Four decades is a long time for anyone to do anything. But after 40 years in comedy, veteran stand-up Steven Wright doesn’t see an end in sight.
“It’s really thinking,” Wright, 62, says. “I love thinking. I love noticing the world.”
And few other comics are able to do so like Wright. A surrealist comic, he today is known for his unique one-liners, like “I put spot remover on my dog, and now he’s gone,” or “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it,” all presented in an unmistakable monotone.
A native of Burlington, Mass., Wright began performing out of college in Boston in 1978, and ultimately would come grace the Tonight Show stage in back-to-back performances just three years into his career.
Since then, he has released two Grammy-nominated comedy albums (1985’s I Have a Pony and 2007’s I Still Have a Pony); an Academy Award-winning short film (The Appointments of Dennis Jennings); appeared in classics like Desperately Seeking Susan, Reservoir Dogs, and Natural Born Killers, as well as Louis C.K.’s digitally released Horace and Pete; and played more live shows than he can remember.
Now, Wright brings his surreal style to Philadelphia on Saturday for a performance at Glenside’s Keswick Theatre. We caught up with Wright over the phone and took a look back at his long life in comedy ahead of the show:
Forty years into doing comedy, can you still remember how you first got into it?
I wanted to do it from watching Johnny Carson and all the comedians he had on [The Tonight Show]. I had never seen stand-up comedians. A guy comes out and he talks about life for five minutes, and it’s all hilarious — this is incredible. Then, when I went on the show when I was 26, everything changed again.
What was that first time on stage like?
It was extremely intimidating. I forced myself. I wasn’t an extrovert. I would make my friends laugh in class, but I didn’t want the attention of a class. The conflict was, here was this dream I had, but everyone is horrified of public speaking. I forced myself — I’m telling you, my legs were shaking before I went up.
Your style is usually described as “monotone.” Did that come out of the stress of your first performance?
I talk in a monotone anyway. I was really afraid, so there was no smile no nothing. It was total blank-face, but magnified. I was a version of that, but being afraid made it even less of an expression. That kind of just accidentally worked with the abstract jokes I was telling.
You have described your style as an accident in the past, which is interesting because it became so part of your persona.
What I mean by an accident is, I wanted to try it, but I didn’t have a game plan. I didn’t have a meeting — what should I look like onstage? What type of jokes should I try? Nothing like that. I went out there, and that’s how I talked, and those jokes were how I thought. There was no calculation, and it just worked together.
There was some planning, though. Do you have comedy rules?
I had all these rules in my head. I wouldn’t talk about pop culture. I wouldn’t talk about McDonald’s, or a TV show, or the president, or all these other things that I knew a lot of people talked about. Other than that, I had no game plan.
You also decided you wouldn’t swear onstage. Why is that?
If I ever got the chance to go on TV, meaning The Tonight Show, I didn’t want to build up material in the clubs that I couldn’t do on the show. I also learned that swears could help a joke [and] make the joke get a higher laugh. I didn’t want that. I wanted the real, true joke without the swear helping it out.
Surrealism is also an influence.
My whole life, I thought art was trying to paint or draw something as real as you could. But in the 11th grade, the art teacher took us into Boston to a museum, and that’s when I saw surrealism. There were these bizarre paintings of a clothespin the size of a silo, and this road coming down a hill that dipped down and turned into a waterfall. I was completely blown away. I had never seen these different realities.
It’s an influence in that I could combine realities with words. You can do things with words that can’t happen. Some of the things I talk about could happen, but a lot of them couldn’t really happen, because I’m overlapping and combining ideas. That’s what surrealism is.
When you try new jokes these days, do many tend to work straight off?
No, that’s the interesting thing. Only one in four jokes gets a big enough laugh to stay in there. But that’s normal. It’s the same thing with a baseball player. If he’s batting a .300, he’s out seven times out of 10. A .300 is a good batting average — you’re not thinking, ‘That guy struck out seven times.’
What does a joke need to do to get added to your set?
I’ll try it three nights. If it doesn’t work on three nights, it will never work. If one of them works one night, I still don’t count on it. If it works three nights, I know it will always work. If they don’t laugh, I don’t do it anymore, but I don’t think I was wrong. It’s funny to me, but they don’t agree, and they’re running the show. They’re editing the show, but they don’t know it.
This far into the game, can you tell which new jokes will hit?
I cannot predict, even after all these years. I never write anything down and think, ‘This is absolutely going to work.’ I don’t know what’s going to work and what isn’t.
Is that risk something you enjoy in your stand-up?
I don’t enjoy it, really. You say something to 500 people, and they all just look at you blankly — that’s not enjoyable. In order to get the one that works, you have to go through that weird awkwardness.
That’s the hardest part of doing this, to stand there and say something they don’t laugh at. And then continue and act like it didn’t faze you. Outwardly, you just go on to the next joke, but in your head, you’re going ‘F—! Jesus! Look at all this silence I created. I could have a side job making silence and sending it out to cities that are too noisy.’
Is stand-up you still follow today as a fan?
A little bit. I like Hannibal Buress, Jim Jefferies, and Louis C.K. But I started watching it when I was 16. Twenty years later, I started to not watch it as much just because I had been focused on it for so long. Now I barely ever watch it. Even though I continue writing it and continue performing it, I just lost the passion of witnessing it. The passion of doing it never wore off.
You’ve worked with Louis C.K. in the past on Louie and Horace and Pete. Will you work with him again, given the sexual misconduct scandal?
I don’t know, but it hasn’t changed my friendship with him. I don’t condone what he did at all, but he’s still my buddy.
Stand-up is still not like work?
It’s fun making s— up. You couldn’t stop me from making s— up, even if they made a law where you couldn’t write any more jokes. I wouldn’t be able to stop my brain now. You know when you’re going down a hill, and someone pushes you from behind, you stumble forward, forward, forward? That’s how my mind is with jokes. For a long time now. A long time.
LAUGH AT THIS
8 p.m. Saturday, Keswick Theatre, 291 N Keswick Ave., Glenside, $29.50 — $42. 215-572-7650, www.keswicktheatre.com