Steven Wright's web site includes this autobiography: "I was born. When I was 23 I started telling jokes. Then I started going on television and doing films. That's still what I am doing. The end." That terseness is typical Wright. The comedian has recorded one album (the Grammy-nominated 1985 live recording I Have A Pony), and has appeared in or provided voiceovers for a wide assortment of films (including Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers, and Desperately Seeking Susan), usually as a character all but indistinguishable from himself. He played a recurring role on TV's Mad About You for two years, and he's written and starred in two short films, One Soldier (which he also directed) and the Oscar-winning The Appointments Of Dennis Jennings. He writes fiction, composes music, and paints, though most of his art is only available on his web site (stevenwright.com). But Wright is best-known for his laconic, straight-faced, absurdist one-liners: "You never know what you have until it's gone. I wanted to know what I had, so I got rid of everything." "I'm staying in an old hotel. They sent me a wake-up letter." "When I die, I'm going to leave my body to science-fiction." In his stand-up act, he rattles off a string of these hairpin-turn non sequiturs for 90 minutes or so, mostly looking at his shoes while, as he puts it, following his feet around the stage. His deadpan delivery and brain-twisting concepts have made him one of the most recognizable comedians in the business. While on a comedy tour, Wright spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about The Tonight Show, why the Internet fascinates and frustrates him, and why he prefers to keep his non-comedic art to himself.
The Onion: Steven Wright quotes are popular on the Internet. Does that sort of thing hold any interest for you?
Steven Wright: No. About five years ago, somebody showed me some web sites that had my material all over them, and I thought that was fascinating. One reason was, I'd never seen my jokes written one right after another like that. I write on drawing paper—I don't even like lines on the paper—so I have notebooks all over the place with handwritten pieces of my act in them. So to see it go by, all typed out neatly, was like, "Wow." And then two or three years ago, someone showed me a site, and half of it that said I wrote it, I didn't write. Recently, I saw one, and I didn't write any of it. What's disturbing is that with a few of these jokes, I wish I had thought of them. A giant amount of them, I'm embarrassed that people think I thought of them, because some are really bad. The thing about the Internet is, there's no rules. It's like the Wild West. It'd be like, if you never read Oliver Twist… Some guy goes to the bookstore and buys Oliver Twist, and he's reading, and all of a sudden, in Chapter 11, Oliver goes to Miami and starts a brothel, and starts building boats, and then he goes back to London. And it's because some nut in Detroit, at 2 in the morning, typed this into the book. But the guy reading the book doesn't know that, and he's thinking, "This Charles Dickens guy is an asshole. What the fuck is this?" You know what I mean? They just type this shit up and say I wrote it. If you went down the street to Borders at night, and broke into the store, and stuck all this extra stuff into the books, you'd be arrested for breaking and entering and destroying property. But on the Internet, they can do whatever they want. That's the thing that bothers me. I wish it was just my material, and people could like it or not like it. Just as long as it was really mine.
O: Is it at all flattering to know that other people are trying to imitate your style?
SW: Well, what bothers me is when people say I wrote it, when I didn't write it. Why don't people just admit, "Here's a joke that I wrote that's like Steven Wright's style"? That would be fine. It's the dishonesty that bothers me. Part of me is flattered that they want to write jokes like my style, but put your own name on it. What the fuck do I have to do with it?
O: Well, a lot of material on the Internet is uncredited and passed around a lot. The people crediting you with work that's not yours probably do think you wrote it.
SW: Oh. I didn't think about that.
O: One contributing factor may be that you only have one album out, so fan-to-fan communication is one of the few ways people can relive your comedy outside of your concerts. Why haven't you put out a follow-up to I Have A Pony?
SW: When I made that album, I noticed that the material on it became so well-known that I couldn't really perform it anymore. And I didn't know how many things I was going to be able to think of. I knew if I made a second album, I'd have to make a third album's worth of stuff to take out live, so audiences wouldn't just hear the same things they'd already heard before. I didn't know at the time if I had that in me, but I just kept accumulating new material. If I had the business sense of a hubcap, I would have said, "I'm up to the third album worth of stuff, so let's record the second one now," but I forgot about it. I just kept piling more and more material up, and didn't think about albums anymore. See, the album helped me go from clubs into theaters, but I didn't think I needed to make another one, because I'm still in theaters.
