You’d be hard pressed to find even a passive fan of stand-up comedy that hasn’t howled in laughter at Cambridge-born comedian, actor, and writer Steven Wright.
A graduate of Emerson College, Wright’s surrealist, iconoclastic style of deadpan one-liners and subversive philosophical musings about the world has been woven into the national comedic tapestry since getting his start on stage in Boston at the famed Comedy Connection club in the late 70s. Since then, he’s released landmark comedy albums (see: I Have A Pony, and the follow-up, I Still Have A Pony), appeared in dozens of films that range from the absurd (Half Baked) to the acclaimed (Natural Born Killers, The Aristocrats). He even won an Academy Award in 1989 for his 30-minute short The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (upon accepting the award, he famously deadpanned “now I’m sorry I cut out that last hour-and-a-half”) and these days you can find him touring nationally while working as a consulting producer on the critically acclaimed television series Louis alongside fellow Boston-raised (by way of Newton) comedian, Louis C.K., which returns to FX in April.
Wright will be in town performing at the Wilbur Theatre in March, so we caught up with him to talk comedy, the genius of Louis C.K., and his thoughts on the prospect of bringing the Summer Olympics to Boston in 2024.
You coming to the Wilbur must feel like a homecoming.
Yeah, a lot of people I know personally go to the shows.
Well this is where it all began.
Summer of ’79, yeah. Right when the stand-up comedy thing really ignited all over the United States.
This was a big battleground for comedians cutting their teeth back then.
Boston was a great place to start out [at the time]. It’s weird, it seems like a bunch of guys started all at once here. A few guys started before that, but there was this big group that started at the same time. There was no “show business” here so a lot were just teaching themselves…such distinct comedians. I mean, the guys that were around when I started were so different from each other, like Don Gavin and Lenny Clarke and Steve Sweeney and Mike McDonald and Mike Donovan, and Jimmy Smith and Kevin Meaney and Paula Poundstone. Not one of them is like the other person. Their [styles] are all completely different from each other. There was no “scene” here, so there were these pockets of different personalities. Now there are just big clusters.
You must be one of the most ripped off comics in terms of style. At any given moment there seems to be wannabe bad versions of your act. Do you hate that?
No, I don’t hate it. I started noticing it about 15 years ago, and first it threw me off at first, but then I thought about when I was 15 years old watched stand-up and comedy, I was influenced by the people I watched, and would imitate someone.
Who was one of your biggest influences?
George Carlin. He talked about everyday things, and that’s what influenced me, that’s what I like to talk about. People are influenced by other people. You don’t think about that in your act, you’re just trying to write more good material, you’re not thinking that someone in the audience who is 14 will in ten years be influenced by you. It doesn’t bother me. It’s like … it doesn’t matter. [laughs]
How often do you come back to Boston to perform or just hang out?
I live just outside the city, and I perform at the Wilbur every two or three years. But I like to drop into the [Comedy Studio] Club in Harvard Square, too. I like watching people people starting out. So pure. The whole thing, comedy, is very interesting to be doing, so I like watching people do it. I also go to Giggles [in Saugus] to see my friend’s acts. I love some of the Boston people, they really make me laugh out loud. I’ve seen a lot of comedians, and even when I think they’re funny, I don’t laugh out loud that much. So it’s amazing to really laugh out loud, at guys like Donovan and Sweeney and MacDonald.
How has your act evolved over the years. In small fits? Road experience? Have you tried to make intentional shifts in how you structure your bits?
I’ve never done anything like “well I should do this now” or “it would be good if I did this.” It always was just that it happened. When I started out, I did a lot of one-liners, but I also did a lot of one-liners that were connected to little stories. I did that for a few years, and then I didn’t do that anymore, and I just left them at one-liners. When I started going on TV people knew me as “one liner person” and I did that for years and years. I started connecting new stuff into these little stories again, so people think I’m trying something new, but in reality it’s something I was doing before I was on television. But I still have the same perspective, the same view of the world. And I don’t do anything as a purposeful shakeup. I have these stories that just happen, you know? And I have these songs on guitar that I do, and one liners … lots and lots of one-liners. It’s like if you’re a painter. You paint the way you feel like painting…I do this, and then this, and so on. If you’re painting an abstract painting, you’re not thinking “oh they’ve seen me do this kind of painting so I should change it up over here.” I just do things because I feel like doing them that way.
