If you’re into comedy, you’re probably familiar with Steven Wright. Even if you haven’t experienced his trademark barrage of deadpan, absurdist one-liners—and with two Grammy-nominated standup specials and iconic roles in films such as Reservoir Dogs, Half-Baked, and Canadian Bacon, it’s hard not to have—if you’ve ever watched the comedic stylings of Demetri Martin or the late Mitch Hedberg, you’re at least acquainted with his influence. Wright has been doing comedy for more than 30 years, starting with standup at a Boston comedy club/Chinese restaurant and snowballing into regular appearances on the late-night circuit, TV shows, and the big screen. Before his show at the Warner Theatre this Friday, June 22, we chatted with the Academy Award winner (after a slight delay due to scheduling conflicts) about stage fright, odd jobs, Twitter, and the phenomenon of DC Cupcakes.
Sorry about that, my last thing ran long.
No problem. Have you been doing a bunch of interviews this morning?
Not a ton, but a bunch of ’em. Where do you live?
I live in Virginia.
I don’t even remember the layout [of Washington]; I don’t know if that’s closer or farther out. Washington’s a good city; it’s very interesting.
When were you here last?
I was there eight months ago. I did some show, a private show; I always stay near Georgetown, and I don’t get to walk around much. I didn’t go to see monuments or anything. We don’t have enough time to do that.
So you didn’t wait in line at Georgetown Cupcake?
No. I’ve never heard of that. Is that a famous thing?
Yeah, they have that reality show, DC Cupcakes. It’s basically about the drama of running a high-end cupcake company.
[laughs] Oh, my God, that’s fantastic. Imagine who thought of that: “Hey, I got an idea, listen to this,” and then he tells them that, and they say, “Yes, that’s great.”
I guess it’s a little crazy. So I saw you graduated from Emerson, in Boston; I actually graduated from there, too.
You did! When? I had fun there; some of my best friends that I know today, half of them I met at that school. I had a great time. It was in a different place when I was there, on Beacon Street near the Public Garden, between Arlington and Berkeley. But I loved it because of the people more than what I learned. There were so many weird people.
What did you study there?
Mass communication, radio. I thought I would be a guy on the radio.
I’ve read interviews where you referred to yourself as an introvert. Do you still get stage fright?
It doesn’t scare me anymore, but in the beginning it just horrified me. I was way more introverted than I am now, and I wanted to try being a comedian, but going onstage, when I was sitting at the open mike night that first time, my legs were shaking. But I wanted to try to be a comedian so bad I went on even though I was scared out of my mind, and then I got a bit more relaxed. It’s never gonna be normal—it’s never like you’re walking across the living room to get a Pepsi and come back—but I forced myself to do it.
Was there a particular experience that convinced you that was what you wanted to do?
It was from TV, watching Johnny Carson on the Tonight show when I was in 11th grade. I had to watch it because my older brother decided what we were going to watch, because he was older, and then I started loving it. I loved watching him coming out and doing the monologue, and I loved the comedians coming out. I’d never seen that before: Here’s this guy coming out and he says all this stuff he made up. Some people I never saw ever again; sometimes they were on there many times—Richard Pryor, Robert Klein. From watching it a couple years in high school, I got it in my head that [I wanted that].
What did your family say when you told them you wanted to be a comedian?
I never told anybody. I never told my family. I’m superstitious; I thought if I talked about it, it would never happen. I only told one friend of mine, and then I was doing it, so then I was telling my family what I was [already] doing, so the jinx was over.
So does your family think you’re funny? Do they come to your shows?
They do. When I’m in the area, they come to my shows. They think I’m funny. But my mother is from another time—the funniest person to her is Lucille Ball; that’s what she loves. A lot of times she tells me she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I know if I wasn’t her son and she was flipping through the TV and saw me, she would just keep going.
Your bio says before you started comedy you had a “bevy of odd jobs.” Do you remember what the oddest one was?
