometimes to get a set together to go on TV. I think if you were starting in Boston now that there’s still really no show business there.
What I mean by show business is there’s no producer or talent coordinator saying, “You should change what you’re doing because then we’d have you go on.” I still don’t think there are those people there.
Now some people would describe some of your jokes as odd, but they are just following actual logic rather than accepted logic.
All of the jokes make complete sense by the means of the words. You can’t just say something weird like, “A rowboat full of midgets went by.” It has to make sense in a different way. Making sense not in reality but in the way of the words.
Like that joke where I say “this film has been modified to fit your television.” I’m not even twisting that. They’re saying it was changed. And if it wasn’t, you would be able to see barely anything. I’m just pointing out even what they just said. I didn’t even change what it said, that itself can be just seen from another angle.
The joke that put this in my mind is the one where the cashier says to you, “will that be all” and you reply, “No, I’d like to buy this.”
What happens is when that girl says that to you, you don’t really say that back to her, as we know. The joke is I do really answer her. Socially we learn how to not take it literally. And it happens all over the course of the day. And I’m seeing it like as if I hadn’t learned that yet.
It’s like I’m a 4 year old except that I’m 50 and I can drive everywhere. (laughs) But I’m seeing the world partially through the eyes of a kid. Not all the time. There’s no black and white to it. But sometimes I’m seeing it like I’m four.
Like a kid, he hasn’t learned to ignore all this shit. You just learn that as you go.
Seeing this thing… is it just, “that’s a silly phrase, what would be the real response to that…”
When you wake up in the morning to when you go to sleep, you’re bombarded with a million or a billion pieces of tiny information like a mosaic painting. These things are floating by. Words. You hear someone say something. You see something on the TV. You see a store. You see how the stuff is on the shelf. All that stuff. Sometimes some of those things jump out at me as “that could be a joke there.” I’m not even looking for jokes on purpose. My subconscious is so hyped-up to be aware of them that I’m kinda looking for them without knowing I am. I never wake up and think, “I have to write some jokes.” They’re just coming into my head now.
I used to do martial arts, and with that conscious process become unconscious…
I’m sorry, your phone isn’t clear. Did you say you took mushrooms…
Martial Arts (laughs). And with martial arts these things become muscle memory.
Right. I used to date a ballerina and she used to tell me that.
Do you think looking for jokes is kind of like muscle memory for you now?
I do. I started writing jokes when I was 23. That part of my mind I’ve exercised so much over the years. It’s like that part of my brain is doing push-ups. My mind is scanning and I don’t even know it is.
That why I say to people that the jokes come to me out of the blue but there is no out of the blue really. Everything is connected one to the other. It just happens so fast and maybe you’re not thinking of the connection, that it just comes under the heading of out of the blue.
You process for creating an act is pretty egoless. From what I understand that if an audience doesn’t laugh at a joke three times, then that it…
That is it, but let me add this one point. That is what I do. If it works three times, it’ll always work. If it doesn’t work three times, it’ll never work.
But if I thought of it and I wrote it down and I’m going to try it on stage, I think it’s funny. But if they don’t laugh three times, I don’t think I was wrong. I still think it’s funny. It’s just they don’t think it’s funny and I can only do the ones that they think are funny. I don’t think it’s wrong; it’s just that they don’t agree. They being the audience. They’re like a bunch of editors and they don’t know it.
I’ve talked to some comics who say that they just love a joke so much that they’re going to keep it regardless. Are you ever tempted?
I have had four or five over the years that have not fit my three rules. Where they didn’t laugh and I would leave it in anyway. And every night it would get on a scale of one to ten a two. And I left it for years because I liked it. And a couple of them would start to work and I don’t even know why.
I’ve only done that with a handful of them. Because if you’re going to do ninety minutes, you can’t do seventy minutes of that. (laughs) I mean you could…
But you’d be taking a risk at some point…
I could do a tour of all the jokes that didn’t work. If I had them all organized, which I don’t. But that would be kind of cool. You can release an album where you don’t hear anyone laughing. You hear one guy clapping.
You could call it “You Might Not Enjoy This.” (laughs)
That’s the name of it.
That’s the name of it.
