|Caricature by Tim Foley|
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Steven Wright interview (2013)
Okay, so I mentioned I spoke to Steven Wright on Monday. You've also read, I hope, the interview I did with him in 2002 for comparison's sake. Now here's the current one. I'm not sure they come across on the page (er, or screen) like they do over the airwaves, but they were studies in contrast. In 2002, Wright was more guarded, more in his head. In 2013, he was positively engaging. In 2002, if I remember correctly, it was a struggle to get through 20 minutes. On Monday, we spoke for half an hour and still had more to go so I called him back. The interview was a lot of fun. Hope you enjoy it half as much as I did.
Steven Wright plays the River Rock Show Theatre on Saturday, January 19.
January 14, 2013
"I thought it would take longer to get this old." – Steven Wright
Steven Wright: Hello?
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Steven?
SW: Hi, how’s it going?
GM: Great, thanks. Thanks for talking to me. It’s Guy MacPherson in Vancouver.
SW: Are you on a speaker phone?
GM: Yeah, but I’m close to it. It’s the only way I can record it.
SW: No, I can hear it. I’m just curious.
GM: Are you at home now in New England?
SW: No, I’m in Los Angeles.
GM: I spoke to you back in 2002.
SW: Oh, really?
GM: Yeah. It seems not that long ago until I do the math.
SW: Yeah, where did I live then?
GM: You lived somewhere in Massachusetts, I think.
SW: Yeah, okay. I must have just moved there because I’ve lived there about ten years. I grew up in Massachusetts, went to college in Massachusetts, and I lived in LA, then New York City, then back to LA for, like, ten years, and then I wanted to go back home to Massachusetts, which I did ten years ago. So you talked to me right when I got there, I guess.
GM: It’s weird. I’m just a little younger than you.
SW: You sound like you’re 27.
GM: I have a very immature voice.
SW: I’m not saying that. Do people think you’re younger when they hear you on the phone?
GM: Well, it’s never come up.
SW: I know, I know. You know, when you hear someone on the radio over the years and then you see their face, sometimes it doesn’t match up.
GM: I’m finding it’s sort of a surreal process getting older. And when I look at 2002, to me it’s like we just talked a couple years ago.
SW: Absolutely. I agree. To me, it just turned into the 2000s. To me, the century just changed recently, like about three days ago. Is that what you’re saying?
GM: Yeah! And when some young comic talks about the ‘90s as if it was ancient history, I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? That was three weeks ago.”
SW: (laughs) We’re getting old, my friend. We’re crossing that line. We knew it would happen. I have this line – I haven’t said it on stage but I have it written down in my notebook: I thought it would take longer to get this old.
GM: (laughs) Yeah!
SW: Isn’t that what you’re saying?
GM: That is exactly it.
GM: You crystalized my thought process. I saw in an interview you did five years ago that you said you’re still the same 11-year-old kid. I’m finding, as my friends and I age, that’s true. I think that would surprise a lot of people in their 20s or maybe even 30s, is that we’re just old on the outside. On the inside, we’re still the same 11-year-old kid.
SW: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, I was over watching the football game with my friend yesterday and we were like we were in seventh grade, joking the entire game. And the thing about people in their 20s, see, we’ve been young and now we’re oldish… or old… or getting old. They’ve only been young, these people in their 20s. So they only have that angle on it. They don’t know that when you get up to us, we just look different on the outside. Absolutely. They think we’re different. That’s what you’re saying, and I agree. They think that we are different, like we’re in another planet of life because we look so much older than them. But what they don’t know is we’re just like them except the outside looks different, like you said. And perspective has changed, too, with time. But the silliness, the joking is still the same, looking at girls is still the same.
GM: Definitely. I remember reading an interview years ago with a famous director. I can’t remember who it was but he was old and he was at a dinner party flirting with some young woman across the table and then stopped when he realized what she was seeing.
SW: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I’ve had that, too. A friend of mine pointed out something interesting to me about that type of thing. The same guy I saw the football game with yesterday. You see, when you see the girl, she’s just a beautiful young girl. He said look at the guy the girl is with. When you see that guy and you see how young that guy is… Because with the girl, you don’t care because she’s beautiful. She’s young and physically beautiful. You’re not thinking of her mind at all. But when you see the guy she’s with, then you see how really young the girl is and you see what she would choose to be with in that guy. Then you compare yourself to that guy age-wise and it’s like you’re on another planet! (laughs)
GM: Oh, we laugh through the pain, don’t we?!