O: Will you ever do a follow-up?
SW: I think maybe I should, since it's been nearly 20 years, and people ask me about it quite often. I'd like to do it, and call it I Still Have A Pony.
O: According to your own site, you wanted to be a comedian since you were 14.
SW: Yeah. I used to watch The Tonight Show all the time, with Johnny Carson. I loved Johnny Carson. I loved watching him, and I loved watching all the comedians he had on—George Carlin, David Brenner, Robert Klein. Even people who just came on once and I never saw them again, there was something about comedians going on that show, and Johnny. I thought he was incredible, and I got into my head that that's what I would like to do.
O: Did any particular type of humor appeal to you, or were you more drawn to individual performers?
SW: It was the people. I didn't have a preference of style. My favorite was Carlin. He's still one of my favorites. He had more of an edge, but he seemed like a regular guy. He wasn't in show business. He was more like a smart guy, just "This is what's going on." He wasn't like a cabaret performer. He was just separate.
O: People have said similar things about your style. You've said you don't play a character on stage—you're just yourself. Did Carlin's work have anything to do with that?
SW: I don't think I'm not show-businessy because Carlin's not show-businessy. I just think that's how I am as a person. What I picked up from him is how he observed all the little things in life that people don't usually notice. Everyone's experiencing this stuff, but no one's really noticing it or talking about it. That had a big influence on me.
O: So you wanted to be a comedian, but you didn't actually take any steps in that direction until after college?
SW: Yeah, it was a firm thing, but there was no way of how to get from this dream to the reality. There were no steps to be taken. It was a very strong thing that I wanted to do, but I never thought of how I was going to do it. I didn't tell any of my friends that I wanted to be a comedian, because I was superstitious. I thought if I told people, it wouldn't happen. So I kept it all in my head for years and years.
O: Were you ever a class-clown type? Did you try to make the people around you laugh?
SW: I would make my one or two buddies laugh with things I was saying, but I wouldn't want… I'm still an introvert, but I was way introverted then. I didn't want that kind of attention.
O: How did an introvert start performing at open-mic nights?
SW: My dream was so strong that I made myself do what horrified me. I was a nervous wreck.
O: Who discovered you? How did you end up on Carson?
SW: One of the clubs in Cambridge was half Chinese restaurant, half comedy club. Someone wrote an article about it that ended up in the L.A. Times, I don't know how or why. Peter Lassally, the co-producer of The Tonight Show, saw this article, and it stuck in his head, this weird comedy club. So in the summer of '82, he had two children about to go to college, and they came east to look at schools. He came to the club, and he saw me, and it changed my entire life. About three weeks later, I was on The Tonight Show.
O: What was going through your head at the time?
SW: I was very nervous, but a comedian in Boston who was a friend of mine gave me some advice. He said it was like I'd built an electric generator—that's the material. And every night, I come out and just flip the switch to turn it on, like I'd been doing for three years. That really struck me, because it was like, "Really, they like what I do. They just want me to do what I've already been doing." But it was still so overwhelming. As I got close to the show, I went numb. My brain couldn't take it. I was in the makeup room, and Johnny came in. Here I am, at 26, I've been watching him since I was 14, and now he's standing there. Peter was on the other side, and Johnny's saying, "Peter's been telling me about you, and how much he likes you. I'm looking forward to seeing you." He could have been saying, "We're going to ax-murder you live on television and throw the remains into the river," and I would have just been, "Thank you. Okay. Fine." It was so surreal.
O: Did you tell him it was the fulfillment of your childhood dream?
SW: No. I couldn't talk. It was like getting in a cab by accident with Jesus.
O: Did that nervousness cause any problems on the show?
SW: No. When I came out, I was numb. I was so nervous that I wasn't nervous. I came out and started doing it, and they laughed, and I got more relaxed. I tried to ignore the cameras and play the audience like I'd been playing the little clubs in Boston. When they started laughing, it kind of became the same. I was telling the jokes, people were laughing, and it became familiar. Then I heard Johnny laugh from his desk, and I was like, "Oh my God, Johnny Carson is laughing at something I said!" That gave me the confidence to keep going.
