How Steven Wright Developed His Unique Joke Style

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Steven Wright

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Steven Wright is an Academy Award-winning stand-up comic, actor, and now, author. Look for his first book, "Harold," on May 16.www.stevenwright.com

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What year did you start out first of all? July 79 Oh wow What was the scene like? Well it was the comedy connection The little one, downstairs No, no, it was on Warrenton Street It was street level That was the first one Before Nix? Before Nix So it was the same comedy story Excuse me, the same one that was the Charles Playhouse Right? Yeah, you got straight in And it was right in there It was an amazing room Yeah, little like 150 people probably? No, I don't even think that many Maybe 100, maybe 90 That was the first The ceiling, yeah Yellow That's where I went to see an open mic there And then I thought What I was doing is I was, you know, into comedy from watching The Tonight Show That's when I really got like, oh, these comedian, you know, Carl and Robert Klein All these guys I had to watch The Tonight Show Because my brother was older than me And we had to watch what he wanted So I, you know, I started watching Then I started to like it And then I heard that there was a club in town And I thought, I should go down You know, I was 16 when I really was into it But then when I was about 23, I heard of the club And I thought, well, maybe I got to go try it out I wouldn't have to move to Los Angeles or New York And I didn't, my character then, I couldn't have, 23 I'm not going to move to Los Angeles It was like, that was too much for me So I went to the comedy connection And I watched a show And then I learned that there was a The open mic nights was every Wednesday So then I thought, I'm going to go back in two weeks Do you remember your first set? I don't remember I remember the first joke was But I don't remember the rest of it was I said I went into a bookstore And I started talking to this very French looking girl She was a bilingual illiterate She couldn't read in two different languages And then it And that's how you started Yeah, I had about three minutes So did you always write in that style? Like the sort of non sequitur, absurdist? No, see, I didn't even write anything So I went to the open mic, watched the show And when I knew I was going back in two weeks During that two weeks, I wrote things But I had never written comedy at all I remember when you first started writing comedy It was always that style It was about 70% like that It was more like Normal-ish I don't know why it came out like that I mean, I was influenced by Carl and I was talking about everyday little things And that's what I said Oh, I'm going to do that And then the structure of a joke was from listening to Woody Allen's stand up albums But that I hadn't known That's just how it came out with those two influences Plus my own mind Your writing process must be You have a very difficult style to write for, I would imagine Because your style is non sequiturs And a lot of it is very absurd Is it hard to, like when you write, do you sit in front of a computer? Do you just come up with ideas as you're walking around? Like what's your process? In the beginning, I would sit down and look at the paper Like look for a word to jazz my mind or look for something And I would try to find jokes on purpose In the first six months And then after that Like I had this thing once I was looking through the paper And it was an advertisement for electrolysis And I thought, what an interesting word Just the sound of the word What it means Both things it want What the hell? So I made a note of that And then I don't know my mind You know, because you're subconscious is like a factory It's working when you don't even know that it is Mind in your own business You're in line doing something that's this just in What my mind did with that was I came up I had this thing about living in an apartment building Where they allowed pets And I had a pony I had a Shetland pony named Nicky And he was once involved in a bizarre electrolysis accident All the hair was removed except for the tail Now I rent him out to Hari Krishna Family Picnics And that whole thing came because I saw the word electrolysis So I would try to find things on purpose But then after a while I didn't My mind was I would just notice things Because I think comedy all art is based on noticing what's around you And I would my mind like I drew a lot I know that you used to draw too And I would draw realistically in high school and stuff And like if you were going to draw this cup and this This two shapes And then you notice if you're trying to draw it real You this shape this shape And then there's the shape that's in between That's also a shape which helps you get it accurate And but so you know and you don't really notice that shape Unless you were trying to draw it So I think that exercised my mind of noticing Then later on doing the comedy I was already noticing But I think was noticing just some people are very aware of what's around And you know like in the tower and the at the airport where the radar goes like this Like it just goes like this And then there's the little beeps of the planes like those are the planes So I think my mind got like Scanning like that subconscious Like I'm not going out I don't walk down the street thinking I need another joke I'm gonna go walk down that street I'm just going around my day just doing it but the thing is going And then it'll see a word like Oh maybe that oh okay And then oh and then like write it down Write it down and I think of the joke the wording comes pretty fast Like very like in a minute it's like Because in my mind it can only be one