Steven Wright Used Up Three Years of Material in One Week of ‘Tonight Show’ Appearances

Steven Wright Used Up Three Years of Material in One Week of ‘Tonight Show’ Appearances

In 1982, Steven Wright did what every stand-up comic of the era dreamed of doing. He made his national debut on The Tonight Show and killed it, cracking up the legendary Johnny Carson in the process. A night like that can make a career, and for Wright, it pretty much did. But the young comic’s success quickly turned into a problem. Carson liked Wright so much that he invited the comic back to perform again — six days after his first appearance.

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“Johnny was so impressed,” Conan O’Brien marveled on this week’s Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend podcast. “You were so different and so smart that they invited you back very quickly.” 

“It was insane,” replied Wright, noting that he’d performed on Friday and was asked back for the following Thursday. Tonight Show producer Jim McCauley called Wright to talk about the show, and the monotone comic assumed they were going to review the previous week’s set. “No, no, no,” said McCauley. “We want you to go on tomorrow.” 

Luckily, Wright did have another set — but not much more. At that early stage in his stand-up career, he figured he had developed about 15 minutes of jokes that were Tonight Show-worthy. “I remember saying to him, ‘But if I go on tomorrow, that’s three years! More than half the stuff is gone!” says Wright. “And he simply said, ‘Well you’re going to have to write new stuff anyway.’”

People don’t remember, observed O’Brien, but at that time in TV history with three channels and cable just coming into its own, The Tonight Show was about the only place to be seen as a stand-up comic. “That was a time when if you went on that show, you were famous overnight,” he said. “People recognized you the next day because that was all anybody was doing at 11:30 at night was watching Johnny Carson.”

It was a happy accident that Wright found his way to The Tonight Show in the first place, he says. He was telling jokes in relative obscurity in an East Coast Chinese restaurant when a writer just happened to write an article about the joint for the Los Angeles Times. Eight months later, a producer from The Tonight Show was in Massachusetts visiting kids in college when he remembered the article and stopped in. He saw Wright perform and a career was born. “Just a lot of flukes,” the comic explained. “I’m very fortunate.”

O’Brien agreed that growing up in Massachusetts in the 1960s and 1970s, as both comics did, made comedy dreams seem highly unlikely. “The last thing in the world you ever thought could happen was that you could be in show business,” he said. “I saw no evidence that show business existed. I didn’t see famous people. I didn’t know anybody who was related.” 

Wright had the same experience, with Boston people asking him, “What do you mean you’re gonna go do this show and that’s how you’re gonna pay the rent?” Wright was used to seeing people do “real jobs,” while comedy felt like playing. “It's like being five or ten and you're finger painting but with words,” Wright concluded. “That’s why I appreciate it.” 

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