A Buck Shot of Time Machines: an Interview with Steven Wright
In an early morning phone call interview, Steven Wright admitted that while he’s always loved doing comedy, he was surprised that during the COVID shutdown, he wasn’t really missing it.
“It’s not because I don’t love it, or didn’t want to do it. It was an interesting experience for me because I’m 66 and I’ve been doing it since I was 23 years old. So, it was almost like this outside thing said ‘hey, what would it be like not to do this?’ I didn’t decide, COVID decided. So, it was an interesting thing. I kept being surprised that I wasn’t missing it. To not miss something that you really like doing, that’s weird to me.”
Weird is the exact space that Mr. Wright seems to inhabit with his art. A comedian, writer, filmmaker, and painter, he was impacted in high school by a visit to a museum where he first encountered surrealism as a concept — something he’s incorporated into his life and artistic expression ever since.
“Drawing was my first creative thing, in elementary school. I would just draw anything. And then in high school it was drawing and painting. Just painting, and at the time I was painting very realistic. And then in 11th grade my teacher took us to a museum in Boston and that’s where I first saw surrealism and I was just stunned. I remember the two paintings: one was a road coming down a hill, and when the road went down straight it turned into a waterfall. And there was another painting of a clothespin out in a field, but the clothespin was the size of a silo, it was just huge. But they weren’t cartoony looking. They were just… weird. And I was maybe 16 years old, and I’m telling you about them now. That’s how much of an impact these two paintings had on me. I think that years later, when I began writing things, that affected what I wrote. I think everyone’s head is like a soup, made up of ingredients all mixed together. The surrealism got in because of those paintings, and that affected… everything.”
Regarded as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time, Steven Wright has a career that has spanned 40+ years, and encompassed milestones that other comedians could only dream of. A favorite of Johnny Carson, Conan O’Brien, and David Letterman, Mr. Wright is a Grammy-nominated performer who has performed multiple HBO specials, and is often credited with being one of the pioneers of the genre of non-sequitur surrealist comedy. The mark that Mr. Wright has had on the comedy landscape is undeniable. Comedian Brad Wenzel, who was featured multiple times on Conan O’Brien’s TBS show Conan, says of Wright:
“Oh yeah, he’s a big influence. I don’t think there’s anyone doing non-sequiturs right now that isn’t a fan of Steven Wright. He was really the first person to combine set up/punchline jokes with surrealism. I think of one-liners as a whole genre of comedy and Steven Wright is our Beatles.”
Though an enthusiastic painter, Mr. Wright admitted he “didn’t paint once” during COVID, but would drink coffee every morning, exercise, and then write whatever came into his head.
“So, my creative thing never stopped. I would write things that would have nothing to do with jokes. Pieces of something that could be in a movie. Just let my mind get jazzed up, for an hour and a half get high on coffee, what’s going to come out of my head? It’s like I’m a receptionist for my own brain. I’d just write things down that I think are interesting or weird or surreal.”
A legend in more than one industry, Mr. Wright’s foray into filmmaking is self-described as “funny and philosophical” and has garnered him the appropriate accolades throughout the years. His short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1988, and he’s spent a large part of his career as a voice actor — notable to all Millennials as the character of the turtle “Speed” in the classic animated film “The Swan Princess.” When asked what motivated him to choose the roles he’s taken, Mr. Wright said: “I’m always looking for roles that I would like to do. Something not idiotically ridiculous, something of quality.” He’s aware of the impact of his roles on popular culture, especially with the onset of fervent fans declaring their love over social media, which he describes as “a buck shot of time machines, there’s time machines all over the place, which is great. Being passionate about anything is great.”
When asked what has kept him passionate about doing comedy for more than four decades, Mr. Wright said:
“I’ll keep doing this as long as it’s fun for me. The stage is such a heightened place, and I haven’t been on it in so long. There’s nothing else like it. The stage is very intense, it’s like walking a tightrope. And the audience, even though I don’t know their names, it’s like I’m hanging out with friends of mine. There’s a friendliness to the whole thing. From me to them. From them to me. And what is friendliness based on? We’re all alive, it’s all based on life experience.”
Our interview with Mr. Wright revealed him to be an incredibly kind, observant, and thoughtful person. Something he thinks all creative people have in common.
“That’s where everything is from. Just from noticing the world. It’s thinking. No one can stop thinking. Your mind is always thinking, and my mind is always wired towards writing and thinking. I can’t stop that.”
Central Florida fans can catch Steven Wright thinking out loud at his first show in more than two years on Friday, April 29, at the King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne — something he says he’s genuinely so excited about.
“I might come out and just tell one 90 minute joke though, instead of a lot of little jokes. Can you imagine?”