by Jacob Sprecher
It’s hard not to be overly flattering when talking about somebody that’s a legitimate giant in their field, somebody that’s been there and back, done it all and then some. Steven Wright is one of those people. His hyper-comedic intelligence, inimitable dry delivery and surreal witticism have rightfully carved a spot for him in the Mount Rushmore of standup, and he is in fact deserving of the oft-given compliment of “genius.”
Breaking in at a Chinese restaurant/comedy club called Ding Ho’s in Cambridge, Mass. in the late ‘70s, Wright caught his first and biggest break when Tonight Show executive producer Peter Lassally somewhat bizarrely stumbled upon his act in 1982. Realizing a dream and seizing an opportunity at the same time, Wright established himself as a forerunner in the world of comedy, and the rest is pretty much history. All these years later Wright’s hypnagogic cerebral wit has cemented him as a legend in the field of standup, and an elusive pop culture icon. For example, while your average Chico State freshman might ask “Who?” when presented Wright’s actual name, you could counter with “the guy on the couch in Half Baked,” or “the disc jockey with the super-deep voice in Reservoir Dogs,” and they’d know exactly who you were talking about. In all honesty there’s little in the world of comedy Steven Wright hasn’t had his mitts on; for Christ’s sake, the man’s an Oscar winner. Bound for Laxson Auditorium on Friday, October 14th, Synthesis caught up with Wright, who also happens to be one hell of a nice and normal guy.
So this current tour is really just a string of dates. I’m curious: How’re you spending most of your free time right now?
Well, I [was on] the Louis C.K. show…I filmed that many months ago in New York. And then I’ll be on Craig Ferguson on October 11th. And that’s fun for me, ‘cause I do something I’ve never done before; I just make shit up while I’m sittin’ there.
You never go off the cuff like that?
Well, a little bit. Usually they talk to you before, “What are you gonna talk about?” You have these ideas, these stories you wanna tell; you go off a little bit. But this is just eight minutes of completely made-up insanity.
Have you been working on your art?
I did a lot of painting—well I did like seven of ‘em—in the last seven weeks. I go through phases… I did these shows in Connecticut, and then Massachusetts, and then Atlantic City and the Midwest then where you are… But in between that I have a lot of time, which is great; I can paint, I can read. If material comes into my head I just write it down; if I feel like doing a painting I do. I have a lot of time to play.
Have you had any film projects of late?
No, I don’t. I have some ideas but I haven’t been focused on that.
I wasn’t aware you had won an Oscar until the other day. That’s kind of incredible. I knew you did shorts and stuff, but didn’t realize you won the Academy Award for The Appointments of Dennis Jennings in ‘88.
Yeah, that’s a pretty surrealistic thing to have happen. I went to HBO and asked them if they’d be interested in a movie…so me and my friend Mike Armstrong wrote it and then we made it, we gave it to HBO, they liked it, and before they put it on they decided to put it in the theaters. We didn’t even make it for that. We had to cut it from 35 minutes down to 30, ‘cause the short-film category had to be 30 minutes or under at the time. Then they put it in, played it in New York and L.A. and then it was nominated and then it won. It was completely insane [laughs].
I was watching your debut Tonight Show performance from ’82 and was wondering what you recall most about that experience.
Well I had wanted to go on there since I was 14 or 15 years old. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a comedian was from watching that show, watching Johnny all the time. The comedians he had, of course Carlin, Pryor, Richard Brenner, Robert Klein; I wanted to do that. I was like, “Wow, that would be amazing to be one of those guys.” So when I actually was there, again, another surrealistic experience. I got so nervous before that I got numb. Then when I came out and heard the audience laughin’, I just told another joke and they laughed more, and I told another one and it was just like when I was playing in the clubs.
You were killing it as far as I could tell.
It was goin’ good, but the abstraction of it…I was sayin’ the joke, they were laughin’, I had been doin’ that for three years. So when that started happening, it made it possible to actually do, even though it was all weird and heightened. I tried to ignore the cameras, I tried to play to the audience like I was in a club. And then I heard Johnny laughing off to my [left] and I’m thinkin’, “My gawd, Johnny Carson’s laughing at something I said.”
Over the years you’ve done pretty much ever late-night show possible. What was different about Johnny Carson?
He was the smoothest. He could talk to anyone—little kid, an old lady, a movie star, an athlete. The conversations I had with him were the smoothest I ever had on any shows like that. I’m not saying the other ones were awkward. He was just classy, he was casual, and he wanted you to get the laugh—he wasn’t tryin’ to get it himself. And even though he was the king on the top of the totem pole and you were way completely on the bottom, you could feel he was connected to you ‘cause you were both comedians. I had little conversations with him during the commercials and stuff.
And one more thing about the Tonight Show. When Johnny called me over and I got to sit down for the first time, that helped my career, too, ‘cause I knew that was rare. First-time comedians didn’t do that very often. My entire career changed in eight minutes.
I think, during the interview, you can actually see you realize that something was changing.
Well I couldn’t even barely talk, if you saw that. It’s like they called a guy randomly from the audience and said “Come down here we wanna ask you some questions.” So I owe a whole different life to that show.
The Ding Ho was a Chinese restaurant/comedy club in Inman Square in Cambridge, Mass, and there was another regular comedy club in Boston, Comedy Connection, where I started. But shortly after that the Ding Ho opened so everyone was goin’ back and forth doing both clubs. And somebody wrote an article about the Ding Ho, a freelance writer, ‘cause it was weird, a Chinese restaurant/half comedy club, and then the article went in the L.A. Times. I don’t know why the L.A. Times; apparently they liked it. So then Peter Lassally read it, he was the producer of the Tonight Show. And then many months later he was gonna go to Boston ‘cause his kids were gonna get out of high school and they were going on a summer trip to look at colleges in Massachusetts and then go down to New York. So when he was comin’ here he remembered the article so he wanted to go this club that he saw in the paper. And he called up, said he was gonna go in there, and usually there would be like three or four guys on, but since a guy from the Tonight Show was comin’, everyone did shorter and there were like six or seven guys on.