None of them were freakily odd. . . . I tested radios, assembled radios and then tested them. I parked cars. I painted Emerson! I had a job painting the dorms during the summer, and my friend Mike was in charge of the paint crew. We would be in the room all day painting and it was so boring, but we’d be talking and joking. He’s one of my best friends from that time. Years later I made an HBO film [The Appointments of Dennis Jennings]—we made it together, and we won an Academy Award. I worked in Reno—I walked through the casino wearing a belt with change in it in case people wanted to break paper money, from midnight to 7 in the morning. I was in Aspen in 1979, and I had a job shoveling snow off the roofs in the building so they wouldn’t cave in. That was our job, and we’d do it four days a week.
You play the guitar, right? Do you have any other hidden talents, like being able to cook with your feet or something?
[laughs] Did you just think of that? That’s fantastically bizarre. No, I can’t cook with my feet. I paint; I draw and paint, I’ve been doing that since I was in third grade, drawing realistically and then changing to abstract art. That was my first creative thing before guitar or comedy. It’s so great because it’s abstract, because you just go on a feeling of what you paint; the comedy has to be so structured. It has to make absolute sense; even if it’s crazy, there has to be a logic to it. [Painting] is a whole other way of creating.
When it comes to comedy, what’s your writing process like? Do you find jokes everywhere, or do you have to sit down and say, “I’m going to write 15 jokes today”?
I sat down when I first started the first year, but then my mind got exercised, my mind was looking for jokes . . . like I did pushups with that part of my brain, I thought, “Oh, that could be a joke.” I’m just reacting off the world; that’s how all the material is other than the very beginning. Because you’re just seeing—the world is a big mosaic thing, and you’re taking one little square from there and putting it over there; it’s all from noticing. I remember them and write them on a little scrap of paper, a receipt or something.
I noticed you’re on Twitter. Is that actually you, or does someone else tweet for you?
I was doing that, but I got bored with it, so I stopped. Right before I was going to do it, I decided to write a really long story, so I did it a couple of sentences at a time—it’s about a boy named Harold. He was in elementary school. I thought, just for no reason, Why don’t we do that? And then I just got bored.
There’s also a Fake Steven Wright account, have you seen that?
It’s an account called Fake Steven Wright; there’s a picture of you and they post a bunch of jokes in your style.
They have my picture? Did you ever read the jokes? Were there any that you liked?
I read a few of them. I guess it’s sort of flattering.
Yeah, that someone would be into it to that point.
You’ve been in lots of movies. When people stop you on the street, is there a role they call you out for the most? Or is it mostly, “Hey, you’re Steven Wright, I love your standup”?
Most of it is the standup, way more than the movies. But then the movies, there’s different age groups—people in their forties point out Reservoir Dogs because I was the guy on the radio; then there’s a younger crowd where it’s Half-Baked, like 17 to 30. Some of those people don’t even know I do standup. They get stunned. They love that movie; they’ve either seen it 30 times or they’ve never seen it. Have you seen it?
I have, but not for a long time. But I grew up watching So I Married an Axe Murderer.
That’s hilarious! That was so much fun because they let me make up most of the lines. That movie’s hilarious. It’s not known—for some reason it’s not on the top list of funny in people’s minds, although I think it’s one of the funniest movies. Certain movies are not in the public consciousness.
Who would you say is the funniest person you’ve ever worked with?
Well . . . probably Jim Jarmusch, the movie writer/director, because I did a little thing with Jim and Roberto Benigni called Coffee and Cigarettes, and the three of us wrote that together. He’s really funny; he’s a brilliant filmmaker, and talking to him is funny. John Candy—I was in Canadian Bacon with him. That was real funny. He was a really nice guy.
What’s your next project?
I’m just writing things—not a specific thing, just writing ideas down for jokes and playing the guitar. I don’t have a specific project, I’m just reacting to the world and writing stuff down.
Well, I’m sure you have to get to another interview; is there anything I forgot to ask you about?
You didn’t ask me if I know anything unusual about the presidents. And I do; I know one thing. Grover Cleveland did two terms as a president, but they weren’t in a row. He was president, and then someone else was president, and then he was president again. That’s my last thing. When I’m executed, that’s what I’m going to say.
Are you planning on being executed soon?
No. Are you taping this?
Steven Wright performs at the Warner Theatre this Friday, June 22. Tickets ($30 to $40) are available through the Warner’s website.