‘We’re Really Glad We Cut Out the Other 60 Minutes’: Steven Wright Recounts His Oscar Win for Best Short Film
1989 witnessed one of the more unlikely Oscar winners in the history of the awards — Steven Wright, the frizzy-haired, monotone-voiced, deadpan comic known for his offbeat brand of humor, captured the statuette for his short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, which followed a man (Wright) who eventually kills his therapist (Rowan Atkinson).
On Oscar night, when Wright and fellow producer Dean Parisot were announced as the winners by Martin Short and Carrie Fisher, Wright, in his signature delivery, joked, “This was for the short film category, and we’re really glad we cut out the other 60 minutes.” He then wiped the sweat from his brow and thanked a handful of people before walking backstage with Parisot.
While Wright wore the customary awards-show tux, it’s hard to imagine a person in greater contrast to the glitz of the Oscars, and nearly 35 years later, no one is more surprised by the achievement than Wright himself. “It was one of the greatest flukes of my career,” Wright tells me over the phone. And although Oscar Night went by quickly — “When it’s happening, everything is heightened. You’re so awake. You’re so alive,” he explains — many of the memories continue to remain incredibly crisp.
It’s a Hollywood fish-out-of-water story that only Wright himself could tell — mostly because, cue Wright deadpan, it happened to him and not somebody else.
‘The Appointments of Dennis Jennings’
In 1988, I was doing stand-up, and I had a relationship with HBO. I started thinking that maybe I should try to do a 30-minute movie with my friend Mike Armstrong. I went to HBO and asked them if they’d be interested. They said yes, so I went back to Mike and said, “What are we going to do?” We didn’t even have an idea yet.
I’d known Mike since college, and over the years, we’d joked about psychiatrists — it was one of our favorite subjects. So I told him, “Maybe we should do it about that?” That’s how we came up with The Appointments of Dennis Jennings.
We wrote weird scenario after scenario. We knew that the psychiatrist was different than he was presenting himself — he ended up seeing Dennis Jennings’ girlfriend behind his back. But that’s all we really knew. When Dean Parisot came on as the director, he put it in order to flow more like a story. He was the one who took all this insanity and made it coherent.
For casting, we got Laurie Metcalf as my girlfriend and Rowan Atkinson as the psychiatrist. The first movie I was ever in was Desperately Seeking Susan, and Laurie played my girlfriend in it. We hit it off, and she told me, “If you ever do anything film-wise, I’d love to be involved.” A few years later, Dennis Jennings was there.
As for Rowan Atkinson, somehow the BBC was connected to HBO, and because of that, they said, “How about Rowan Atkinson for the psychiatrist?” We knew of him, so we said yes. It’s a good thing we did because there weren’t a ton of lines for the psychiatrist when we wrote it. We didn’t notice that, but Rowan Atkinson — I mean, talk about a face. When you see it, there’s a ton going on with his looks and his presence.
When we were finished, the movie was 35 minutes long. We sent it to HBO and that was supposed to be it. The way I’ve described it before is that we had a dart — The Appointments of Denning Jennings was a dart — and we were throwing it to HBO. Then, a gust of wind came and blew the thing 20 miles off to the right, and it went into a different bull’s-eye.
The Road to the Oscars
When we got it to HBO, they looked at it and thought, “Why don’t we put this in movie theaters in Los Angeles and New York? That way it could be eligible for an Academy Award.” It was their idea completely. It’s hard to remember what my reaction was to that. I know that I wasn’t like, “That will be amazing!” I think I was like, “Oh, okay.” That’s not to put the Academy Awards down, but it just never entered my mind that this could do anything. The most I thought was, “It’ll be in theaters. That’ll be interesting in itself.”
The movie had to be 30 minutes, so we cut five minutes out of it and put it in theaters. I went to see it in New York with an audience, and it was great. They laughed at so much of it.
HBO submitted it to the Academy, and then one morning I got a call from Paula Mazur, one of the producers. I lived in New York at the time, and she phoned me at like nine in the morning. I picked it up, and she said, “We’re nominated.”