At that point did you have visions of comedic stardom or was it just a hobby?
Oh no, it wasn’t a hobby. I had been doin’ it three years, and the goal was to someday go on the Tonight Show. I didn’t even really think what would happen after. But from being in Boston and being in those clubs, I had no steps in between; I had no plan. It was like a little kid wanting to be a baseball player, “Oh someday I wanna play in the World Series.” But I wasn’t going to move down to New York. I had no plan, really. I was very naive.
It must have been quite a shock to your system.
Well it was another completely surrealistic thing. Peter Lassally sees me, I didn’t talk to him after or anything. Couple weeks went by and I thought, “Well nothing’s happening with that.” Keep goin’, maybe something else’ll happen someday. Then the phone rang in the afternoon and it was the talent coordinator and they wanted me to go on and I was in shock.
I like when Johnny introduced you, he says that you’re something different for people to enjoy. And I think you must have been at the time. I haven’t seen any comedians from that time period that were using the same style. Where did you get that deadpan, surreal comedic philosophy?
Well, to me, the jokes I never even thought of as different or surreal. I really just thought that maybe they were funny. They weren’t even all like that in the very beginning. It’s very simple, really: I didn’t come up with anything. I had heard Woody Allen’s albums when I grew up, and I liked how he wrote and I like how he structured jokes; I listened to George Carlin, I liked how he talked about everyday things. And I just wrote these things thinking they may be funny. I didn’t think this is different, this is abstract, this is surreal—none of that came into my mind till later when people were commenting on it.
I was very introverted, afraid to go onstage, very nervous. And I talk in a monotone but I was scared out of my mind, so I’d come out kinda frozen saying these jokes in that way, ‘cause I was nervous of being onstage. You know, that’s not how I would talk with my friends. It wasn’t completely different, but it was exaggerated, like a guy had a gun on me offstage. “Go out for seven minutes or I’m gonna kill you.” There was that tension underneath. So that’s how I talked, that’s how I thought, [and] the combination was a unique thing but wasn’t a plan.
Do you have a method for writing?
I write it when it comes into my head. I don’t sit down and try to write. I’m just reacting to the world. My mind is kinda just scanning; my subconscious is scanning around. I got a lot of jokes ‘cause I misunderstood what somebody said. “What’d you say? What? What?” ‘Cause I thought it was hilarious what they said, and they say, “No, I said this,” and then they clarify and it’s not. Anyway.
I just react. I observe. I just see things and I think of one and if I can remember I write it when I come home, or I write it on these little scraps, you know, ask the waitress for a receipt or something to write it on. My friends used to tease me ‘cause all this shit was written on all these little things.
What would be a good example of a joke that you wound up keeping after misunderstanding what someone said?
Oh I was talkin’ to this girl and she said, uh, someone she knew as a kid had…now I can’t remember exactly what she said, so I’ll have to tell you this story differently. I thought she said this kid had HDADD. I said, “What?” And then she said it again, but that’s not what she said. Everything she said had ADD and H and D, but it wasn’t exactly what I just said to you. And I asked her what it meant and she told me what it meant, but in my head, it meant a kid with High-Definition Attention Deficit Disorder. Which is one of my jokes and it gets a huge laugh. I say he can barely pay attention but when he does it’s unbelievably clear.
Do you think you would have been as successful without the benefit of your natural baritone? How deep your voice is?
You realize I’ve been doing interviews for so many years and nobody’s ever asked me that? Never. They comment on my monotone. I don’t know, it probably has contributed to some extent but it’s hard to know, ‘cause you can’t go back and change it and see what would happen. I don’t know…what do you think?
I think it definitely is a huge factor in the way people receive you. If you said “I live on the median strip of a highway” in a high voice, I don’t think it would be the same.
You’re probably right. There’s another thing that was unintentional; there was no decision in that. So many things just fell into place…
Because your comedy isn’t bit-oriented, as in it’s non-linear and comes to the punch quickly, do you have like a tome of all of your material over the years that you have to keep to remember it all? ‘Cause you must have thousands of one-liners.
Like a big book of all your stuff.
But you didn’t say “book.” Didn’t you say something else?
Oh, I said “tome.”
Oh, uh… No I have them all in different notebooks. I buy notebooks for drawing in; I like thick paper, I don’t like the lines on the paper ‘cause I started out drawing way before I did this. I don’t like the lines.
I had a funny thought, and maybe you can indulge me here. Since your onstage personality is an exaggeration of your normal self, I was wondering if you could answer the following question for me as normal Steven, and then as standup Steven. What was the happiest day of your life?
Well there’s so many of them, but goin’ on the Tonight Show would be one of them. Then the stage one would have to be an insane answer, right? The stage one would be the day I named my shadow [laughs]. No one ever asked that either.
Do you ever look back and ask where the hell the past 32 years have gone?
It’s like that for many things. Thing is, you’re always in the present. So all that time is gone but I’ve still been in the present the whole time [laughs]. No, I can’t believe it. I remember when it got to be 10 years, I was like, “Oh my gawd…” I never had a job longer than probably…[pause for thought]…not even a year.
My last job was [working] at the MIT co-op, which is like a department store on the campus of MIT. They had clothes and books and records and all this stuff, and I ran the cash register and worked in the men’s department. Can you imagine coming in? I mean I worked there but I wasn’t like, “Hey, can I help you sir??” They probably didn’t even know I worked there. “Why is that guy using the cash register sometimes?” Ha!