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There is no father to the stand-up style of comedian Steven Wright. Wright exploded on the comedy scene in the early '80s, eschewing conventional setups and punchlines in favor of bizarre observations and absurdist one-liners delivered in a bored monotone. Wright's one comedy album, 1985's I Have A Pony, earned a Grammy nomination, while his 1988 short film The Appointments Of Dennis Jennings—which he co-wrote and starred in—made him an unlikely Academy Award-winner.
Wright has lent his voice to Reservoir Dogs, The Simpsons, Babe: Pig In The City, and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and he's appeared in such notable cult films as Desperately Seeking Susan, Natural Born Killers, and Coffee And Cigarettes. Wright recently starred in Comedy Central's Steven Wright: When The Leaves Blow Away, his first stand-up special since 1991's Wicker Chairs And Gravity. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Wright about winning an Oscar, the craft of comedy, making movies, and his influence on younger comedians.
The A.V. Club: A good place to start would be at the very beginning. Tell me about your childhood.
Steven Wright: I don't know if you're kidding me or not. Well, okay. It was kind of suburbs, rural, in-between, really. It was regular, you know—Little League and skiing, going to elementary school, junior high, high school. All pretty regular stuff, about 30 minutes outside of Boston.
AVC: You've said you were very introverted as a child.
SW: Oh yeah, I was very introverted. I was very little, too. I grew like three inches after I got out of high school, so I was always one of the smallest kids in the school.
AVC: Did you feel like an outsider growing up?
SW: Not really. You have the normal wondering-where-you-fit-in feeling, everyone does growing up. I don't think I really knew the term "outsider." I don't think I realized I was an outsider until college.
AVC: Did you feel like you perceived the world in a different way than other people?
SW: No, I didn't. I loved words; I would put groups of words together, like "a flock of false teeth," I would say to my friends, just because it was a strange set of words. But I didn't think I had a different angle or anything.
AVC: When did you realize you wanted to make people laugh professionally?
SW: I was a huge fan of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. I started watching that when I was 14; I started watching it every night. There was also a radio show in Boston, and the guy played two entire comedy albums every Sunday night. And I had a little radio in bed with me Sunday nights, so I would hear every album, almost every album ever made. It was right about that time, watching The Tonight Show and listening to that radio show, that George Carlin's Class Clown album came out. I thought, "Man, I would like to be one of those guys who goes on TV, who goes on the Johnny Carson show."
AVC: What did you study in college?
SW: I went to a junior college studying liberal arts for two years, and then I transferred to Emerson College, focusing on mass communications, specifically radio, thinking maybe I could be on the radio. [Comedy] was my fantasy, but I didn't think it would really happen, so I thought, "Well, I can go to school, maybe I can be funny on the radio." I didn't really know how radio worked. I thought the guy just went in there and played whatever he wanted. The more I learned about it, the more structured I realized it was. I thought I'd be a guy just fooling around for four hours on the radio.
AVC: What was it like performing for the first time on stage?
SW: Well, I really wanted to do this, but I was very introverted. So before I went up, my legs were shaking. I was scared out of my mind. I just did the three minutes I had prepared, and I had no expression, because I was so nervous. I don't even know if I knew to slow down and wait for them to laugh; I may have just talked straight through. They laughed at about half of the stuff, and I was up there for three minutes. Very nervous. And I was disappointed, because I was imagining they would laugh at all of it, which was insane. There's no way they could laugh at everything. When you try out new jokes, that never happens. So there was a guy, a fellow college student who was doing stand-up already for several months, and he said that I did fine. I never did it before, and half the stuff that I did wasn't laughed at, and he said that I should just go home and rewrite the other stuff and come back again. So that switched in my mind how I looked at it, and I thought, "Wow, he's right." And then I thought, "I've wanted to do this for so many years, and I actually made the audience laugh at something I thought of," so I was inspired to go back. So that interaction with him, his name was Mike McDonald, that really affected how I looked at it.