way it can be written And then I just would write it down and then and then go on with what I was doing But the the noticing never stops Don't you think what you do is you're reacting right? You're talking about the world but you have to really see the world Yeah you have to really see the world Top quality you can't get better than those guys You can't get better than those guys Really laugh out loud I think ever I think ever of all the my years of comedy I mean it's hard now because you you go back and watch it now It's like you got to realize it's a totally different time in the world It's not it's not it doesn't it's not our culture It's a different culture It's the culture of 1980s Things were more risque They're more like when you said things that were more shocking And a lot of that stuff's already been said so many times now that if you go back and listen to it It's like some of it doesn't really hold up the same way But for the time In those days those guys were the cream of the crop And if you had to follow them in boston like good fucking luck Because I don't think anybody ever killed hard I didn't I didn't those guys I didn't want to go on after them I did because I was proud of the lineup But I knew that the the sound from the audience of the laughs I knew they were gonna it was gonna be more than me But I just accepted it because it was like wave, you know in a big wave hits Yeah, all of those guys yeah Gavin Sweeney Donovan Did you feel any pressure to sort of ever to change your act in the beginning before you made it? Whether it was it like were you just committed to that kind of style? I was Well committed is means a decision. There was no decision It was like like I told you that's how I wrote it and it came out like that It meshed with how I speak. This is how I speak and for some reason Accidentally the abstract jokes went good with my voice But the the audience they weren't thrown off from it people asked me Well, they you know It was different with the audience take a while to come around and they didn't because right from the first three minutes They laughed at some of it and they didn't laugh at other things So then I knew right then it wasn't how I was saying it or my voice or anything They don't care about anything. I don't give a shit as long as it's funny Yeah, so they thought some of it was funny and some of it wasn't and mike mcdonald helped me a lot because he saw me the first time and I was naively Disappointed because I didn't laugh at everything which is insane. But that was out of being naive and he said look it Take that material. He never did it before Take that set and take out the stuff that didn't work and put all this stuff in that works I mean it should try out and when I left From him telling me that I thought it was a success because they laughed at some of it here I am wanting to you know 16 wanting to try it and then I They laughed at a minute and a half. I oh my god They left it so then he made me leave when I left I was like, oh my god. Oh my god I gotta keep changing and changing and changing But I didn't think of changing my style or anything because like I was saying Fingerprint before it was just just how I just what it was. It didn't even it's in my mind to change it Yeah, some of it works. Some of it didn't change it. Try more. Try more. Try more And I'm glad there wasn't any show business there because someone might have said you can't be mumbling over on the side Get a sport jacket and talk loud You know what I mean? There was no one watching. Yeah from that angle Right like a producer in all of those guys we were just talking about none of them are like the next guy Right, it was like not it was like a factory that only made one car and then they made a different car You know, it was like a mustang than this. There was no assembly line Every one of those guys is completely unique everyone yeah It's um, one of the interesting things about the documentary when stand-up stood out was that you were kind of the first guy that got discovered in boston And then you took off and then it became a different thing because then people realized that that was possible And so then there was a in the documentary at least There was this attitude where a lot of guys had like hey, what about me? Like where's my where's my thing? How come it's not happening for me? You know i'm a headliner i'm a this some of that like why why isn't this and it became where a lot of guys Were trying to make it now Do you remember that time I knew later when uh When I heard about it after I had gone But I mean but I we all wanted to go on the tv like I mean that everyone wasn't doing it just to be doing it in boston. I wanted to someday go on tv I had no idea how I would get there And then I got a lucky break because pedalo sally came to boston and he saw me in the club Because there was an article about the ding hoe and the freelance writer wrote about it and went into the la times This weird comedy club chinese restaurant and then he read it and then he went back east Looking at colleges for his kids were getting out of high school. They did a summer trip To boston and new york to look at schools and he remembered the article and he called up the club I'm gonna go in and you know, and then he saw me and then I went went on there. So I got a very uh, lucky Lucky break, but I know you're talking about like I mean, I was just insanely lucky and then But that's uh france movie. I mean he never even made a movie before right. He never made a movie I know and that was a very interesting thing because say we were all rowers Like a row guy is not going to make a movie He's not but a comedian a creative guy. He's going to make a movie about the time You don't have a movie of your time in high school or your best time in college We have a document by one of