O: You talk about playing to the audience, but that doesn't seem to be part of your act. On stage, you rarely look at your audience.
SW: [Pauses.] I'm very reactive to how they're reacting, but it's more an audio thing for me. Because of the lights on stage, I'm looking out into total blackness. It's like it's night, and there's a truck parked on a hill pointing its lights at me. I can hear them, but I can't see them. But sometimes if I can see them, if the light spills out over them, it's just distracting. I need to think about what I'm talking about, and present it to the audience as if it's one giant being, rather than all these individual jokes.
O: How do you memorize an hour and a half of non sequiturs?
SW: Up until about six years ago, I had it all in my head like my head was a rolodex. I would come out on stage, and depending on how they reacted, I would pick the next joke as I went along. Then I took six months off for some reason, and when I went back, I went, "How was I doing this for all these years? This is insane." It was so overwhelming, I couldn't imagine how I did it to begin with. So instead, I now know about 98 percent of what's going to happen before I go on. To the audience, it's like I'm changing the subject every five seconds, but to me, my show's almost like a 90-minute song that I know exactly. I wrote every note, and I know exactly where everything is. I thought that would be better for the audience, because I wouldn't be spending part of my time on a memory test, choosing rolodex cards. That was a lot of energy that was wasted.
O: Do you pull things in and out of the show as you come up with new ideas?
SW: There are little windows in the show, and that's where I'll try out new material. The audience decides what stays. They're like a bunch of editors: I try something, and if it doesn't work three times, it'll never work, and I just throw it away. If it works for three nights, I know it'll work every time. To me, it's like a painting that never ends, because I never get it done and then start over.
O: At your show last night, you dealt with a heckler by making fun of him, which seemed to go over well with the audience. Does that happen often?
SW: Very rarely. It's very rare that I acknowledge them at all.
SW: Because… [Pauses.] Because then they exist. Over the years, I've learned that the best way to react is to ignore them. I don't need to be in a two-man band with a stranger when I'm doing what I do.
O: There were a couple of other improv moments last night, which seems unusual for you.
SW: Very rarely do I talk off the top of my head on stage. I'm not an improv guy. I'm a writer-guy who presents what he's written. I don't even really write the jokes, they just come into my head, and a joke can't come into my head on stage, because I'm too busy.
O: You never actually consciously sit down to write?
SW: I'm just reacting to the world. I can't sit down at a desk and think of a joke. I tried a few times, like 18 years ago, and I can't do it. It just doesn't work. I react to information—I'm so visually oriented that it has to do with something I see. So if I'm at a desk, unless there's a joke about a desk, or a wall… I'm not going to think about helicopters or the Sistine Chapel in my room.
O: Is any one activity particularly conducive to generating jokes?
SW: No. I don't do it on purpose. I don't think I need new material, I don't wish I had new material, I don't even think, "I'd better get working on this." What it is, I think, is my subconscious is furiously aware, and my consciousness isn't. So I'm looking at things even when I don't know I am, and I'm working on it more than I'm actually aware. I tell people I'm just a secretary for my own mind: Something comes into my head, and I write it down. My subconscious sends up the information, so it appears like it came out of the blue, but there is no out-of-the-blue: It's a different part of my mind working. After doing this for so many years and exercising that part of my brain, my subconscious is like what your arms would be like if you did pushups for 23 years.
O: So there's never any message to your comedy? There's nothing you'd like people to do or think about in reaction?
SW: No. I have no message. From the moment I started, I was just hoping I'd think of things to make them laugh. There didn't have to be a style, and it didn't have to be philosophical or anything. It was just, "Is this funny, is this funny?" But after I'd been at it for 10 years, I noticed that what you could say I was saying, even though I'm not saying it on purpose, is that the world is insane. You're on a jet, you're five miles in the air, you're going 500 miles an hour, and you ask someone to bring you another Coke. That is as weird to me as any joke I said last night. I think that's why people identify with me, because there are a billion pieces of information, and there's so much chaos. So much of civilization is just trying to organize this information. Everyone's trying to have rules so that it's not complete madness-chaos. But as organized as it can be, it's only organized to an extent. Shit is spilling over the edges. I'm just pointing out the stuff they're trying to make rules about, and the stuff that's spilling over. As I'm saying this to you, it sounds so deep, but all I'm noticing is that things are funny. You can just move something and look at it from a slightly different angle, and it's funny.