AVC: When you did your three minutes of material, was it the same kind of comedy that you have today?
SW: It was, about half or three-quarters of it. There was other stuff that was more normal-like; I can't remember exactly. It wasn't totally surreal and abstract. It was a mixture.
AVC: When you started, did you realize that you were performing an entirely new kind of comedy?
SW: No, I was just trying to think up things that were funny that I thought the audience would laugh at. I didn't see it as a style. It wasn't until a year or two later that The Boston Phoenix… Some guy wrote an article about me that said, "Oh, he's deadpan and he's doing these types of jokes." I never even thought of myself as deadpan. I never heard that word used to refer to me in my whole life. So he made me see it from the outside. But I wasn't thinking "I'm breaking new ground" or anything, I was just trying to, like I said, build up new material.
AVC: You've said that you tend to throw away jokes if the audience doesn't respond well three times. Are there any jokes that you really loved and were attached to, but that audiences just didn't respond to?
SW: Yeah, it's hard for me—your mind doesn't remember a lot of those, because they don't work, they don't take a place in your head. But there's one that I left in on and off for years. It barely got a laugh, and I don't do it anymore, but I had it in and out for years because I liked it. It was, "You never know what you have until it's gone, and I wanted to know what I had, so I got rid of everything."
AVC: That joke turns up when people Google you, so obviously some people responded to it. Although it seems like you have enough of a following and you've been around long enough that people would cut you some slack.
SW: Yeah, but you know, the audience still won't laugh at a joke unless they think it's funny. I know that because I try out new jokes within my show, I slip some in here and there, and ever since the beginning, I've had a one-in-five, or one-in-four ratio. For every four or five I write, one will be good enough to stay in the act, and that's still true even now. So I just can't get away with saying anything because I've been around this long and they know me. I know that because sometimes I say those new ones, and a thousand people blankly look back at me.
AVC: Is that terrifying, after all these years?
SW: It's a little awkward, but the only way you can get the new stuff is to go through that. It's not horrifying, it's just awkward, and you're disappointed it didn't work. But then you go on to something that does work, and then maybe later on try another new one. I wouldn't try 10 new ones in a row, because that would probably create a huge silence. It would be too long.
AVC: Is there any place you particularly enjoy or dread playing?
SW: No. To me, it's relatively the same. I think television has made the whole country, in a sense, kind of like one big town. Everyone knows the same references, the same words. I talk about such basic stuff; it doesn't matter if I'm talking about lint in Miami or Seattle, or even in other countries. I don't have to change many things.
AVC: You don't have region-specific material. You don't do jokes about one pancake house in Alabama or anything.
SW: Yeah, I'm talking about electricity and gravity and birds.
AVC: What jobs did you have before you made a living as a stand-up comedian?
SW: I worked in the Houghton-Mifflin Publishing Company warehouse packing books and shipping them out to schools and stores. I painted apartments in Boston; I parked cars on and off for several years in Boston at some clubs and restaurants. MIT in Cambridge has its own department store, and I ran a cash register in there. I shoveled snow off rooftops in Aspen, Colorado so the buildings wouldn't cave in.
AVC: It seems like those jobs would give you a lot of time to think of jokes.
SW: Especially the painting ones, because I would paint with a couple of friends of mine, and painting is so boring. We'd be in some room painting, and the conversation was hilarious. I was painting apartments, painting the school I went to, actually, when I started doing comedy. Some of the stuff I thought of while painting, I'd go on stage and try that night.
AVC: What year did you start doing comedy professionally?
SW: In July of '79.
AVC: The '80s are viewed as a golden age of stand-up comedy. Did you feel like you were part of that rising tide?
SW: Yeah, I started out right before and during that explosion in the early '80s, so it was excellent, because there were so many clubs. Just in Boston, there were two or three. You could work so much. You could go back and forth. You could do three shows in one night in Boston if you started at one, did a second show at the other club, and then came back to the first one to do the last show. And the more you go on, the more you learn, so it really was great accidental timing.
