"I still haven't gotten a big head. I know I'm very lucky with my career."
– Steven Wright
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Steven.
Steven Wright: Hey, how's it going?
GM: Good. So we meet again. Our third talk, Steven.
GM: Yeah. You got anything new to tell me?
SW: When was the last one?
GM: I think it was two years ago. And then eleven years before that.
SW: Where was I playing two years ago?
GM: Where were you? I don't know. I'd have to go back and look. I'm thinking it was 2013 but maybe it wasn't.
SW: How've you been?
GM: I've been good. Yeah, I'm in Vancouver. Do you not remember being in Vancouver two years ago?
SW: Uh, I remember being there but not exactly two years [ago]. I play so many places.
GM: Do you go out on the road constantly or is it every two years you go out?
SW: Every two years I go out and do one show and it's always in Vancouver.
GM: Yeah, because I read Vancouver is your favourite place to play! [I didn't really.]
SW: Yes, as a child, when I learned how to talk, the first thing I said to my family was I was very angry that we weren't living in Vancouver. I was two at the time.
GM: That is not true. I was talking to Robert Kelly recently and he said that in Boston they grew up learning to hate Canadians.
SW: Oh, no way. Really? Well, I don't know, I mean that's him. We didn't have that. My experience with Canada as a child was I grew up in Massachusetts and some people we knew had a house on Moosehead Lake in Maine, which is way, way in northern Maine, which is almost in Quebec. And we went into Quebec one day. We drove there. And we got these t-shirts that had a Canadian flag on it and it said Quebec. I was, like, ten. It was like we had gone to another land.
GM: Well, you did.
SW: (pause) (laughs)
GM: We are a different country. Moosehead Lake to me sounds Canadian but it's so north in the U.S. it's practically Canada, I guess.
SW: I don't know what you're saying. In that way of thinking, Amsterdam could be Canadian, if you want to round everything off. (laughs)
GM: Well, you know, Canada did liberate Holland in World War II so it is practically Canadian.
GM: Yeah, you didn't know that. You're not taught that in the U.S. schools, are you?
SW: Wow, listen to this. Right out of the gate you're comparing the United States to Canada. It's very interesting. See, I didn't know all what you're saying. When I was in college, one of my best friends was from Toronto, so that was my introduction to knowing something about Canada. From him.
GM: Right. Well, you can go look it up after. But Canada did have a big role in Holland in World War II. I know that. I know the broad strokes.
SW: So I throw out what to me is an abstract fact and you're saying it's true.
GM: (laughs) Yeah, that's right!
SW: That's hilarious. What are the chances?! (laughs)
GM: And you clearly love Canada so much you went on to play a Mountie in a movie.
SW: Yes. And I've done two specials in Canada. I just did another interview with someone for a show in the Philadelphia area and she was asking me, "Do the audiences in Philadelphia react any different?" I said no, it's not different; it's the same in the entire United States. It's the same. I don't notice any difference. I know there are differences – cultural differences – but the television has made the United States into one little town. And I'm just talking about everyday stuff. Everyone knows about lint in Seattle and Miami, and that's what I'm talking about – lint. My next show is 85 minutes on lint, by the way. But I said I do notice differences in countries, and one of the examples I gave was that the Canadian audiences laugh a little bit more. And I noticed that a long time ago, when I first started playing there, and I don't know why. But I've done two specials in Canada. I did my last one in 2007 in Canada because of that reason.
GM: And these were on American networks?
SW: Yeah, one was on HBO and one was on Comedy Central – the last one I did. They were both done in Toronto.
GM: So they ask you, "Where would you like to film?" and you say, "Canada, somewhere, find me a place"?
SW: No, I don't say find me a place but I suggest the city.
GM: It's funny because you only ever play Vancouver and yet you chose Toronto.
SW: (laughs) I play all across Canada.
GM: I know, I know.
SW: Uh, wait a minute, did any other comedian ever say that to you, that they laugh more?
GM: No, because that question – how are Canadian audiences different? – I've asked it before but it's kind of a lazy way to get people to start talking. Because I always figure that people are people. It all depends on the individuals that show up on any given night, how they're going to react. But I don't remember anyone saying that Canadians laugh harder. I've heard, and I always assume that the comics are just saying nice things because they're talking to a Canadian journalist, that Canadian audiences are so much smarter. But I don't buy that, either.
SW: I don't know if they're smarter. I just know that they laugh more.
GM: Well, they can throw out references about Holland.
