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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Retro interview: Steven Wright

I interviewed Steven Wright yesterday. He's playing the River Rock Show Theatre on Friday, Jan. 19. I'll get that transcribed and up here in the next week but in the meantime I thought you'd enjoy this trip down memory lane. It's the first time I spoke with him back in 2002. I re-read in preparation for our latest chat. My memory of it was that it was difficult. He was a slow and thoughtful guy and those long silences intimidated me. As you'll read, it starts off awkward but picks up and is actually kind of fun. Fun to read, anyway, but to give you an accurate representation of how it went, whenever you read "(pause)", count off five seconds. You'll see when I post the latest interview with him that he's much more talkative now. In fact, it might be one of my most fun interviews. From most difficult to most fun in 11 short years. (This, along with most of my other interviews, can be found at

STEVEN WRIGHT - April 10, 2002
GUY MACPHERSON: I read where you said talking to people drains you. And you're doing interviews all day, right? So how are you hanging in?
STEVEN WRIGHT: (pause) I'm not doing 'em all day.

GM: Oh, aren't you? Well, you're doing a few. Aren't I your third today?
SW: No, you're the first.

GM: Really! Oh, perfect.
SW: I only do four at a time.

GM: Because it drains you?
SW: (pause) Mm-hmm.

GM: And then what do you do? Sleep the rest of the day?
SW: (pause)

GM: To get your energy back?
SW: Hmm, whatever you wanna say.

GM: This is going to be perfect, then! I'll just supply you with the quotes.
SW: Just talking to people... It's just... Oh, man.

GM: Any people, or just people you don't know?
SW: Any people. I can only talk to people for so long. My family, my friends, and it's like, 'Thank you very much.' It just exhausts me.

GM: Mentally exhausts you? Physically exhausts you?
SW: (pause) I don't know. (pause) How's Vancouver?

GM: Ah, it's raining. You've been here, haven't you?
SW: Oh, yeah.

GM: Where have you played?
SW: Ohhh, I can't remember.

GM: But the theatres, though, right?
SW: Oh, yeah.

GM: Never when you were starting out playing clubs?
SW: Uh, no. (pause)

GM: Because you hit it too big too soon to play the small clubs here, I guess.
SW: (pause) I guess.

GM: It was, like, two years after you started that you were on Carson, right?
SW: Uh, three.

GM: Oh, three. Okay. So you felt you were ready? You didn't think, 'Oh my God, I can't do this yet.'
SW: I didn't think whether I was ready. I took it. They asked me to go, so I went. I didn't even think about whether I was ready. It was a great break.

GM: I can imagine. And then you were invited back within a week.
SW: Yeah.

GM: Don't guys usually work on their five minutes or whatever they get, and just work on it, perfect it? How did you get ready a week later for more?
SW: Uh, I didn't really have time, which kinda worked out because I couldn't even worry about it. I just kind of went over it with the talent coordinator what would be about five minutes of another piece of material. And then I just did it.

GM: And then did you go to panel?
SW: No. On the first time I did. The second time I didn't. And then all the other times I did.

GM: That was just a completely different show then. Because when you were on, people recognized you the next day, right?
SW: Yeah. There wasn't as much media then, so that show, your life could change in one appearance. It happened to a lot of people, and it happened to me. There's so much more TV now. You saw TheTonight Show with Johnny? 
GM: I used to watch it all the time.
SW: Yeah, it was great. I miss him.

GM: So do I. Especially when you see Leno. (pause) But you don't have to offer an opinion on that.
SW: Thank you. (pause) But you know what? You grew up with Johnny. I mean, I grew up with Johnny. He's like a hero of mine. I didn't grow up with Letterman. I didn't grow up with Conan. You know, they're almost around my age, so the whole thing has a different... Conan or Letterman, I
think they're all funny but they don't have that legend thing because you weren't a kid when you watched them.