O: You don't know until you present the joke to an audience whether it'll be funny or not?
SW: Yup. I don't know. Twenty-three years later, I don't know. I think of something, I write it down in a notebook, and to me, it's as funny as one that works. But it's not up to me. If it doesn't work three times and I throw it away, I don't think I was wrong. I just think they didn't agree with me.
O: From childhood, you wanted to make people laugh. Why laughter specifically, over any other form of attention or reaction?
SW: All these years later, I still don't know what it is about people laughing. It's just a rush to present your creativity to all these people and figure out what they like. It's very intense to be in front of a live audience. It's just an amazing experience. It's dangerous. Everything out there is heightened. The bad stuff is extra-worse. The silences are extra-silent. The good stuff is amazing. It's electric when you walk out there. For 90 minutes, you're on this other planet.
O: Most comedians, especially when they're performing live, at least occasionally go for sure laughs—whether with profanity, or crudity, or sexual jokes. Your act is unusual in that regard.
SW: When I started out, I had these rules for myself, that I wouldn't do certain things. And I've broken all of them. I didn't want to swear, because I wanted the joke to get a pure reaction, and anything I was going to say, I wanted to be able to say on TV. I wasn't thinking about HBO. I'm a conservative kind of guy, so I do have these rules—I won't talk about this, this, and this. And I don't like talking about topical things. I like talking about little things, like lint. Well, and the speed of light, which is not a little thing. But I don't like pop culture: I'm not going to talk about a TV show, or the president. If something is so big, to me, it cancels itself out. I'd rather talk about science, or hinges. [Laughs.] I don't want to talk about McDonald's. But that's just me. I'm a whole different person when I'm in an audience. I love Robert Schimmel: He's very filthy, but he's brilliant, very smart. I could never say his stuff on stage, but I love him and admire him. I think "Dice" Clay is hilarious, and Richard Pryor, but I don't feel like swearing. My mother taught me not to swear. [Laughs.]
O: Did you ever have a point in your career where someone tried to get you to change your performance to fit in with their show, or to adopt a more conventional comic style?
SW: No, that never happened. Ever. I'm happy I started out in Boston, because there was no show business there. There were no producers or agents or managers. There was just the guy in the club, and he decided whether you went on or not. That was the extent of show business, so you could do whatever you liked. I would have been ruined if someone had come in and said, "You can't not look at the audience! You can't look at your feet! You have to shave, and wear a sport jacket, and stay on one subject for three minutes!" But no one ever did that.
O: When you were younger, did you have any ambitions to appear in movies, or did that just happen as an outgrowth of your comedy dream?
SW: I wanted it to happen. The dreams of my life were to go on The Tonight Show and to have a small part in a movie. When I was 28, I had been on The Tonight Show a bunch of times, and Risa Bramon, who was casting Desperately Seeking Susan—I didn't know her, but she liked my stand-up—brought me to the attention of the director. I was overwhelmed, because my fantasies both came true. I didn't think of having a big acting career, I just thought of being in a movie sometime. But I like being in movies. It's relaxing, compared to being in a live show, because you only talk for, like, 30 seconds, and there's no audience, and if you make a mistake, you do it again.
O: Do you get any of that sense of electricity from being in a movie?
SW: It's weird. It's like performing in an empty theater, but the camera is a time machine that's going to deliver this moment to the audience in a year. It's a rush to be in a movie, and it's a kick to be on the screen, but it doesn't have that tense edge.
O: As a director, do you watch other directors when you're working on their projects?
SW: I learn from watching the films, but not so much from watching the directors, although with Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers, I was very impressed with how he was into the details of everything. How he wanted it a certain way, and would do it over and over until he got what he wanted. Very, very intense about things.
O: Who have you most enjoyed working with?
