Q&A: Comedian Steven Wright

Steven Wright first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a kind of anti-comedian; his deadpan style, unruly haircut, and absurdist observational one-liners were completely unlike any other comedy at the time. Wright has only released two albums during his career—I Have a Pony in 1985 and I Still Have a Pony in 2007—but regular appearances on late-night television, a string of cable TV specials, a voice role in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and consistent touring have kept him in the public eye.

What drew you to comedy in the first place?

Watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I started watching that when I was about 15 years old. Seeing him do the monologue and seeing the comedians he had on there—Richard Pryor, George Carlin, David Brenner, Bill Cosby, Robert Klein. That show was 75 percent of it, seeing him and the comedians he had on, even comedians that would come on and I would never see them again. Something grabbed me about the idea of a guy coming out and saying all this funny stuff that he had made up.

And there was a radio show in Boston that played two comedy albums every Sunday night, which I stumbled upon. I used to listen to the Bruins hockey games and then I accidentally heard this comedy show. The guy played two comedy albums every night, and I tuned in—I had a radio in bed with me. I was, like, 14 years old. I tuned that in for two years. The guy had an unbelievable collection of standup albums. That's where I heard Woody Allen's stand-up albums. So The Tonight Show and that radio show.

Was it the craft of comedy that appealed to you?

I don't know what it was—one guy comes out alone, he made everything up, he's talking about life, from observing life and having a different angle on it or rearranging the information or something. It's all based on what's really happening, and then the guy just whips it around and here's this thing. I was just drawn to it. I can't really explain it. I just thought it was a fascinating, interesting thing. I didn't think I would ever be able to do it. I wanted to do it, like a kid wants to be a baseball player or an astronaut. I didn't think it would really happen. But I was studying it without knowing it, I think, because I loved it so much. When I was listening to the radio show I would hear this stuff and that stuff—"Oh, I like that," or "I notice that guy's doing that," "I like that better than that." I wasn't trying to prepare to see if I could ever do it; I just loved it so much. I was studying it by accident.

What's your writing process like?

I'm really reacting to the world. I don't sit down at a table and try to write stuff. I did that in the very, very beginning but after about six months I didn't do it anymore. My process is just noticing things—and not noticing them on purpose. There's a part of my mind that's scanning for jokes, subconsciously scanning, like a radar when they have radar up in the tower in the airport. I'm not getting up like, "I need some jokes today." It's just automatically going around until something jumps out—"Oh, look at that." And then I write it down.

It seems like your material is writerly—there's always a twist. Is it edited, or does it come out fully formed?

It just comes out. It's like, wait a minute, maybe if I move this word around and add "the" in here, that will be better. But the idea comes and the wording comes almost simultaneously. There have been a few that I loved the idea but the wording didn't come out so I really had to concentrate on it—how do I get this point across really quickly? The idea's right there, and in my mind I'm like, "Okay, this is how I would say that." Or "No, this is it."

What did you mean by "writerly"?

They almost seem like poetry—haikus, or Zen koans.

Thanks. They've been referred to as haikus before. I've been texting for years to my friends—not texting jokes, I mean, I might be texting something funny to make my buddy laugh, but it's not an actual joke. I even noticed that the flow of the sentence, there's a rhythm, a length to it, that feels right to it. Maybe length's not the right word. There's a rhythm to the sentence, even though with one or two words not there, the person knows exactly what I meant anyway. I just have this gut feeling about how a sentence should go. And sometimes when I text I think of that. I don't know how that ever got into my head, is what I'm trying to say. I don't know how I got to learn how to do that with the jokes. Maybe from listening to all those comedians.

Some comedians, like Richard Pryor—he's a storyteller. He doesn't depend so much on punchlines as characters and stories. And you seem to be almost all punchline. Does that make sense?

That's just how it went. I didn't sit down and think, "Okay, I'm going to do this. Which version am I'm going to do? How am I going to go do this? What angle do I have?" I just wanted to go down to the club for open mic night, so I had to write stuff, and that's just how it came out. I learned a lot from Woody Allen's stand-up album—he made a double album before he made movies—and he had stories in there, but within the stories there were jokes. I think I was influenced by how he wrote jokes.

Did you leave and go get a magazine? Are you reading Time magazine?

No. Sometimes I just don't know if you're done or not.

They'll say that on my deathbed. I'll be talking—like, they won't know if I died or it's just a long pause.