You’ve talked about your love of Johnny Carson growing up. There’s a whole generation of comics who feel much the same way about you. Is that strange to you?
Yes, but rather than saying what Johnny Carson was. Maybe if what you say what George Carlin was to me. George Carlin was one of my heroes. I used to memorize his album Class Clown. I had it memorized when I was in high school.
Johnny Carson – he’s in another dimension – I mean, of like largeness, part of the culture. I’d like to change that question just a bit to George Carlin. I’m not putting George Carlin down. I’m just putting Johnny further up.
But to answer your question, yes. Because to me, I’m just me. I’m a guy. I wanted to do it. I went to the clubs. And I’m still just thinking up jokes. I’m just me thinking up jokes. So to have someone be influenced by me, that is weird.
If I step out of myself, I can see it. But it’s kind of awkward to see it. To me I’m just me.
For a long time, save for the occasional late night appearance, the only way to see you has been live. And I’ve seen some people say, “where’s he been? What’s he up to?” It is strange to be sort of invisible just because you haven’t had a TV special in a while.
It’s not strange because I haven’t had one for so long that I got used to it. I’m glad you brought that up. You see, comedy comes from noticing stuff – little things here and there. As much as I notice stuff on the other hand I hadn’t really noticed the amount of time that had gone by. Fifteen years.
I would be looking out in the audience in the last few years before I would go on and I noticed that the audience was in their 40s and 50s and 60s. And then I thought it’s been so long since I did a special. Then I thought people who were in college were about five when I did my last special. So then I thought: I need to do a new one for my fans who already know me and to hopefully reintroduce myself to a whole new generation.
I’d love to look out into the crowd and see fifteen year olds all the way up into their sixties.
It’s interesting because a lot of comics when they get big, they say part of the work has been done for you. You’re marked as funny so you don’t have to introduce yourself every time anymore. It’s it interesting to have to give your bonafides again?
When you get to be known to a certain level, you still can’t come out into the audience and just say anything and they’ll laugh. And I know that because when I try new material for every four jokes I write only one stays – they’ll laugh enough for me to keep it in the act. Maybe even one out of five.
And that’s a good batting average.
It is good. But in saying that that means I have to stand there and say four jokes that they don’t laugh at. I don’t do them all in a row. It’s not like I come out and do five new jokes in a row. I scatter them throughout the act. So maybe I’m not sure about what you asked because when I do the show live, I’m already tryng some jokes. I can’t say (just) anything.
These new people they don’t know me. Yes, I have butterflies. Because I don’t know that just cause the other people like me that this new generation is gonna like me. They might not be into what I’m doing. I don’t really know.
Well, a lot of people my age and younger might talk about other comics and say “Mitch Hedberg, he’s kind of like Steven Wright” or “Demetri Martin, he’s kind of like Steven Wright.” You’re kind of a reference point, like a Washington Monument of comedy. If you watching any comedy at all they kinda of know who you are, even without ever having been to the Washington Monument (meaning: seeing you).
You know the movie Half Baked, right? Like I lot of people from 18 into their mid-20s they’ll see me on the street or something, “you’re the guy on the couch.” They don’t even know I’m a comedian.
I’ve joked to some of my friends that when this special comes on some young people are going to say, “it’s that guy on the couch and he’s telling jokes” (laugh) “He’s doing comedy now.”
“I wonder if Dave Chappelle got him into that.”
Yeah. And I’ve thought - you’ve said some other comedians who do a style maybe influenced by me. I have even thought there might be some 18-year-old people when this comes on that might think I’m copying some other guys. They won’t even know I’ve been around since 82. And that would be kind of amusing.
To a new group of people it will be like what it was for me in ‘82, except it’s 2006. I hope they’re into it. I don’t know if they’re gonna be.
Now you do a lot of other creative work to – painting and music. And I’ve heard you talk about the childlike joy of just creating with those. Do you feel that same joy with stand-up?
I don’t put a pressure on myself. Like, I have to write thirty more minutes right now. I don’t do that to myself. Maybe I would have done maybe more special and albums if I did. When I think of stuff, I’m not pacing back and forth chain-smoking – I don’t even smoke, but if I did…
What you’re saying cause I’m known and it’s my career, does that pressure take away the childness of it and the answer’s “No.”