“You can't have everything. Where would you put it?”
Steven Wright has a way of putting things. Thirty years ago he started stand up in his native Boston, and one-liners have never been the same. His singularly deadpan delivery and surreal, cerebral style have influenced countless comics today, and doubtlessly every other comedian coming to town for the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival later this month.
After two albums, I Have A Pony and I Still Have A Pony (both of which you can listen to on Spotify so get moving), an Oscar winning short film, and occasional movie cameos, Wright's primary focus remains touring and performing live. We chatted with the legendary comic about his material, his writing process and whether or not the internet is a thing.
Your material's clearly pretty abstract. When you write new jokes, do you have any idea of which ones will work better than others?
No, I have absolutely no idea. I've been doing this 30 years, and if I think of something funny and I write down, then maybe I'll try it front of an audience, but I still can't predict which ones they're going to laugh at. There's no way to predict.
But the success rate hasn't gotten any better in 30 years?
No. Four every four of them that I write, one of them gets enough of a laugh to stay in my act. It's not the success rate of what I write, it's the unpredictability of each joke. The ratio of what works is still the same.
"I've been doing this 30 years, and if I think of something funny and I write down, then maybe I'll try it front of an audience, but I still can't predict which ones they're going to laugh at."
So that makes it just as exciting as ever?
So you must have things that you still think are funny that have never worked.
Oh, I have so many things under that category. I don't remember them because if they don't work then they don't stay in my mind, but they're in my notebooks — I could make an entire notebook out of material that didn't work. But I don't think that it wasn't funny, I just think that they didn't agree with me. If I think it's funny then I write it down. Some of it I'm not sure, but most of it I think is funny. But it's not up to me. The audience, they're editing the show.
What's your writing process like? Do you always have a notebook with you, and write things as they come, or do you sit down at certain times of the day to work on material?
No, I don't usually have a notebook with me, and I don't sit down to do it on purpose. Just, things will come into my head, and I'll either remember them until I get home, or I'll find a piece of paper or something and write on there, and write it in my notebook when I get home. It's just reacting. All comedians, we're just looking at the world noticing things. That's where the material's from.
How much of the year are you on still on tour? Do you ever see that tapering off?
I go on and off, I go out and do some shows for a week or so, and then I come home, and then I go do it for a few weeks and then go out and do it again, and sometimes I don't do it for a month. But I like doing it, I like the writing and I like being in front of an audience, so I guess I'll keep doing it as long I keep liking doing it.
"All comedians, we're just looking at the world noticing things. That's where the material's from."
You've talked in the past about preferring to perform live, and not cultivate an online presence, even as it seems like every comedian these days has a podcast or some sort of web video project. Do you think you'll ever go in for that?
I don't, really. Like I said, I like writing and performing live. I imagine I'll do some stuff on the internet at some point, but it's not in the main part of my mind. I'm not thinking "Oh I gotta share more stuff, I gotta get more of my stuff out in the world!" I just don't feel like that.
I've shared so much stuff over the years, I like how I do it, I'm not dying to reach more people. There's nothing like being in front of a live audience.
Do you ever feel a temptation to write more personal anecdotes into your act?
It's kind of a combination- I'm really into abstract, surreal thinking. That's just what interests me the most, what I find the most amusing creatively for myself. And I have an automatic, built-in thing of not talking about myself too personally. I don't even know why. That's just how I am, it's like a line I won't cross. I'm just kind of a private person I guess.
You started comedy when you were 23. Was it a childhood dream, or something you did at first as whim?
No, I watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, starting when I was 14 or 15. I loved him and I loved the comedians he had on, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Robert Klein. And I was watching it year after year and I thought, "That's what I'd really like to do, is be one of those guys." I was just fascinated; some guy would just come out and say stuff he made up about the world and it was funny.
So I got that in my head when I was about 15 years old, and when I got to college there was a comedy club that had opened up in Boston, and I went down there to see if I could do this thing that had been in my head for so long.
Steven Wright (and 70+ other comics) will be performing at theMoontower Comedy and Oddity Festival April 25 - 28. Single performance tickets and festival passes are available now.