Laconic comedian Steven Wright’s star rose with the kind of unexpected surrealism that his one-liner jokes exude: In 1982, a Tonight Show booker stopped by the Boston club he was playing while in the area looking at colleges for his kids. Wright’s late-night performances fast-tracked him to becoming a household name, resulting in the 1985 Grammy-nominated debut album I Have A Pony—which saw a 2007 re-release, packaged with a DVD of his first HBO special, simply titled A Steven Wright Special. Though Wright has dabbled with his own short films and appeared in movies like Reservoir Dogs and Babe: Pig In The City, stand-up has remained his passion. (Though he didn’t follow up Pony until 2007 with his sophomore release, I Still Have A Pony.) Prior to his performance at Warner Theatre this weekend, The A.V. Club spoke to him about the logic in his sets and how his audience is his editor.
The A.V. Club: Does it annoy you when stand-up comedians do interviews and lean heavily on their material for answers?
Steven Wright: That’s how talk shows work. They want you to be funny; they don’t really care about real answers. It’s not really a real interview in my opinion.
AVC: How has your stand-up changed since you started?
SW: My delivery is slightly different. I was listening to some early stuff the other day and my tone of voice is different. It has a more hesitant thing in it at the beginning. But the material is the same: abstract, surreal, play on words, taking things literally. I don’t know how to explain it, but the tone was slightly different.
AVC: Earlier in your career, your goal was to be on the Tonight Show. What are your goals now?
SW: My goals now are to keep doing stand-up and maybe work on another film at some time. And that’s about it.
AVC: Do you have anything in mind for another film?
SW: Little pieces of different things that I’ve been writing down in my notebooks. There’s nothing, no one thing to share with you now.
AVC: What effect or mood are you trying to set with that deadpan part of you onstage?
SW: That’s just how I talk. I’m concentrating on the jokes. That’s why I have a serious face, but I’m not trying to set a tone. It does set a tone, it does set a mood, but I’m not trying to set a mood. Every performance sets a kind of mood, and it’s just kind of naturally what happens when I’m onstage, that’s how I do it.
AVC: Do you feel it’s important to sort of keep that serious face that you mentioned?
SW: No, because sometimes I laugh, sometimes I smile, it’s not that critical.
AVC: What did you think of Mitch Hedberg?
SW: I knew that he had been influenced by me and I thought he was a really good creative comedian and people really liked him and it’s too bad what happened to him.
AVC: Did you ever see him perform?
SW: No I didn’t. Never saw him, no.
AVC: How do you think you influenced him?
SW: Who are you talking about again?
AVC: Mitch Hedberg.
SW: I influenced him, but I was influenced by people also.
AVC: When you perform, is there a logic to the order in which you tell your one-liner jokes? Or does one just make you think of another?
SW: No, I figure out an order. The order is very important because certain jokes will work better in certain places in the show. So just from doing it over and over and moving things around I find an order that really works the best and I keep it in that order. When I add new material I select a spot for it to go in and test it out and sometimes I end up moving it somewhere else, and sometimes I leave it. Most of the time I know where to put it as a new joke.
AVC: What’s an example of a joke you would never open with?
SW: “You never know what you have ’til it’s gone. I didn’t know what I had until I got rid of everything.”
AVC: Why wouldn’t you open with that?
SW: It’s not strong enough to open with.
AVC: How come?
SW: Just going by a bigger laugh.
AVC: So based on the audience’s reaction?
AVC: Do you agree with the audience—that the jokes they think are stronger actually are?
SW: No, I think some of them I agree with the audience. Some of them I think are better. Sometimes I think a joke is really funny and they don’t laugh at it at all and I have to throw it away. Happens all the time. They’re in charge of what stays in the act by their response.
AVC: You’ve said you’re like a secretary for your brain, and if the audience has control over what goes into the act, do you sometimes feel like your stand-up is automatic? There are a lot of factors outside your control.
SW: No, it can’t be. It’s like walking a tightrope wire. It’s so dangerous; it can go wrong so easily. There’s a lot of focus. I’m definitely working off the audience, the energy that they’re giving to me and I give it back to them. It’s a very intense thing, the show. There’s nothing casual about it all.