Although Steven Wright and I were practically neighbors back in the early ’00s, we never borrowed eggs, butter, or even mowed each others lawn.
It was a general rule in our fancy neighborhood that if you ran into a famous resident, to let them be. I’ve heard stories about celebrities lashing out at star-struck residents on the quaint streets of Huron Village in North Cambridge, for approaching them distastefully, asking them for autographs and some inviting them over for dinner. I won’t name drop here, but I will say famous or not we were all neighbors for better or worse.
Going back to the ’80s when Steven Wright first appeared, comedy was becoming just as important to the masses as the music was via HBO and MTV. Although, I knew nothing about a Boston comedy scene, seeing Steven’s stand up act for the first time on HBO was nothing short of hysterical genius. A comic who didn’t sound funny at all but when you processed the jokes, they were so subtle you kind of wondered why they made you laugh so much.
“I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.”
“If Barbie is so popular, why do you have to buy her friends?”
“I couldn’t repair your brakes, so I made your horn louder.”
“Drugs may lead to nowhere, but at least it’s the scenic route.”
“I went to the hardware store and bought some used paint. It was in the shape of a house. I also bought some batteries, but they weren’t included.”
To me, he was never an aspiring act, as many lucky folks got to witness at Boston clubs like The Comedy Connection or the long gone Ding Ho of Inman Square during the early ’80s. First time I saw him, he was a comic legend. Known for his lethargic tone, deadpan delivery, and his strategic paraprosdokian story-telling style, Steven Wright has sustained his abstract comic relief for 30 years onstage, in film, on television, and has never fallen short of getting his infectious and abstract ideas and observations across, in return getting our laughs. Despite interviewing him at 6am,
Steven Wright was game to discuss topics including offensive humor, his relationship with his audiences, as well as why the most interesting people tend not to be famous.
We were neighbors years ago, a block from the ritzy Huron Ave in Cambridge, MA. It was a known thing in the neighborhood not to bother Mr. Wright.
Oh yeah, like 14 years ago?
Yeah, it’s been that long. Jesus. Did you like living there?
Yeah, I liked living there. I lived in Santa Monica at the time and I missed Boston, so I had that apartment. I liked that neighborhood. It was very casual you know, you could be in Harvard Square quick. How’d you like it?
Eh… I liked it. I was younger. Never understood all the middle-aged women with their dogs and flowery dresses at the time, but now I get it … a high maintenance neighborhood. At the time, the place resembled Twin Peaks to me. Could of been all the marijuana I smoked back then, not to mention my Krokidil habit.
That may have contributed.
Your comedy is not rough around the edges. While many comics strive to be offensive and belligerent to be humorous, you’ve always been just as funny without that tact, offering an abstraction to humor. With that said, have you ever offended anyone?
Everything I did was very unoffensive and G rated. But yeah, I said ‘goddamn it’. I still say ‘goddamn it’ a few times during my act. I never said anything like that, then I started saying it in a couple of jokes. It was only one guy who came to me after a show and said, ‘You don’t have to be saying that.’ I said ‘what?’. He said, ‘swearing like that.’ In my mind it wasn’t even that bad of a thing. I’m talking about ideas, not really insulting people or for it to be at their expense. That’s just how I was raised. I mean, I’m a nice guy.
I was raised like, ‘Ok, this how you act in public.’ You know? That’s basically where it is.
Depending on definition, comedy obviously doesn’t have to be offensive, I see comedy and humor a bit separate from each other. Humor is like the act of exploiting the pain, frustration, tension, etc. through a means of expression and transference. Comedy is the result; the act of connecting with that humor and experiencing laughter or some response.
Am I talking out of my ass here?
No. You’re seeing it more as the person being alive and observing their feeling of being alive, rather than the jokes they are telling. It’s interesting what you just said. You see a comedian and how he is handling … you know, his journey through what he is talking about.
I like to ponder where the humor originates.
All art is a reaction to people being alive. When you see a comedian, it makes you think.
And then when someone doesn’t find a joke funny or doesn’t laugh, have they been challenged?
No. I think they didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was funny, and they don’t. I say OK, and I take it out of my act.
I’ve heard you mention that before. The crowd is like your editing process.
Yeah, they’re the editors. They’re editing the show. By their reaction you’re studying to keep that one, take that one out.
There are many comics who couldn’t care less about what some audience members feel about their jokes. They felt they got to where they are from their brand of humor. Not having a connection to your audience seems like a limited run for a comic.
It’s very simple, right from the beginning. You write something down, you try it out, they like it.
If they don’t, you get rid of it. If they don’t like it they aren’t going to laugh at it just because you’re a famous comedian. They might do that in the first minute.
Years back, during an interview with late comedian Robert Schimmel, he mentioned something similar about the importance of reacting the audience. He also listed you as one of his favorite comics.
I was friends with him, maybe not a real close friend, but he was a friend of mine. We came up during the same time in the ’80s. He was a smart but filthy comedian and one of the only comedians I would go to see. If I saw him playing in the paper, I would go to the club and see him. I loved him. He was a really nice guy.
I couldn’t believe the tragedy that seemed to follow that man around. Do you think lots of comics try to validate their struggles with humor and feel inadequate when they come up dry with material?
I don’t know. There’s many people in different states of mind, but it’s like I said, it’s all reacting to life. I don’t think some feel they have to be funny or they are going to go nuts. They’re just reacting to the world.
Who are some of the people that you find to be funniest?
One of the funniest guys I know, I met in 7th grade. He’s a car dealer at a Volvo dealership. He’s hilarious and never been in comedy. He makes me laugh more than any one I’ve ever known. It’s just how he is, it has nothing to do with his career. You know people like that?
Of course, close friends and occasional strangers. People tend to be more interested in famous faces and household names, never recognizing the brilliance in their own circle of friends and family. The media distracts us with people who live more “interesting lives,” yet everyone is capable of having an interesting story.
I think it’s great what you just said. People do look in the media, and you’re right, there are people right around you, like your friend, or my friend at the car dealership. Everybody is like a book, walking around. Everything is a story.
What you just said is amazing. I think it’s true; a great insight. I love that you just said that ’cause now that’s going to be on my mind.
A friend got me the book Working by Studs Terkel. It’s about people who work, what people do and why they do it.Although not in the public eye, everybody’s story is unique and shares meaning for the next person. It’s all relative.
But yeah, it’s all the same: You’re born, you live a while, and then you die. During that whole time, it’s your journey. Everyone is going through life, the paperboy, the guy at NASA, experiencing and surviving life the best they can. It’s all the same goal. Yeah, I got to definitely check that book out, thanks. Well, I got to get going now, but enjoyed talking. This was different than a regular interview and I mean that as a compliment. We went to a whole other level of psychology of just being a person in society, rather than the regular questions, which are fine.
People can find the facts online, sir. We all know who Steven Wright is and what he does. For those who’ve been living under granite, they need to come out to your show this week and get a dose.
THE WILBUR THEATRE
246 TREMONT ST.