Deadpan comic Steven Wright talks about Tarantino, Twitter and making people laugh
Steven Wright has been doing his routine for so long, that just the anticipation of his dry delivery makes the audience start laughing. Since getting his big break on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1982, Wright has become one of the most recognizable stand-up comedians in America. He’s never veered from his expressionless monotonic delivery, making wry observations of life and cleverly twisting language via his signature one-liners: “She asked me if I slept good. I said, no, I made a few mistakes.”
In addition to his one-man specials on HBO and Comedy Central, and his two Grammy-nominated comedy albums, Wright has also done a lot of acting—appearing in everything from Reservoirs Dogs to Coffee and Cigarettes. He even won an Academy Award in 1989 for Best Short Film for The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, which he co-wrote and starred in. Most recently, the short-joke master has joined Twitter, to share an original story about a curious boy named Harold, one Tweet at a time.
Wright talked to the CN&R by phone from his home in the Boston area before he headed west for, among other gigs, an appearance on The Late Late Show (Oct. 11) and an evening of stand-up at Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium on Friday, Oct. 14.
You haven’t added to your Twitter story in a few months. Are you still working on that?
No, I completely lost interest. That’s what happens to me. I’m like a little kid playing with a truck in the living room for an hour, and then he gets up and goes over and does something else.
Did you write the whole thing ahead of time and parcel it out, or did you write as you went?
I wrote it as I went. It was fun, because usually I would write just one section, a one-, two-sentence thing. I was trying to do it every day. And then I would look at it where I was from the day before, and I would think, “Now what happened?”
I know it’s kind of impersonal, but Twitter seems built for your style of comedy—ripe for one-liners.
Yes, it is. You’re completely right. I just connect what I do to saying it in front of a live audience. The idea of writing a joke and sending it out there, it has no life to me because there’s no audience responding right there in a room I’m in. To just put them on there and send them out doesn’t appeal to me at all. I agree that it is a perfect thing for me, if I had no emotion [laughs].
So the live experience is not separate from the jokes for you?
Yeah. It’s the other half to the whole thing. If I just write it down in the kitchen on a paper—I mean, I like the idea—but it’s just sitting there. It’s not alive. It’s like putting batteries into a robot and throwing it out on stage. I don’t know where these analogies are coming from.
Do you have a writing routine?
No, just from going through my life, just from doing things, experiencing things, that’s where things just jump out as jokes to me. I don’t just sit down and try to write them. I did in the first six months, but then I kind of trained my brain to do it without having to sit down and do it. You know what I mean? It was like my subconscious was scanning everything to see where there’s a joke even though I don’t know that I’m really doing it.
I found a video someone posted on YouTube that features nothing but you mispronouncing the word behemoth (sampled from the film Reservoir Dogs) over and over for 15 minutes straight. Have you seen it?
No. For literally 15 minutes? That’s insane. That’s hilarious. When I did the recording for that [for] Quentin Tarantino, I stumbled on that word. I said it wrong. And then I said it again correctly and he put the one where I stumbled into the movie. That’s something that would be in some museum of modern art with just one thing being said over and over and over, and you’d look at it for like a minute and go, “This is not art.”
Got a new joke?
I have two pair of reading glasses, one for fiction and one for nonfiction. I’ve read the Bible twice, once wearing each pair of glasses. And it’s the same.