AVC: It seems that everyone was starting out at that time. Did you enjoy talking about the craft of comedy? Would you finish a set and then talk to other comedians about how it went?
SW: Yeah, I'd talk to them, what they did and what I did, noticing little things, "If you'd do this," "If I'd do this," there was a lot of that during that time. Because so many guys were just starting out doing it, there were only a couple who had been doing it way before that, at least in the Boston area.
AVC: Did anybody mentor you, or teach you the craft of comedy?
SW: Mike McDonald helped me with the idea of focusing on what worked rather than being bummed out on what didn't work. That really helped me a lot. We were all learning at the same time. Other than him, I can't say a specific person.
AVC: It seems like, especially in the '80s, stand-up was a starting ground to bigger things. A lot of guys were like, "Well, I'll do comedy for a couple years, and then I'll get my own sitcom, and then I'll never have to worry about money ever again." Did anybody ever try to get you to do a sitcom?
SW: Yeah, I had people approach me to do that two or three times. When I went into this, I wasn't thinking "This might go onto a TV show," I was doing it for what it really was. And when they approached me, I didn't really see how my thing could be in a sitcom format, so I didn't want to do it.
AVC: Did they have ideas that you'd adopt a gaggle of multicultural children, or have a wacky neighbor, or a dog that's an alien?
SW: No, it never got that far. It was never in my sensibility of what I wanted to do. I'm such a loner guy, too, I wanted to go write my material and go on the road when I wanted to go, and just kind of do what I was doing.
AVC: You've appeared in a fair number of movies. Do you have to audition?
SW: Lots of times I do. Sometimes they just want me to be in it, but I would say for more than half, I have to go in and audition.
AVC: Do you feel like you have to show them that you've got chops or range? It seems like when you're in a movie, you're doing—
SW: I'm just doing me; I'm just acting like me.
AVC: Right. Do you get a lot of direction? Are there people trying to get you to push your range?
SW: Not push my range, but after different takes, they'll address the pacing, or "Say it a little bit more like this." So within what I do, even in that, they can make changes.
AVC: Where do you keep your Academy Award?
SW: In my living room. When I came back to New York, it was in a plastic bag inside my carry-on luggage, and when I went through security at the airport, they wanted to see what this metal thing was. This guy took it out, looked at me, and just put it back in, and I left. And I think he was completely bewildered, because I wasn't a big movie star. I always wondered what he was thinking.
AVC: Psychologically, what do you think attracted you to comedy?
SW: I liked seeing that guy on the Tonight Show, like David Brenner or Robert Klein, standing there and making all those people laugh. I don't know what exactly that is, but I thought that I would really like to be doing that.
AVC: Stand-up comedy seems to attract kind of damaged people.
SW: I find there are people like that, but I find that there are also people who aren't. I think part of it is wanting attention. That's definitely in there.
AVC: Do younger comics who you've influenced come to you for advice or guidance?
SW: I'm hearing about my influence more and more, but I don't truthfully think about it much at all, unless it's brought up in conversation. I know I loved seeing George Carlin, he influenced me, because he would be talking about regular stuff, but what he did with it was different. So would I think that maybe some people were influenced by what I did? I guess if I'm forced to see it that way, I'd say, yeah, okay. But I was always just doing what I'm doing, and if it wasn't brought up to me, I wouldn't think that I'm an influence, or the father of a style.
AVC: The late Mitch Hedberg seemed very influenced by your comedy. Demetri Martin would be another example. Are you familiar with their work?
SW: I didn't see Mitch Hedberg's work, but I kept hearing that he was influenced. I did see that guy Demetri, he was, like, holding up cards with stuff written on them. I thought it was hilarious. I didn't really think it was like what I do. But I hear people say, "Oh, there's some guy who's influenced." I hear about it more than I see it.
