Inside With: Steven Wright
Fans have long awaited Steven Wright’s new DVD When the Leaves Blow Away, a taping of his first comedy special in 15 years. The DVD, which recently came out, also includes his 1999 short film One Soldier, which he wrote and directed, and a 1988 clip from a Boston comedy club show early in his career. The Apiary chatted over the phone with Steven, speaking from his home outside Boston, Massachusetts.
You’ve been credited with starting a style of comedy. Do you think that someone’s comedic style is just what comes naturally to a comic?
I know that what I do is what comes naturally to me. In my early sets I would have a straight face because I was scared of being onstage and I was trying to remember my act so I was just concentrating seriously on saying the material the right way. And when you do something serious, that’s just how you look. I was lucky that it ended up blending good with the type of material and then it became a style. I don’t walk out and have to remind myself “Oh, don’t laugh.” I just try and do my act.
Did you ever try to be high energy?
No. There wasn’t that much thinking. It’s been analyzed over the years with so many interviewers and everything. But in the first couple of years, none of this was even in my head. We just tried to write something funny and go out and say it. That’s how I think and this is how I talk and I had a straight face because I was nervous. There was no breaking it down. There wasn’t a plan, it just happened, and I think that’s how people should go out and do it. Your basic presence or character should be real. It sounds silly, but it’s just natural to be natural. I think there’s enough thinking involved in the material and saying it the right way and all that, never mind thinking about “What is my character looking like or sounding like?”
In your short film on the DVD, One Soldier, there’s a line: “He may have looked very relaxed, but he was really a nervous wreck.” Does that apply to you?
Yes. I’m not a nervous wreck all the time. That’s not what I mean. How my face appears can be totally and completely off to how I’m feeling inside. That’s just how I am. Like I was on vacation last year on Block Island. I was riding a bicycle and something happened to the chain so I stopped the bike, and I was trying to fix the chain. And a guy, an agent I know, was walking by with his wife and kids. And I looked at him. I never even knew he went to the island, I didn’t know he even knew of the island. I hadn’t seen him in probably over a year. And I said “Hey Joe, how’s it going?” It was as if I had seen him the day before. And they laughed their asses off over that so much, which I think is funny too, but what happened in my head, inside my head in half a second, I thought “My god what is Joe doing here? I can’t believe it, this is so weird.” But then I just said, “Hey Joe,” because it all happened inside me. So the line is true sometimes. No way am I always a nervous wreck, but I could be and you wouldn’t know.
What makes you laugh really hard?
Many things. People I know. My niece. Comedy-wise: Monty Python. I have a very high ratio of laughing out loud when I watch them on PBS. I laugh at lots of things. People ask me that question because they don’t see me laughing onstage, but I laugh like a normal person.
One Soldier seems more introspective than your comedy.
It’s more philosophical about life in general. One thing I liked about doing that movie is that you don’t have to be funny every minute. There are so many things you can do that won’t necessarily make the audience laugh out loud but are still interesting. I want to do more of that.
On your website you have some of your own music and painting.
Yeah, I really love making music. I write the songs and sing them and have the guitar. My friend adds all these other instruments and makes it sound like a band. He has a little, tiny studio in his house in Massachusetts. I love it. I think music is the best of all the arts. Comedy has to make sense. No matter how weird it is, it has to make sense. Music doesn’t have to. It can just be vague, just go on feelings. A song doesnâ€™t have to be exactly clear what it’s about. And then the paintings… they donâ€™t even have to make any sense. They can be totally just how you feel. Like “I’m going to do these lines right here, put these lines here.” So all three things, they’re all creative, but they have different rules down to where there are no rules, so it’s fun.
What is a typical day like for you?
Well, I have two completely different lives: when I’m on the road and when I’m not on the road.
When I’m not on the road I get up and immediately go to my favorite drug on the earth that I can’t believe is still legal. Coffee. I love it. I drink about three cups one right after another in the morning and then that’s it. And then I just hang around. I go on the exercise bike or a real bike. I have a real bike, that’s my main exercise. I’ll read, I’ll make phone calls, I’ll just go visit someone. And I like baseball (the Red Sox) and I’m happy that the season has started and I’m happy that spring is here.
When I’m on the road I get up in the morning, check out of the hotel, go to the airport, get in the car or get on the bus, go to the next city and check in. Then I go on the exercise bike and go back to the room and change and then go to the theater and do the show and then go in the bar and have a drink and then go to bed and then do it again.
I travel a lot still in the United States, but I don’t go out of the country as much. I’m too tired. If I won a contest on a game show, rather than a trip I would want as a prize “You get to stay home for a month!”
When did you know you had made it?
There were two moments. When I went on the Tonight Show for the first time. That was my goal since I was 14 or 15. It was my fantasy to be a comedian and go on that show. Then within a year of that, when I would play comedy clubs I would notice that the audience was coming to see me, that they were showing up because I was there and not that they were just going to the club.
In the first few months of doing stand-up, I thought that I knew everything there was to know, but now two years in, I realize that I still have a lot more to learn.
I would say that it’s endless. I know I’m not to the end of learning it. You learn it from going on though, from being on the stage. If you can, think about it as its own little world out there. With its own little rules. It’s a little planet, the stage. And you never learn the whole thing, which is good. That’s what keeps it interesting.
**The title “When the Leaves Blow Away” comes from a joke that was edited out of the taping. Wright says: “This next song is called ‘We’ll Find Her When the Leaves Blow Away, Because I’m Not Raking Until Spring.'”