GM: Right. Except for the younger people who are growing up with them now. But when you see the comics on the Tonight Show now, it's 'Who are these people?' You never see them again. It's completely different, isn't it?
SW: (pause) I don't even... I don't really watch. I don't know.

GM: Do you watch TV?
SW: Yeah. But not that.

GM: I'm interested in your persona. I hear it's not a persona with you, like a lot of comedians have a stage persona. This is you, right?
SW: Well, it's how I speak. It's my demeanor. That's real. It's always fascinated me. I know people have fake versions of... you know, they go on stage and they're just a whole other person. When people say to me, 'Oh, you really talk like that!' I always get a kick out of that. I think to myself, 'Wow, you mean they thought that not only do I make up the jokes, I actually made up a whole other way of speaking.'

GM: I presume you've always talked like this. So when you started out, and you didn't see other comedians like yourself, were you tempted to go, 'I gotta speak faster.'
SW: No. I was focussed on the material. I never even thought about how I talked. It was the material. It wasn't till a year later that someone wrote something about me in the Boston paper that I even knew that I talked like that. I mean, no one's doing reviews of you when you're in eighth grade or when you're in college. No one is describing you. It never even entered my mind. I never
even associated 'deadpan' until this guy wrote this article. 'Oh, yeah, I guess I do talk like that.' Even the jokes, he said they were abstract. 'Oh, I guess they are abstract.'

GM: Do you have siblings?
SW: Yeah, I have two brothers and one sister.

GM: And are they quiet and reserved or deadpan?
SW: I don't know, man. You know...

GM: No one's done a review on them.
SW: No. (laughs)

GM: When you started out, there weren't a lot of other comics other than, I can think of, Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield, doing non-narrative material. Not that their jokes were anywhere near yours. But that style where it's thought after thought.
SW: I guess, yeah.

GM: Now there are tons. So obviously you've influenced a lot of young comics. What do you think of these guys?
SW: I don't know. I don't see them much. I don't really watch... I mean, I'm happy I had an influence. I'm flattered. See, when I grew up, when I was a teenager watching the Tonight Show, and then I watched it into my twenties, and I changed as a person. I don't really watch comedy that much.

GM: Because you've seen enough in the clubs? Why is that?
SW: (pause)

GM: One comedian told me it's like being a magician. If you know how to pull a rabbit out of the hat...
SW: No, it's not that I know how. It's just that my interests... I love to perform and I love to write.
I'm not... People change. People just change. I'm not into watching... I don't watch sitcoms, I
don't watch talk shows barely at all. It has nothing to do with that I'm a comedian. I think if I was a carpenter, I would have changed. Everyone changes. I mean, I don't watch Hogan's Heroes, either.

GM: We don't get that anymore. I tell you, I would watch it if it were still on.
SW: (laughs)

GM: So did you like Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield? Were they influences? Or who was?
SW: I liked them, but I didn't think, 'Oh, I want to be like that.' My main influences were Woody Allen and George Carlin. Woody Allen had some comedy albums and I loved how he structured material. I loved his writing. And that influenced me. And I loved how George Carlin observed the little tiny things in life that you don't really notice. And those two comedians influenced me more than the other ones. Carlin, I was amazed by his breaking down little things and the structure of how Woody Allen wrote jokes. He told stories and he told jokes within the story. And that's how I learned how to write jokes.

GM: Do you ever feel like telling stories on stage? Yours are mostly one-offs, right?
SW: Some of them are connected into stories. (pause)

GM: Are you neurotic?
SW: (pause)

GM: Like a lot of comedians. Like Woody Allen?
SW: I would say no more or less than everyone else.

GM: I don't know if this constitutes as neuroses, but I was reading about your phobias: Planes, cars, motorbikes, elevators, bridges. Was that true?
SW: (pause) Some of it.

GM: Which part?
SW: Oh, transportation. I don't know. Some transportation bothers me. But what kind? Now you're going to ask me what kind. I don't know. I don't like elevators. No big deal.