SW: (bigger laugh) You taping this?
"I love surrealism. I’ve been drawing since I was seven. In high school, a teacher took us to a real museum. I saw surrealism in there for the first time and I was just stunned." – Steven Wright
GM: Oh, yeah, I’m taping it. I said getting old is kind of surreal, but you see life as surreal anyway, don’t you? At least through your comedy.
SW: Yeah, I love surrealism. I’ve been drawing since I was seven. Doing realistic drawings. Very real. As real as I could. And then in high school, I had an art class. I lived in Burlington, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Like, forty minutes outside. And a teacher took us into Boston, to a real museum. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, I think it was. And I saw surrealism in there for the first time and I was just stunned. I still remember the one painting that got me. It was a big wide open field and there was a clothes pin. You know those old-fashioned wooden ones?
SW: (chuckles) See, if you were 20, you wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
GM: (laughs) What, they don’t make those any more?!
SW: I don’t know! I don’t know if they do but have you seen one recently?
GM: Well, ‘recent’, as I told you—
SW: (laughs) Yeah, you’re gonna say, ‘I saw one recently in 1980’! Because that’s our interpretation of recent!
GM: Yeah. I was an adult!
SW: That’s so hilarious. So the clothespin was in the field and it was the size of a silo. And I was just standing there looking at it. I mean, there’s fields in life and there’s clothespins in life, but not combined like this. This is amazing! And a lot of my comedy is exactly that. It’s like seeing a concept and another one over there and later putting it on top of each other. But it has to have some kind of common denominator that’s not really noticed by people who aren’t going around looking for it. You know what I mean?
GM: What kind of common denominator? What would that be?
SW: Like there has to be something in common for it to make sense. Like I have a joke: ‘My nephew has HDADD. He can barely say anything but when he does, it’s unbelievably clear.’ So everyone knows HD. And everyone knows ADD. So in that joke, the letters are the actual common denominator. Or like an old joke I had: ‘The menu said, “Breakfast any time” so I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance.’ So there is French toast. There is breakfast any time. It’s not like, ‘It said, “Breakfast any time” so then I told the guy I’m going to build a rowboat.’ There’s a thread that connects.
GM: Do you think that art you saw influenced your comedy?
SW: I think it did. I didn’t know that it did. I never even analyzed the comedy for six months until a guy interviewed me for the Boston Phoenix paper. I was just doing what I’m doing. I never even broke it down. I never even thought of breaking it down. It’s only when people kept asking me questions about it that then I tried to answer their questions and I’d go into my subconscious almost to tell them what was happening. I didn’t even really know. I had never described it; it was just automatic. But that painting affected me but I wasn’t thinking that it affected me when I was writing the jokes. It wasn’t until like ten years later that I thought, ‘I bet you that field trip affected me.’
GM: It must have if it made that big an impression on you all these years later.
SW: Yeah, it did. I can see that painting in my mind.
GM: You know, when you mentioned that joke about French toast from the Renaissance, it reminded me that it was in a movie after you made it famous. [Swingers] I forget the name of it. It was Vince Vaughn in his first movie, I think.
SW: Yeah, I remember.
GM: I was wondering if when you see something like that you go, ‘Hey, wait a minute! That’s my joke!’
SW: Yeah, at first, years ago, it would happen and I was disturbed by it. But then I got so used to it. It doesn’t even bother me now.
GM: It’s your gift to the world.
SW: Well, it’s more like I don’t have the energy to do anything about it. (laughs)
GM: Oh, that’s it, yeah. That’s another thing with getting older, yeah.
SW: (laughs) Yeah! Heading down the street and a guy comes up and takes everything: the jacket, the hat, the wallet. And you don’t even really ask for them. You just continue walking into the store and buying the gum that you were going to buy. (laughs) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. This conversation is being accidentally guided by you. You are very well-known… You brought up the subject of aging and how we see it… Okay, I’m going along with it. Everything I’m saying is true but it’s because you brought it up. Why did you bring that up? Did you think of it before or when you were on the phone with me?