our own guys Of the time. Yeah, and it's still all of us One of our favorite times in our whole lives So it's a precious gift that fran made the movie to see to see this thingThe Jerogan Experience What year did you start out first of all? July 79 Oh wow What was the scene like? Well it was the comedy connection The little one, downstairs No, no, it was on Warrenton Street It was street level That was the first one Before Nix? Before Nix So it was the same comedy story Excuse me, the same one that was the Charles Playhouse Right? Yeah, you got straight in And it was right in there It was an amazing room Yeah, little like 150 people probably? No, I don't even think that many Maybe 100, maybe 90 That was the first The ceiling, yeah Yellow That's where I went to see an open mic there And then I thought What I was doing is I was, you know, into comedy from watching The Tonight Show That's when I really got like, oh, these comedian, you know, Carl and Robert Klein All these guys I had to watch The Tonight Show Because my brother was older than me And we had to watch what he wanted So I, you know, I started watching Then I started to like it And then I heard that there was a club in town And I thought, I should go down You know, I was 16 when I really was into it But then when I was about 23, I heard of the club And I thought, well, maybe I got to go try it out I wouldn't have to move to Los Angeles or New York And I didn't, my character then, I couldn't have, 23 I'm not going to move to Los Angeles It was like, that was too much for me So I went to the comedy connection And I watched a show And then I learned that there was a The open mic nights was every Wednesday So then I thought, I'm going to go back in two weeks Do you remember your first set? I don't remember I remember the first joke was But I don't remember the rest of it was I said I went into a bookstore And I started talking to this very French looking girl She was a bilingual illiterate She couldn't read in two different languages And then it And that's how you started Yeah, I had about three minutes So did you always write in that style? Like the sort of non sequitur, absurdist? No, see, I didn't even write anything So I went to the open mic, watched the show And when I knew I was going back in two weeks During that two weeks, I wrote things But I had never written comedy at all I remember when you first started writing comedy It was always that style It was about 70% like that It was more like Normal-ish I don't know why it came out like that I mean, I was influenced by Carl and I was talking about everyday little things And that's what I said Oh, I'm going to do that And then the structure of a joke was from listening to Woody Allen's stand up albums But that I hadn't known That's just how it came out with those two influences Plus my own mind Your writing process must be You have a very difficult style to write for, I would imagine Because your style is non sequiturs And a lot of it is very absurd Is it hard to, like when you write, do you sit in front of a computer? Do you just come up with ideas as you're walking around? Like what's your process? In the beginning, I would sit down and look at the paper Like look for a word to jazz my mind or look for something And I would try to find jokes on purpose In the first six months And then after that Like I had this thing once I was looking through the paper And it was an advertisement for electrolysis And I thought, what an interesting word Just the sound of the word What it means Both things it want What the hell? So I made a note of that And then I don't know my mind You know, because you're subconscious is like a factory It's working when you don't even know that it is Mind in your own business You're in line doing something that's this just in What my mind did with that was I came up I had this thing about living in an apartment building Where they allowed pets And I had a pony I had a Shetland pony named Nicky And he was once involved in a bizarre electrolysis accident All the hair was removed except for the tail Now I rent him out to Hari Krishna Family Picnics And that whole thing came because I saw the word electrolysis So I would try to find things on purpose But then after a while I didn't My mind was I would just notice things Because I think comedy all art is based on noticing what's around you And I would my mind like I drew a lot I know that you used to draw too And I would draw realistically in high school and stuff And like if you were going to draw this cup and this This two shapes And then you notice if you're trying to draw it real You this shape this shape And then there's the shape that's in between That's also a shape which helps you get it accurate And but so you know and you don't really notice that shape Unless you were trying to draw it So I think that exercised my mind of noticing Then later on doing the comedy I was already noticing But I think was noticing just some people are very aware of what's around And you know like in the tower and the at the airport where the radar goes like this Like it just goes like this And then there's the little beeps of the planes like those are the planes So I think my mind got like Scanning like that subconscious Like I'm not going out I don't walk down the street thinking I need another joke I'm gonna go walk down that street I'm just going around my day just doing it but the thing is going And then it'll see a word like Oh maybe that oh okay And then oh and then like write it down Write it down and I think of the joke the wording comes pretty fast Like very like in a minute it's like Because in my mind it can only be one way it can be written And then I just would write it down and then and then go on with what I was doing But the the noticing never stops Don't you think what you do is you're