GM: Planes, though. You gotta fly a lot.
SW: I fly a good amount, but I don't fly as much as you would think I do. I go on tour with a tour bus, so I drive.

GM: And it's because of your fear of flying?
SW: I don't like to fly and I don't like the commotion of the airport, even before September 11th.

GM: I'm with you, brother. I took a course on fear of flying. That's how afraid of flying I am.
SW: Did it help you?

GM: It did, at the time. And this was in the summer last year. Then September 11th happened, and it shot me right back to where I was before.
SW: How did it help you?

GM: Well, they attacked it by knowledge, through the pilot giving the course, as well as a psychologist who taught you certain breathing techniques, relaxation techniques while you're on
there. I was more interested in the knowledge, because I just go, 'How can these things stay up?'
SW: Mm, right, right. And knowing how it worked helped you?

GM: Yeah, and knowing all the safety precautions they have, like if all the engines conk out it can glide a hundred miles and things like that.
SW: Wow.

GM: All the backups that they have. So I'd recommend it.
SW: Yeah, maybe I should take that.

GM: Could you imagine going on Fear Factor? Have you seen that show?
SW: Uh, I just saw it the other day for about ten minutes. Going on there for what?

GM: Just going on there. Someone like you or me with these fears. There was one on last week where they had to jump out of this moving helicopter. Just going in the helicopter is the fear factor for me.
SW: (snickers) That's funny.

GM: This surprised me, but you're an Oscar winner.
SW: Yes, for my short film in 1988.

GM: Was that for writing or for acting?
SW: I wrote it with a friend of mine and I was the main character in it.

GM: What was the Oscar for?
SW: It was for the short film category. It wasn't that I specifically wrote it or acted in it.

GM: I didn't know they gave Oscars to short films.
SW: Yeah, every year.

GM: And I certainly didn't think they gave Oscars to comedies. They always get the short shrift.
SW: Well, Woody Allen's won a lot of Oscars.

GM: That's true. But I was thinking of the Best Picture. And he did win for Annie Hall, but that was about the last comedy to win, I think.
SW: (pause) Didn't Robin Williams win an Oscar?

GM: He's not funny, though. (pause) Now, are you going to do a full length? Have you done one, have you written one?
SW: No, I've done two short films.

GM: Where can we see these? I'd love to see them.
SW: (pause, sigh) No, they can't be seen.

GM: (laughs) They can't be seen!
SW: (laughs) They can't be seen! They're not on video, they're not on DVD, you can't rent them in the store. One was on HBO a long time ago. We made it for HBO and it won an Academy Award by accident. And the other one went on the Independent Films channel, that I wrote, directed and was in. That was playing last year all throughout the year.

GM: Well, make another, so you have three, then put them on video.
SW: Yeah, that's a good idea.

GM: But are there any plans to... Are you writing a new movie?
SW: Yeah. I'm working on something else. I don't know what it is, but I'm working on it.

GM: Full length? Or you just don't know what it is?
SW: No, probably another half hour one. But mainly I do live shows. I do the film on the side.

GM: Do you still have so few possessions that you can move in a cab? Or have you accumulated more over the years?
SW: I would probably need two cabs now.

GM: Two cabs! So you're really living the high life.
SW: Yeah.

GM: And where are you living?
SW: New Hampshire. I live on the ocean in New Hampshire.

GM: Away from the scene.
SW: (pause) Yeah. (pause)

GM: Now, you finally got a website, right?
SW: Yes. My dog has a website.

GM: Who doesn't? When did it start, the
SW: About, uh, last, uh, November.

GM: Do you have a computer now?
SW: Yeah.

GM: Aw, you're selling out, man!
SW: (laughs) I have floors now. It was wild going across the 2-by-tens and trying not to fall in the basement. Now I'm like everyone else.

