A singular entity in the annals of stand-up comedy, Steven Wright is best known for his slow, deadpan delivery of absurdist, observational bon mots. While Wright has also distinguished himself as an actor, writer, musician and painter (even going as far as nabbing an Academy Award for his short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings in 1988) he has never strayed far from the stage. His 33-year performing career brings him back to Nashville for an evening of off-kilter, oddball one-liners at the Schermerhorn. In an interview with the Scene, Wright talks about his haphazard hilarity, his all-time favorite joke, the stoners who recognize him from his role as Half Baked's The Guy on the Couch and more.
Does comedy get easier as you've been doing it over the years?
No. I mean, it still just comes down to the actual material. Like, does it work or does it not work? ... It doesn't get easier — it kinda leveled off, I think. I don't know everything about it, it's an endless thing. It's not like, "Oh, you've been doing it this long, you can just walk out there and just say anything."
Do you write a new act every time you go out on the road? Or do you play the hits as well?
To me, a show is like a painting. It's like a painting that's never totally finished, like there's stuff that's been in there for a long time and then there's something brand-new and then there's something that's a couple of years old. It's all mixed together. It's like a canvas that's never done.
Was there ever a joke that you thought was brilliant, but it just bombed?
I had a joke that I thought was really good but never got a laugh, but I will do it anyway, even though I knew they weren't gonna laugh. I wouldn't do it every night, I would only do it sometimes because I knew it was gonna have barely any response, which I don't even know why I was doing that. It's completely ridiculous.
So then was that the punch line — the audience not laughing?
No. It was almost like a denial thing. But I liked it enough where I'm gonna test something that's just not comedy-correct, and I just don't care. I'm gonna say something I know doesn't work. [Laughs] And I don't even know why, really. Because basically if it doesn't work, throw it out. This one didn't work and it was like, "Wait a minute, I'm not throwin' it out. Try again. Put it over to the side, bring it back in, still didn't work, not throwin' it out."
What was the joke?
I don't even know why I was so attached to this joke. All it was, was "You never know what you have until it's gone and I wanted to know what I had, so I got rid of everything."
[Laughs] As far as telling a joke over and over again and trying to force it on the audience even if it never gets a laugh, does the delivery or the wording or the tone of it change over time?
You find out very early on, almost when you've made the joke up, almost when you think of it, "This is how it should be said." It's never, like, brought back into the lab and [retooled]. It kinda comes quickly. I can't change that one [joke], there's no way to change that one around. In my opinion, I'm saying it the best way I think it can be said. So even though on a scale of one to 10 it gets a three, I can't change it around to make it better.
Which is a tougher art to master as a comedian — the joke itself, or the delivery?
Good for you, no one's ever asked me that question.
Yup. I would say writing the joke is harder. Because first there's no joke, and then the joke is there. And then when you think of the joke, then you adjust it immediately to the right sentence. Saying it is kind of automatic.
You're very well-known for your style of delivery. And listening to you now, this is obviously just the way you talk. When you started doing comedy, did you know right off the bat that you didn't need to create any kind of persona? Or was there a trial-and-error period of trying to deliver jokes in a voice that wasn't natural to you?
There was no plan. The main thing was writing, writing, writing. And then when I went out and just said it. I wasn't trying to create this persona that I am known for. That was just naturally how it came out. And you can see how I'm talking to you right now. But also I was very afraid to be onstage — I was such an introverted person. So I was saying these insane things, but I had an extra serious face because I was nervous. But the only thing planned was the writing of it. How it came out is just how it came out. This is how I talk. That's just how it happened. So I'm lucky that it connected well with the abstract jokes.
Were you surprised by it?
No, because I never really even thought about it until years later.
Are you just an inherently funny person?
Yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, me and my friends and my family. My friends are hilarious. And my family, I mean, laughing and joking around is a big part of my existence, you know, since I was a kid. The root of it all is, you know, just joking around. How 'bout you, are you a funny guy? You are funny, I can tell by what you said already.
People tell me I'm funny from time to time. But they only tell me that when I'm not trying to be funny. If I try to be funny, I'll totally bomb. So if I was getting paid for it I probably wouldn't be funny at all. Coming from you, that's quite a compliment, though. I appreciate it.
Yeah. When I said, "How's your morning going?" And you said you don't know yet, that's hilarious.
Yeah, I'm not good with formalities. So I answered the question honestly.
Oh [laughs], you weren't even trying to be funny?
No, not really. That's what I mean.
Hilarious. Now it has a balcony of hilariousness on it. It was hilarious and you weren't trying to be hilarious.
Do you have an all-time favorite joke?
Yes, I do. It doesn't get the biggest laugh in my act, but it's my favorite joke for two reasons — I really like the concept of it, and it was the longest joke it ever took me to figure out the wording for. Usually the joke comes and bang, it's right there. This idea came and I couldn't even figure it out [until], like, days later. And the joke was, "When my grandfather died, I went to his wake. I was kneeling down at the casket with my aunt and I was looking at him in the casket and I started thinkin' about my flashlight and the batteries inside the flashlight and I said to my aunt, 'Maybe he's not dead, he's just in the wrong way.' "
What do you think you would be doing with your life if you weren't a comic?
I don't know, but I would be grateful if it was something else (involving) my imagination. I feel really lucky that I've had a career from using my imagination. So I would wish it be something in that world. What it would really be, I don't know.
One last question: Do you ever get stoners coming up to you randomly, asking you to quote lines from Half Baked?
They don't ask me to say lines from it, but they're really thrilled to see me. Like, "OH MY GOD, ARE YOU THE GUY ON THE COUCH?!" Yes. "OH MY GOD! Hey Fred, come here, it's the guy on the couch!" [Laughs.] It's a window of people from, like, 20 to 30 (years old). It's hilarious. ... People have either never seen that movie, or they own it or they've rented it 30 times. There's no in-between.