AVC: Is it flattering to see that there are younger comics who look up to you, or that you paved the way to do different, unconventional things?
SW: It's weird, I've never thought of it from that angle. All those years, I just went out onstage hoping my five minutes worked. I never thought, "Oh, this might be influencing comedy." And now that it's years later and I hear that it has, to some extent, it's fascinating. It's flattering.
AVC: But these comics who were influenced don't seek you out?
SW: No, they don't. But when I go in a club to try out material, if there's young people there, if they ask me, I'll give them advice if they want it.
AVC: The last time we spoke with you, you said that a lot of your jokes came organically from your subconscious, that you don't sit down to write your jokes. Do you have any sort of exercises to keep your subconscious sharp? Do you seek out visual stimuli that might lead to jokes?
SW: No, I don't do anything on purpose in order to think a joke up. I just notice things. I guess. From the time anyone wakes up to the time that they go to sleep, there's just thousands of pieces of information. You see a sign, you talk to someone, you're reading a book. Books, to me, turn the writing gears in your head. I mean, you're reading these words and they'll strike you in a certain way and make you think of a joke. I don't try to think of them, I just react to my surroundings, and then occasionally, jokes are just kind of sitting there.
AVC: What are the best and worst parts of touring?
SW: The best is definitely being in front of the audience, that rush in front of all those people. And then the other part is, "Oh my God, I'm in another hotel." I say to my friends, if I won some contest, it would be like, "You have won five weeks in your own house!" Oh my God! I'd be jumping up and down hugging the host, hugging the other contestants.
AVC: So you're not a fan of hotels?
SW: There's just so many of them. It's not that I don't like hotels. This sounds kind of simple, but it's true: The fact that you're in a hotel means also that you're not home. So as the time keeps going, and the experiences keep going, it's like, "Man, I have not been home in this giant amount of time."
AVC: What's the story behind the title of your new special, When The Leaves Blow Away?
SW: I was working with the editor, Amy Weller, and she asked me, "What's the name of it gonna be?" And I said, "I have no idea." And we kept working on the thing. And there was a joke in there where part of a sentence was "when the leaves blow away," and she said, "Why don't we name it that?" And we both just laughed, like "That's hilarious, that's funny," not really thinking we really would. But then it just stuck in my head, and I couldn't get it out. And the more I thought about it, after weeks working on the editing, I thought it sounded like the title. Then I said, "You know what, Amy? I'm just gonna call it that." And in the meantime, I took the joke out which had that sentence in it—not because I was using it as a title; I just thought the joke shouldn't be in the show. And now it makes completely no sense, and everyone's asking me what it means.
AVC: What was the joke you removed?
SW: You know where I'm playing the guitar at the end? Between the songs, I said, "This next song is called 'We'll Find Her When The Leaves Blow Away, Because I'm Not Raking Until Spring.'" Which is really funny, but it's so violent that I thought, "You know what, I'm not having that in the TV show."
AVC: In our last interview with you, you said you don't do jokes about popular culture because you don't like popular culture—
SW: No, I didn't say I don't like popular culture. I said I don't like to have my comedy about popular culture.
AVC: It seems like you make a few nods in that direction, though. You talk about your iPod in your new special.
SW: You're saying that I broke the rule. I guess you're right, but technology, I love talking about technology. There's so much stuff about that in my show.
AVC: Well, the nice thing about not riffing on pop culture is that your stuff isn't dated. Your fans can hear your comedy from 20 years ago, and not be like, "What's that reference there?"
SW: Well, now it will be dated, because they'll have something in 10 years that will make the iPod look like an old bicycle.
AVC: Do you ever see yourself retiring from stand-up?
SW: I don't know. I don't know about that, because so much of it is thinking. It comes from thinking, and if you're awake you're thinking, so I don't know. I think I'll keep doing it for a long time.