Oh my God. Just, oh my God.
We didn’t think we were going to win. I know people just say that, but for us, it was true. We took two different limousines to get to the awards ceremony. No one did my hair or anything. For a tuxedo, I think I rented it in New York and brought it to L.A..
It’s fascinating what I do and don’t remember about that night. I can’t remember the red-carpet experience at all, but I remember being in the lobby before the ceremony standing in line for the water fountain behind Jodie Foster. I was waiting for her to be done, and when she was done, she turned around and I said, “Hi.” She said hi back, and then I got the water. It was so weird because it’s her, but you don’t see her. All this stuff — the movie stars, the stage, all of it — it just exists on television.
We were seated 15 or 20 rows to the left of the stage near the other people in the same category. We all said “hello” to each other. I didn’t have a date with me. My girlfriend was a ballet dancer in New York, and she had a performance. I was with Paula Mazur and Mike and Mike’s girlfriend. Dean was there with his wife, Sally Menke, who edited the movie.
I hadn’t written anything beforehand. When we were sitting there, that’s when I thought of the line I’d say if we won: “We’re really glad we cut out the other 60 minutes.” I also knew I was going to thank Johnny Carson and Peter Lassally. Peter Lassally was the producer of The Tonight Show. He saw me at a little club in Boston and that’s how I ended up on The Tonight Show.
The presenters for the award were Martin Short and Carrie Fisher. I knew Martin because I was on Saturday Night Live a few times when he was in the cast in the early 1980s. I’d never met Carrie Fisher though. When they said our name and we went up to the stage, it was so weird being up there with her. I mean, it’s her and I’m just a guy. I’m just a guy, and she’s giving me an Academy Award.
I thanked the producers, David Picker, Paula Mazur and Paul Jackson. I also thanked Mike and Johnny Carson and Peter Lassally. Dean thanked HBO, Alive Films and the Academy, as well as his wife. That was it, then we went into a room full of reporters. We stood up on this little stage while they asked us questions.
We went to at least one party afterward. I think it was at Spago. I remember all the people dressed up from show business. I remember talking to Richard Dreyfuss. I was more introverted back then, so I wasn’t going up to people and saying, “Hey! How are you?”
I can’t remember if we went to more parties or just the one. It’s so strange — when it’s happening, everything is heightened and it’s so surreal. You’re so awake. You’re so alive. The whole night is not normal. You’re not analyzing it when it’s happening, you’re just doing it. People are telling you, “Go here,” “Go there,” “Stand here,” “Now you’re going to go here,” “Now go over there.” The whole thing was like a giant car accident — it’s so extreme.
It’s not negative. A car accident is obviously negative. I just mean that so much happens in such a short period of time. Then, when you go back to remember it, you remember it in pieces. Like, just now, I remember waving to Michelle Pfeiffer in the lobby.
Bringing the Oscar Home
I left the next day. I had checked luggage put onto the plane, but I also had this carry-on bag. I had the Oscar in that bag inside of a plastic bag with my other stuff. I was going through security, and it went through. But the guy wanted to search it because he was wondering what this thing was. He took the bag, unzipped it and opened it up to see what was inside. He pulled out the Oscar, looked at me, looked back at the Oscar and looked back at me again. Then he put the Oscar back in the bag and zipped it up. He didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything either. That was one of my favorite parts of the whole experience.
When I got back to New York, I put the Oscar on top of an upright toy piano, and where I am now, it’s on a table in the main room of my house with notebooks near it, near a computer. Sometimes I see it, and it’s like someone tapping me on the shoulder. I’ve had such a lucky career, so many things have just fallen into place. It makes me appreciate the way things line up that have nothing to do with me. I mean, I know I’m talented and everything, but there’s more to it than that and I recognize that.
It’s also just very weird to have an Academy Award in my house. You only see that thing on television and to have one in your house, on a table, it’s very surreal. It’s like Neil Armstrong and that footage of him bouncing on the moon. You only see him on the moon in that way. This is like if you looked out in your driveway, and you saw a guy in a spacesuit bouncing around like that. That’s how unreal it still is.