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?