It’s more organic like that.
Yeah, it’s like a fingerprint, but of your brain. That’s just how everyone thinks of you, everyone has their own personality. With me there’s no planning really. [laughs]
What do you think about comedy’s role in these hyper-charged times?
There’s doing it and then there’s watching it. [For me] it’s not deeper than just “make them laugh”. Every comedian is commenting on society, as everyone is talking about real information, so everyone is like a psychologist or sociologist, pointing out things in the world only you notice, and it happens to be funny. But I’ve never been on a mission. I only want to get a few more minutes where I can make people laugh. All art is based on that, on seeing and commenting on what’s out there, even though I don’t think, for me anyway, the purpose is to comment. But I’m not trying to not comment. You just accidentally point out the craziness in the world, all the things that are off. The world is so chaotic. There’s so much happening, so to try put it in order is like trying to keep it in a painters frame. Some of it is leaking over the sides, as if you’re drawing something and you balance the frame onto the wall, and there are pen marks outside the frame. Comedians are just saying “oh look at that” but for me it’s not on purpose, I don’t think. I make a lot of painting references. … Are you typing this or writing or what?
Typing as we go.
Let me know if you need me to say anything again or something. You must be a fast typer.
I can pretty much type as fast as you talk.
Wow. I can’t even talk as fast as I can talk.
Let’s talk Louis on FX.
I did last season with it, and I’m doing the new season being filmed right now. It’s coming on April 9.
Do you do more onscreen stuff or work more in the background?
It’s mostly in the background. [Louis] is a genius, first of all. That guy’s mind … I’m in awe of his mind. He just blows me away. The writing, the directing, the editing, he even works on the music. It’s unbelievable. I was asked out of the blue if I wanted to work with him, and I just basically talk the show’s stories out. I’ll go on the set and talk about what’s happening, and it’s amazing discussing all these stages of the show with him. There are all these parts to assemble the show, he writes everything, every word. But he bounces the stories off me, and I go to the shooting and he says “what do you think of that take” or “how did that go?”
Have you ever just said “nah, that didn’t work.”
I’ll tell him when I think something is a little bit off. It’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in show business, because with stand-up you’re doing everything yourself. So to be discussing all these fragments of comedy with this guy, it’s just fun. Fun.
It removes the solitary aspect of stand-up.
I’m fine with doing it alone. I’m never like “oh my god I wish there were other people involved” [huge laugh]. It’s just different and fun. Although it’s not like the other thing isn’t.
Have you been following the Boston Olympics brouhaha happening in town?
I’ve seen a few pieces of it, but I don’t think they should have it here.
The big pitch is that this will show the world that Boston is a “world-class city”.
It already is!
It’s like the powers involved are throwing a tantrum. Like a child in a mall.
And the scholarly research has shown the host city never benefits with these mega sporting events. They just wind up paying, no matter what was promised.
It seems like the people in charge [of it] are the exact people that shouldn’t be. There’s a level of caring that seems to be missing. They’re just looking at it from the angle of money. If you cared about the city as if it was a piece of art, it would be like walking in to a museum and ripping out parts of a classic painting. God, it’s like the Big Dig. Look at that as an accidental example, and then multiply it by, um, 25.
They’ve pitched putting a beach volleyball court in the middle of Boston Common…
I heard about that. The city is so beautifully historical, to chop it up for something like the Olympics, it’s … I don’t know. It’s like really really expensive vandalism. But instead of using a can of spray paint, it’s millions of dollars in construction equipment. When is this supposed to happen?
Oh, well at least I’ll be a really old guy by then. Maybe it won’t bother me as much [laughs]. Oh my god. I just really hope it doesn’t happen. If you’re connected to the city, it’s really like vandalism. It really is.