GM: Only in the sense that I would have guessed our past interview wasn’t all that long ago before I actually looked it up last night at 2 am. And I was shocked to find out it was almost 11 years ago. And since we’re not that far apart in age, I thought you could relate. So it’s okay that I brought that up, I hope.
SW: Oh, yeah. I don’t care. I’m going to kill myself next week anyway. (laughs)
GM: Wait, wait, you’re coming here.
SW: It’s on the 21st. The show’s on the 19th. I’m going to kill myself at Logan Airport in Boston on the 21st. I’m not 100 percent on that.
GM: I won’t lead with that then.
SW: I don’t even know if you should put that in there. “What the hell is he talking about?” No, you can, you can. Go ahead.
GM: If after the fact you do, then I’ll be like, ‘He told me! I should have done something!’
SW: (laughs) Now people will think you’re crazy!
"I’m standing behind a wall of jokes. You know Pink Floyd’s The Wall? It’s like I’m behind the wall and there’s a wall of jokes from the floor up to the ceiling. I’m behind it." – Steven Wright
GM: You’ve been at this since the late ‘70s, I know.
SW: ’79. Thirty-three years. 1979.
GM: And I know you’ve influenced a lot of comics. I imagine guys like Demetri Martin, Mitch Hedberg, Zach Galifianakis. Is Emo a contemporary?
SW: Oh yeah. Me and him came on the scene at the exact same time. He’s really funny. He’s really weird.
GM: And Stewart Francis, I don’t know if you know him.
SW: No, I don’t know him. Who is he?
GM: He’s a Canadian guy living in England now and doing really well over there. Like you, he does one-liners that are in little chunks, little stories. Just brilliant and silly.
SW: When did he come on the scene?
GM: Oh, he’s probably around my age. You can’t get too big in Canada so not many knew him but he moved to England a few years ago and is now on all their TV shows and is doing really well.
SW: Good for him.
GM: But do you differentiate between the other set-up/punch, short-form comics? Do you look at one and say, ‘No, that’s a different style completely’?
SW: To tell you the truth, I started watching Johnny Carson when I was about 15 and I loved him. And that’s one of the reasons I became a comedian, watching that show. The comedians would come out and I was just fascinated by a guy coming out saying this five minutes that he made up and then maybe going over and sitting with Johnny Carson. I was fascinated. I wanted to do that. But what I’m saying is I started watching standup when I was 14 and I watched it all through high school. In college I didn’t watch it that much because I wasn’t watching television in college. But then when I got out of college, I was still focused on it. What I’m trying to say is, in about my mid-30s I started to not pay attention to it as much. In my mid-30s, that’s 20 years of watching standups and my mind just kind of changed, like slowly, like as if a boat was going to turn. Slowly. I just turned away from it as far as watching it. I didn’t turn away from it by writing and performing. That stayed the same. So what I’m saying is I can’t even answer your question because I barely have ever seen these people. When I was in New York City about a year and a half ago, I went to Caroline’s Comedy Club with a friend of mine just because I wanted to see some comedians. I very rarely go. I go into clubs in Boston because I know the guy who’s performing. They’re my friends. I go see them in Boston. But to go into a comedy club and just see a show, I barely have ever done it in years. And I went to Caroline’s and I was stunned. They were amazing! They were fantastic. Bill Burr. Do you know Bill Burr?
SW: There were three guys. There was a guy from Australia. Uh, what’s his name?
GM: Jim Jeffries?
SW: Yeah, Jim Jeffries. Him, Bill Burr, and there was a guy hosting, Joe DeAngelo?
GM: Joe DeRosa?
SW: Yeah, Joe DeRosa! Joe DeRosa. I was stunned. Using a baseball analogy, they were all like pitchers in their prime. They were like 27-year-old pitchers.
GM: Why were you stunned?
SW: No, I wasn’t stunned. I was impressed. I was impressed. And I went backstage and I told them. I met Bill Burr like 15 years ago but it was just great to see these people. They were just fantastic. They were like a pitcher in the world series. You know the guy who pitches the first game and the last game because they want him to pitch twice? All three of those guys were like that.
GM: Was it a little intimidating for you? (laughs)
SW: No! No.