GM: Did the website come about as a reaction to all the others that are out there with your jokes on them?
SW: No, what happened was I heard that you could do editing film or tape on a computer, so I wanted to learn how to shoot stuff and edit myself. So I got that computer for that reason. And then of course the computer just doesn't do that. Of course, it does all 8 million other things. So now I'm on the e-mail, now I have a website. But it was all because of the editing thing.

GM: You're in the 21st century now.
SW: Thank you. It's crowded.

GM: So you still enjoy doing the stand-up. You say that's your thing.
SW: I love it.

GM: You love it.
SW: I love it. I love writing and I love seeing what works and I love being in front of the audience. I
love making a living from my imagination. I feel very lucky.

GM: How often are you writing? It comes in waves, you say, right?
SW: Yeah. I'm really a receptionist for my mind. I just think of something then I write it down. I don't try to think of things. They just float into my head and I'm a secretary. With a little grey skirt on and a little wig. Whenever I write a joke, I dress like that -- like a secretary in 1958.

GM: What was the last joke you wrote? Or idea?
SW: Uh, it was three days ago and I can't remember what it was. Something to do with, uh, geese.

GM: Well, you're coming to Canada. That'll be a good one. (pause) Just don't make fun of our geese, man.
SW: I don't make fun of anything.

GM: That's true, you don't. So, is it easier, you think, to come up with these now with practice, or is it more difficult?
SW: Mm, it's the same. (pause)

GM: Will your act always be changing? Will you always be incorporating--?
SW: Yeah, I'm always moving things around, dropping things out, adding new stuff. Like a painting that will never be finished.

GM: That's beautiful, man.
SW: (laughs)

GM: What about playing the huge theatres, like you're playing in Vancouver and I assume you play all over? Do you like that?
SW: (pause) Yeah, I like it.

GM: (laughs) Of course you do. Okay, let's take the money equation out. If you could make the same money, would you rather be playing Ding Ho's?
SW: No, I like... I don't like playing in a club. I like being in a theatre.

GM: Why is that?
SW: It's just more comfortable. It's more relaxing. The stage is bigger. I don't know. The clubs were fine when I was in the clubs, but when I went into the theatres, I went, 'Oh, this is even better.' It's more relaxing because of the size -- or I don't know what it is.

GM: The lighting.
SW: (laughs) Maybe it's the curtains.

GM: (laughs) The velvet curtains. They're soothing. And people are there to see you, right?
SW: Yeah, that's true. But they would come to clubs to see me, too.

GM: I guess. But are they more civil in a theatre? Or are people yelling out stuff like, 'Hey, do this'?
SW: Well, the audience is better because there's not waitresses going around. There's less commotion. The whole thing is just better.

GM: And you do a pretty substantial show, don't you? You're giving people their money's worth.
SW: I do about 85 minutes.

GM: Is it completely structured? I mean, obviously you have to memorize your material, but you have so much from over the years.
SW: I know about 90 percent of the exact thing that's going to happen and then there's little pieces where I just see what happens. I see which material I'll do while I'm standing there. But I don't have time to make it a memory test. I know what I'm gonna do.

GM: And then if something hits you, you'll just go with it.
SW: Right.

GM: You don't ever just come up with a new joke right there, do you?
SW: No.

GM: I read where you said that you might think something's funny, but if the audience doesn't laugh, you just take it out.
SW: Right.

GM: How many shows will you give it?
SW: Three. If it doesn't work three times, it'll never work. And if it works three times, it'll always work. And they decide, you know? They're in charge at that stage. And if they don't laugh, I don't think that it wasn't funny, I just think they didn't agree with me.

GM: Could it it be a regional thing? Or is your humour universal?
SW: It's not regional because I talk about such common denominator things of life. That's the stuff that interests me. It's never regional.

GM: What else interests you besides writing and performing?
SW: I love to read. I love to play the guitar. I love baseball. I love going to Fenway Park. I'm glad the season's started again.

GM: Another losing year.
SW: Yeah, another hard year. You're such a positive guy.

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