SW: Film-wise? Oh, lots of people. Quentin Tarantino, that was a lot of fun. He's so enthusiastic. My short film, The Appointments Of Dennis Jennings, was directed by Dean Parisot, and that was a lot of fun, because we had the same sensibility. We were trying to make it as good as we could, but we were like kids building a treehouse—we were just, "Why don't we try this?" While we were setting it up, there was a lot of joking around. And Jim Jarmusch, I made a six-minute film with him called Coffee And Cigarettes. I'd like to do something else with him.
O: A lot of the film roles you play seem to be based on your own personality. Which role most required you to act?
SW: None, really. It's always just… I never set out to be an actor. To me, trying to act is trying to say something as I'd say it in real life. I'm not trying to be a different personality or anything, and so far, no one's asked me to. Some people say, "Oh, you're doing the same character in every movie." Yeah, I am. I don't care, because I never went into this to act like a wired-up Wall Street guy, or an Amish guy. This is something I do on the side.
O: Would you enjoy playing a character that was different from yourself?
SW: I never really thought about it. It might be fun, actually. No one's ever brought it up. Maybe I should, but I don't think they're going to, either. If I'm going to be seen in a different way on film, if I wanted that to happen, I would have to write it and do it.
O: Have you ever written a feature-length screenplay for yourself?
SW: I've thought about it, and I write things down all the time, but I write pieces of things. I'm not a story guy. I want to do one at some point, but I have trouble with stories. I think of a scene, or some dialogue, but I don't know why this would happen, or what would happen 15 or 20 minutes after it. But that's one of my goals. The last thing I want to do that I haven't done yet is to write and direct a full-length film.
O: There's nothing else you'd like to do with your career?
SW: I'd like to continue performing live, and to direct more short films. And I'd like to put more music up on my web site, and more paintings. But mainly, I feel very lucky and very blessed that I make a living from creating, from my imagination. So I'd like to continue to create, whether for the stage, or film, or music, or painting. Just continue doing that, because it's a great thing to be able to do.
O: The country-rock song you released on your web site is very different stylistically from the folkie-parody music you perform as part of your act. Have you recorded any other styles of music?
SW: Yeah, there's a bunch of stuff I've recorded but haven't released. What I do on stage musically and what I do off is totally different. I've been playing the guitar for 20 years, and I just like making up songs and writing seriously. I met a couple of guys who have a little studio in Boston, so I go in sometimes. They can play other instruments, and they lay in all this stuff, so you take this simple song and have it sound like a band, and it's a big rush. It's one of the most enjoyable things I do in my life. Music is the best of all the arts, I think.
O: Do you perform those songs anywhere? Do you have any outlet for them?
SW: I do it for the fun of it. Sometimes, I really like some of them, like the one I put on my site. I've written a lot of them, and sometimes I think, "I should put eight of them together and put a record out. I'd have this whole other side, this music thing." But then I think, "Ah, you know how when someone gets known in one area, like an actor or something, and then they put an album, it's always destroyed by the critics. People always hate it." I can already see the headline on the review: "Wright's Funniest Album Ever." [Laughs.]
O: So it's not worth doing, just because of what the critics would think?
SW: Well, it's not just that. [Long pause.] The comedy is… I love it, and I'm concerned about how I do it. I work hard getting it right in the show. With painting, no one sees the paintings, so it's just an expression. Nobody hears the music, so it's just an expression. I don't create it for myself, I create it because I like to create.
O: What's the difference?
SW: I don't do it to hear the song when it's done, or to look at a painting when it's done. It's the experience that I like, the emotion of getting the thing onto the page. Comedy needs so much math, because it's very logically assembled. But painting is pure emotion, and music is emotion. The lyrics just come out.
O: What do you do with your paintings once they're complete?
SW: Most of them are in storage. The other side of it is, do I really have to present this stuff to the public? Do I have to just gush out everything I think of, for people to see? There's an innocence, a childlike aspect to the art. I like that. I'm not complaining, but there's pressure to the comedy, to keeping up a level of standards. There's none of that when I'm painting. It's like a little kid, just magically creating. Once it went out, if you took it seriously, something in me would be concerned about how people would react, and that takes away from the childishness of it. Although part of me takes the comedy very seriously, and somehow the childishness of that is still intact. I still feel good about that. It's still a very playful thing, even though I take it very seriously.