GM: You’re the knuckleballer.
SW: It doesn’t matter. There’s room for everyone.
GM: It’s interesting. Now there’s this movement of raw, honest comedy where they feel we have to get to know them. But we don’t really get to know you.
SW: No, I know that.
GM: And I’m fine with that. Because I’ve always said it’s not true that we don’t get to know guys like you because we know how you think. That tells me a lot about someone.
SW: Ah. That’s very interesting. That is very interesting. Because when I said ‘no’, I knew it wasn’t a firm… I’m not just trying to change my answer. I knew it wasn’t a firm ‘no’. Like, I’m standing behind a wall of jokes. You know Pink Floyd’s The Wall? It’s like I’m behind the wall and there’s a wall of jokes from the floor up to the ceiling. I’m behind it. But what you’re saying is the wall itself is telling the audience something about me anyway – the choice of how the wall was built. Is that what you’re saying?
GM: Yeah. It’s how you see the world through your weird-looking goggles.
SW: Yes. You know all that angle but you don’t know about my personal life, my girlfriends or what I do when I’m not on the road. You know what I mean? There’s this guy, this comedian, and this is how he thinks but people really don’t know anything about me, really.
GM: Is there anything you’d like to share?
SW: Yes. I’ve had a sex change. I had two sex changes a year ago. I had one in February and then I went back to a man in March. (laughs)
GM: (laughs) Wow, I got a scoop!
SW: You’ve got a scoop! That’s hilarious! I wanted to see what it was like and I liked it better being a guy.
GM: ‘Yeah, save that penis. I might need it later.’
SW: (laughs) Yeah. They had a freezer in the operating room. One of those dry ice ones like in the movies where they open it and the vapour comes up… Okay, listen to this. Listen to this conversation. I love following them backwards, like the tangents, the ricochets like in the movies, in the westerns when the bullet would hit a rock. Who knew in a billion years that me and you would be talking about hoping they froze that important part because of my two sex change operations?
GM: Who knew?!
SW: I have to go in about three minutes because there’s a radio station that’s going to call me at 10:15. But we have some more time.
GM: They’re not going to be as fun as this one, though.
SW: Aw, no, this is hilarious. I had a great time with you. I’m having a great time. What else do you want to know?
GM: So you don’t reveal much of yourself on stage. Are you ever tempted to throw in some personal information?
SW: No, I’m not. And I never did it as a decision, either. I didn’t decide that. What I just looked at and found humorous had nothing to do with my real life, really. I mean, I’m talking about cars and the speed of light and concepts and conversations and everything. I’m not talking about struggling with a girl or how great it is when you first meet someone or other things, like visiting my brother’s family in New Hampshire. He has a little girl who takes dancing lessons. It doesn’t even enter my mind to make jokes about that. It wasn’t a decision.
GM: And you don’t talk about pop culture, which is smart because not only is it more timeless but also I’m finding – and again, this is through my prism – I could care less about most pop culture now. Do you care less about it now, too, or have you never cared about it?
SW: No, I watch it. I still watch it. I find it entertaining, these people, but I’m not watching it like I used to. But I still watch it.
GM: What do you watch?
SW: I mean like if you see the news and this guy did this and the advertisements that this guy is up for this award. Those shows I mean. I pay attention. You can’t help it. You know the shit that leaks in? It’s show biz and it’s shit that just leaks into your head. What I’m saying is I take it. Like, alright. Okay. I’m amused by it and if it gets too much then I redirect my attention. You couldn’t even get away from – and I’m not saying I want to get away from it – but you couldn’t get away from it even if you wanted to, I think.
GM: True. You can’t help knowing some things but I don’t know much beyond the headlines or the chatter.
SW: Yeah, that’s how I am, too. You couldn’t get away from computers or digital or technology evolution. I don’t even mean buying the stuff. I mean hearing about it. You couldn’t escape from that.
GM: I heard you on Maron’s podcast, as I hear all of his. It was great. It was like a real opening up of Steven Wright that people didn’t know before.
SW: Marc’s thing, you mean?
SW: Yeah, that was interesting because I met him a really long time ago. He wasn’t a close friend of mine but he knew the whole Boston scene. He knew all the people. He knew all that world. So we had fun talking about it. And you’re right, a lot of that no one had ever heard.
