Slow. Deadpan. Monotone. These aren’t words you’d typically associate with a successful comedian, but Academy Award-winning actor/writer/stand-up comic Steven Wright has used his slow-paced demeanor to his advantage over the course of his lengthy career. Wright brings the laughs to the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg on Nov. 5 and tickets are on sale starting Aug. 19 at 10 a.m. so we went in the vault to dig up our November 2013 interview with the veteran funny man.
Weird words of wisdom
At first glance, Academy Award-winning comedian Steven Wright and the ancient Chinese haiku master Basho have little in common. But both have the uncanny ability to blow your mind in 17 syllables or less.
Wright looks laid back and casual on stage delivering his bizarrely philosophical routine in his dry monotone. “You can’t have everything,” he quips. “Where would you put it?”
His signature one-liners and surreal stories have earned him accolades, including an Oscar for his short film, co-written with Mike Armstrong, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings; a Grammy nomination for his 1985 comedy album I Have A Pony; an induction into the Boston Comedy Hall of Fame; and a number 23 ranking on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest stand-up comics of all time.
Wright came up during the 1980s – the golden age of stand-up. He made his television debut in 1982 on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and has appeared in a long list of movies, including Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs, Coffee and Cigarettes and as “the guy on the couch” in the stoner cult classic Half Baked.
His recent appearances on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and Louis C.K.’s Louie are introducing him to a new generation of fans. When we caught up with the man behind the monotone to talk about joke writing, jamming with Phish and meeting Bob Dylan, it sounded like he just woke up. But he always sounds like that.
Fly Magazine: You have your coffee today?
Steven Wright: Having it now.
FM: Do you drink a lot of coffee?
SW: Coffee is one of the reasons I don’t kill myself. I can’t believe it’s legal.
FM: Were you the class clown in school?
SW: No, I wasn’t. I made my buddies laugh, but I didn’t want the attention of the class. I didn’t want 30 people looking at me. You know, people have a huge fear of public speaking.
FM: Yet you became a stand-up comedian. How did you get over that fear?
SW: I really wanted to do it since I was like 16 from watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I loved him. When I went to the club, I just forced myself. It was my desire and dream to do it against not really wanting to be up there.
FM: But you seem relaxed and laid-back all the time.
SW: I appear to be laid back, but my mind is not as laid back as how I appear, like my mind can be going really fast and it looks like I’m just gonna fall asleep.
FM: Was that method acting in Half Baked, or did you practice taking weed naps?
SW: [laughs] Apparently, I’d been studying for that role without knowing it. I don’t do that anymore, but at the time I was an expert. We weren’t really smokin’ during the filming.
FM: You appear on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson a lot. You guys have a good rapport.
SW: Yeah, I love going on there because it’s total improv, and I never do that on stage. Craig is amazing; he has one of the best comedy minds I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s like we’re both patients in an insane asylum, and we’re waiting for a doctor to come in and take us away, and while we’re waiting we’re having this conversation.
FM: What’s the most recent joke you’ve written?
SW: It’s about these guys singing “Death row row row your boat.” I don’t know where I’m gonna put it or how it’s gonna fit. It’s like I’m a receptionist in my mind. I’m just minding my own business when all a sudden it’s like, “Oh death row row row your boat.” That’s how a lot of jokes happen.
FM: Your jokes are full of word play.
SW: Absolutely. I love words. Sometimes I’ll write a word down because I like it. I like the meaning of it, and I don’t even know how I’m gonna use it later. I’m just like, “OK, this needs to be written down.”
FM: On your website you have a list of strange fictitious book titles. You have one that was about the history of the world if time didn’t exist. That idea blew my mind. I would love to read that.
SW: Yeah [laughs]. The “books written by me that are available nowhere.” That was fun because it was another little way to be funny. They’re not actually jokes, they’re just weirdness. It’s like you walk into your own head with a flashlight and just point it around. Those book titles are like that.
FM: You joined Phish on stage on December 30, 1996, in Boston and played on their song “Scent of a Mule.”
SW: I had one of those bells that you have at a hotel and they’re playing the song. And then music would go quiet, and Trey [Anastasio] would motion to me when to go up and do the bell. You talk about surrealism – 20,000 people, and I’m hitting a desk bell. That’s as weird as anything I’ve ever made up.
FM: But you’re also a musician – you play guitar.
SW: I started playing guitar in ’77 and then I started writing jokes in ’79. I love writing and recording songs. Do you play an instrument?
FM: I play guitar … pretty badly … mostly shitty versions of Bob Dylan songs.
SW: Bob Dylan, he’s my main guy. I’m so lucky to have met him several times. I actually opened for him in Los Angeles. I came out and did an eight-minute set, and then the stage manager came and brought him over to me right before he walked out. I’ve met so many famous people, but he was one where I couldn’t even speak. He tells me, “Thanks for doing that. It was really great to hear my audience laugh.” I said, “Thanks,” and he just walked out and did the show. It was another surrealistic moment. And then I was backstage with him at Giants Stadium, just me and him in a room, and he’s asking me about … you know that joke I have about putting the car key in the building and it starts up?
FM: Yeah [laughs].
SW: He’s asking me about that joke – “How’d you think of that?’ And I’m like, “It just comes to me.” And then later I’m thinking he’s asking me how I thought of stuff. That is insane!
Steven Wright plays the Whitaker Center (222 Market St., Harrisburg) on Saturday, Nov. 5. 8pm show. Click here for tickets.