reacting right? You're talking about the world but you have to really see the world Yeah you have to really see the world Top quality you can't get better than those guys You can't get better than those guys Really laugh out loud I think ever I think ever of all the my years of comedy I mean it's hard now because you you go back and watch it now It's like you got to realize it's a totally different time in the world It's not it's not it doesn't it's not our culture It's a different culture It's the culture of 1980s Things were more risque They're more like when you said things that were more shocking And a lot of that stuff's already been said so many times now that if you go back and listen to it It's like some of it doesn't really hold up the same way But for the time In those days those guys were the cream of the crop And if you had to follow them in boston like good fucking luck Because I don't think anybody ever killed hard I didn't I didn't those guys I didn't want to go on after them I did because I was proud of the lineup But I knew that the the sound from the audience of the laughs I knew they were gonna it was gonna be more than me But I just accepted it because it was like wave, you know in a big wave hits Yeah, all of those guys yeah Gavin Sweeney Donovan Did you feel any pressure to sort of ever to change your act in the beginning before you made it? Whether it was it like were you just committed to that kind of style? I was Well committed is means a decision. There was no decision It was like like I told you that's how I wrote it and it came out like that It meshed with how I speak. This is how I speak and for some reason Accidentally the abstract jokes went good with my voice But the the audience they weren't thrown off from it people asked me Well, they you know It was different with the audience take a while to come around and they didn't because right from the first three minutes They laughed at some of it and they didn't laugh at other things So then I knew right then it wasn't how I was saying it or my voice or anything They don't care about anything. I don't give a shit as long as it's funny Yeah, so they thought some of it was funny and some of it wasn't and mike mcdonald helped me a lot because he saw me the first time and I was naively Disappointed because I didn't laugh at everything which is insane. But that was out of being naive and he said look it Take that material. He never did it before Take that set and take out the stuff that didn't work and put all this stuff in that works I mean it should try out and when I left From him telling me that I thought it was a success because they laughed at some of it here I am wanting to you know 16 wanting to try it and then I They laughed at a minute and a half. I oh my god They left it so then he made me leave when I left I was like, oh my god. Oh my god I gotta keep changing and changing and changing But I didn't think of changing my style or anything because like I was saying Fingerprint before it was just just how I just what it was. It didn't even it's in my mind to change it Yeah, some of it works. Some of it didn't change it. Try more. Try more. Try more And I'm glad there wasn't any show business there because someone might have said you can't be mumbling over on the side Get a sport jacket and talk loud You know what I mean? There was no one watching. Yeah from that angle Right like a producer in all of those guys we were just talking about none of them are like the next guy Right, it was like not it was like a factory that only made one car and then they made a different car You know, it was like a mustang than this. There was no assembly line Every one of those guys is completely unique everyone yeah It's um, one of the interesting things about the documentary when stand-up stood out was that you were kind of the first guy that got discovered in boston And then you took off and then it became a different thing because then people realized that that was possible And so then there was a in the documentary at least There was this attitude where a lot of guys had like hey, what about me? Like where's my where's my thing? How come it's not happening for me? You know i'm a headliner i'm a this some of that like why why isn't this and it became where a lot of guys Were trying to make it now Do you remember that time I knew later when uh When I heard about it after I had gone But I mean but I we all wanted to go on the tv like I mean that everyone wasn't doing it just to be doing it in boston. I wanted to someday go on tv I had no idea how I would get there And then I got a lucky break because pedalo sally came to boston and he saw me in the club Because there was an article about the ding hoe and the freelance writer wrote about it and went into the la times This weird comedy club chinese restaurant and then he read it and then he went back east Looking at colleges for his kids were getting out of high school. They did a summer trip To boston and new york to look at schools and he remembered the article and he called up the club I'm gonna go in and you know, and then he saw me and then I went went on there. So I got a very uh, lucky Lucky break, but I know you're talking about like I mean, I was just insanely lucky and then But that's uh france movie. I mean he never even made a movie before right. He never made a movie I know and that was a very interesting thing because say we were all rowers Like a row guy is not going to make a movie He's not but a comedian a creative guy. He's going to make a movie about the time You don't have a movie of your time in high school or your best time in college We have a document by one of our own guys Of the time. Yeah, and it's still all of us One of our favorite times in our whole lives So it's a precious gift that fran made the movie to see to see this thing