GM: I know we’re rapidly running out of time… Do you do anything special on August 6th every year?
SW: No, but I am aware of it. I am very aware of it. How do you know? Did we talk about that before?
SW: That’s interesting that you… Yeah, I’m very aware of that date every year. On that date, or a few days before that date, I call Peter Lassally from The Tonight Show. He’s the guy who saw me in the Chinese restaurant comedy club in Boston and he put me on that show and it changed my life. And I’m very good friends with him now. I had dinner with him last week, and his wife. But I always call him around that date and thank him.
GM: And now he works with Craig Ferguson, right?
SW: Yes, he’s the producer of that. I was on there last week. We have to go now. I don’t know if you have everything but if you want to talk for a few more minutes after I’m all done, I could that. I never say that to people. Because it’s fun talking to you. But if you got everything, that’s fine, too, you know?
GM: Okay. I think I do.
GM: Not that I wouldn’t love to talk more but I’ll let you be.
SW: Yeah, okay.
GM: Thanks a lot.
SW: Okay. Good talking to you. And we’ll talk again in two thousand… (laughs)
GM: I know! Another eleven years!
SW: In eleven years I’ll be what? I’ll be 68.
GM: Then we’ll be talking about those young punk 50-year-olds.
SW: Yeah, they don’t know anything. (laughs)
SW: Okay, thanks a lot. That was fun.
Five hours later…
GM: Hello, Steven?
SW: Yes, speaking.
GM: This is Guy MacPherson in Vancouver again. Sorry to call you when I said I wouldn’t.
SW: Oh, we spoke in the morning, right?
GM: Just before your radio thing. I did have one more question if that’s okay.
SW: Yeah, okay.
GM: I’ve interviewed a lot of comedians over the years. And when people ask, I always use you as one of the most difficult interviews I ever did.
GM: Well, it was just because of the way you are. It wasn’t personal. You weren’t an asshole or anything. You were just a lot more reserved, more like what we would see on stage. Long pauses. And maybe it was a factor that I was more inexperienced then, too. And now, after our talk this morning, you’re one of the best ones I’ve ever done.
SW: Are you saying you couldn’t shut me up?
GM: Not saying that.
SW: So what’s the question?
"I think I just got more relaxed and getting older and just more comfortable with talking to strangers. I used to only like to talk to people I already knew." – Steven Wright
GM: Have you opened up more over the years? You told me back in 2002 that talking to people is draining for you.
SW: It’s amazing that you’re pulling this out. I’m going to be telling my friends about this because in the last two or three years I’ve gotten way more interactive and extroverted with people. It just evolved. I know what you’re describing as what I was like then as opposed to today. I just kinda changed. I don’t know.
GM: Did you notice a particular time when it started happening?
SW: I did notice it happening.
GM: But you can’t attribute it to a particular time or event?
SW: No, I think I just got more relaxed and getting older and just more comfortable with talking to strangers. I used to only like to talk to people I already knew!
GM: Obviously you still love performing.
SW: Oh yeah, yeah.
GM: That love must have changed or presented itself differently over the years. Do you appreciate it more now or have you always loved it equally?
SW: I have always loved it. It’s such a dangerous thing. It’s walking a tightrope wire. Did I tell you that before?
SW: It’s like dangerous. Very exciting and dangerous. Now I forgot what I was going to say. Oh, I’ve always appreciated how lucky I am, Peter Lassally seeing me, how lucky my career is. I know that. But I appreciate it even more now. It’s just amazing to make a living from making stuff up. It’s unbelievable.
GM: And I read that you wanted to reintroduce yourself to a new generation. Did that happen?
SW: Yeah, there’s younger people because I did that special in 2007 on Comedy Central. It got some younger people in there. But I don’t want to be rude, but I have to meet a friend of mine in a restaurant.
GM: Okay, that was perfect. And sorry for bothering you again.
SW: Oh, no, no. It’s alright. I loved talking to you this morning. And no problem because I asked if you wanted to talk later anyway, right?
GM: Yeah, and I thought I had it all but I was thinking about it during the day.
SW: Yeah, I just slowly opened up. Okay, thanks a lot.
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