An Interview with Steven Wright

One of our favorite Steven Wright jokes goes, "You know how it feels when you're leaning back on a chair, and you lean too far back, and you almost fall over backwards, but then you catch yourself at the last second? I feel like that all the time." Well, to talk to him, you would have no idea. Sure, his flat, slow monotone is there. (We spent half the interview fighting the urge to ask him to introduce another "rock classic, as K-Billy' Super Sounds of the '70s rolls on.") But his overall energy is upbeat, damn near buoyant. Apparently, being a legendary stand-up comedian and one of the most influential joke writers of all time isn't such a bad gig after all. We talked to Wright about his first stand-up special in 15 years, When the Leaves Blow Away, getting recognized as "the Guy on the Couch," and where he comes up with this shit.


Where do the ideas for your jokes come from?
I don't sit down and try to write. I hang out and do whatever I'm doing and stuff just pops into my head. What' really happening is, subconsciously I'm always scanning where I am and what' happening, looking for something that could be made into a joke. But I don't get up and try to write. Things just pop into my head.

Is that ever terrifying? Have you ever gone a week without a joke popping into your head, and thought, uh-oh?
[Laughs] Oh, I've gone several weeks without thinking of anything. I first started going on The Tonight Show in 1982. After three or four visits, I had no more material. Then I was nervous.

But then it would come to me again. I'd be on the show again, and then I'd have no material again, and I'd get nervous again, but then it would come to me again. So I got used to it. Now I know it' going to come at some point.

You took a long break between your last stand-up special and your new special, When the Leaves Blow Away. Have you been doing stand-up that whole time?
It was 15 years since I did my last HBO thing, Wicker Chairs and Gravity. I was just playing theaters and I kept focusing on live stuff. I didn't really think about putting out another special. I liked the way my career was, and I liked going back and forth across the United States and some other countries performing live.

Then about two or three years ago, I looked out at the audience before the show and I noticed that most of them were in their 40s and 50s and 60s. There were some people in their 20s, but not many. So I started thinking, "Wow, the last time I did a special, people in college now were only five."

It' weird, comedians make a living on how you notice things, and then I didn't notice 15 years going by.

You seem a lot more upbeat in conversation than your stage persona would let on. Is it difficult to remain deadpan while people are howling with laughter in front of you?
It' not that hard. Even from the beginning, the reason I appeared like that was because I was really concentrating on saying the joke the right way. I know that if you don't say it exactly right, it' not going to work. I was just taking it very seriously. I know that what I'm saying is funny, but saying it the right way was serious.

[Sometimes] they'll be laughing so hard that I almost laugh at them laughing. But most of the time it' not hard.

We want you to ghost-write our dying words. Your character in One Soldier, the short film that appears on the DVD with the new special, says "I get it" before being executed, and in your act you talk about making your dying words "unquote." Do you have your own dying words or your epitaph written yet?
I have a notebook full of just that. And there' a little page number at the bottom of each page, and depending on what day I die, I have instructions for which quote should be on my gravestone.

No, I'm kiddng. I don't know, it' a big thing, dying. I think about it. I guess that' where all that material came from.


Young comedians often site you as an influence. Do you care for any of them?
Well, Dave Chappellle, I've always thought was brilliant. There are other guys, but I can't remember their names.

Speaking of Chappelle, how did your character in Half Baked, the Guy on the Couch, come to be? Did that performance come from a place of love?
Dave Chappelle was guest-hosting a talk show and I was the guest the year before that movie was made-maybe six months before. And when the TV show was over, I said, "We should be in a movie together sometime," and he said, "Well, I'm making this movie Half Baked. Do you want to be in it?"

I love him. I think he' brilliant. So anything he was going to do, I wanted to be involved. But the character is not based on personal experience. A lot of people your age know me from that movie. Some people knew me as the voice in Reservoir Dogs. And then there're other people that know I do stand-up also.

People are always putting together lists of their favorite Steven Wright jokes. Our favorite from the new special is "What did Jesus ever do for Santa Claus' birthday?" Do you have any favorite Steven Wright jokes?
I have one that I particularly like. It goes, "I was in a restaurant and a menu said you could order breakfast anytime, and I ordered French toast in the Renaissance." I really like that one. That was a long time ago. It was on my album and one of my stand-up specials.

There was another one. I would say, "You never know what you have until it' gone, and I wanted to know what I had, so I got rid of everything." I really like that one, but it didn't really get a laugh. I put it in my act, and I'd take it out and put it back in. Even though people barely laughed at it. I just kept doing it because I liked it. Usually if they don't laugh at it I take it out and throw it away.

You're constantly hearing about the sad clown: guys who are manic on stage and terribly depressed in their life. Does that mean that off stage you're the happiest man in the world?
[Laughs] I'm constantly tap dancing and wearing bright clothing and talking really loud and smiling all the time. As soon as they can't see me I take off whatever I was wearing, step into my tap shoes, run back stage and turn the music on.


When the Leaves Blow Away airs this Saturday the 21st at 9PM on Comedy Central. The DVD, also featuring the short film "One Soldier," will be in stores on Tuesday the 24th.

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