GM: So they're a little smarter. Hey, I know your story about how you got on The Tonight Show in the early days, but what I don't know is how that affected you and those around you when you went back to Boston because you couldn't have been the same guy. Or you were the same guy but maybe others perceived you as different. Did you get a big head or did people assume that you did? Do you remember any of that?
SW: I still haven't gotten a big head. I know I'm very lucky with my career and I know I was lucky to go on there. I'm lucky that I think this way and that they wanted me to go on there. They treated me the same when I went back. I didn't know until years later that people thought, like, why is he on?... No, I shouldn't... I didn't notice anything different. I didn't act different. I still don't act different. And they didn't act different to me but I think it caused kind of a little confusion of like, okay, who's next now? He went on there so who's next? I think there was that thinking.
GM: But people didn't try to get closer to you because maybe then you could recommend them?
SW: No, because when the guy from The Tonight Show saw me, he saw many comedians that night from Boston. That's how it happened: a producer from The Tonight Show, Peter Lassally – you know the story about the Chinese restaurant/comedy club. Do you know that?
SW: Well, he went to that club because he read about it in the L.A. Times. So he saw many people.
GM: Did you know he was there before you went on?
SW: Oh yeah, oh yeah. We all knew. It would be three comedians in one night but he since he was going to be there, they had everyone do shorter times so there could be more guys on. There must have been around seven, I think.
GM: Do you remember who else was on?
SW: Um, I think Lenny Clarke was on. I don't remember, really.
GM: Going into it, did you think, "Here's my chance! I might get on this show that I've watched my whole life." Or did you think, "There's no way he's going to pick me"?
SW: I thought maybe. Maybe he'll pick me.
"I was extremely taken by Johnny's 5-minute monologue and then I was taken by these guys who came out and said all this stuff that they made up about life in five minutes. It grabbed me. Like it grabbed me around my throat and I thought as I kept watching it, 'That's what I would like to do – be one of those guys.' That was my passion, my dream."
– Steven Wright
GM: Right after did you think you had killed? Did you feel good about it?
SW: No, I thought I did pretty good but I didn't think what you just said. I thought I did pretty good but I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't talk to him after. I didn't go up to him. And then when I didn't hear from The Tonight Show for a couple of weeks, I thought, well, that didn't happen. At least this time it didn't happen. And then the phone rang and it was a talent coordinator from The Tonight Show but I had already dismissed it from my mind because when the phone rang, it was about two weeks later. During those two weeks I thought it didn't happen that time. And then the phone rang.
GM: And changed your life. At that time, were you just a local comic, or had you travelled at all?
SW: No, I'd only done it in Boston, except my friend who was from Canada, Mike, he's from Toronto, I went with him back to Toronto on one of the holidays we had off from college... No, I was already out of college. But I went back with him to Canada just for no reason, like, to hang out. And there was a comedy club called Yuk Yuk's. You know that Yuk Yuk's.
GM: Yeah, there still is.
SW: Yeah, I know there's a lot of them now but this was the original one in Toronto. And I went there and I did the open mic, I think. That was the only time I played out of Boston.
GM: So then after your two appearances on The Tonight Show within a couple of weeks, you must have then been a touring comic. Did you just catapult right then?
SW: Uh, it took a couple of months. I went back to Massachusetts. That was in August. Then in August I got an agent and then I moved to Los Angeles in October. Then I started playing comedy clubs around the country from those Tonight Show appearances. And then two years later I moved to New York City for like five years. And then I moved back to Los Angeles for about eleven years.
GM: I know you talk about Carlin and other comics you saw on The Tonight Show being big influences. I watched all those Tonight Shows, too. I remember guys like Kelly Monteith--
SW: Oh yeah!
GM: Those guys that would come on all the time. Were you just fascinated with that?
SW: Yes, I wasn't casual about it. My older brother watched The Tonight Show. We had to watch it because everyone else was in bed and we'd be up on a Friday and we had to watch what he wanted because he was four years older than me. So that's how I started watching it. And I started loving Johnny Carson. Loving it. And then I started loving the comedians. I'd never seen standup. I had heard maybe in junior high Bill Cosby's comedy albums but I really never saw someone come out and do the five minutes. And I was extremely taken by Johnny's 5-minute monologue and then I was taken by these guys who came out and said all this stuff that they made up about life in five minutes. It grabbed me. Like it grabbed me around my throat and I thought as I kept watching it, "That's what I would like to do – be one of those guys." That was my passion, my dream. Like if a kid wants to be a football player or something; that was my thing. I just thought it was incredible.
GM: Were they generic to you or did any stand out?
SW: I had my favourite people. I haven't thought of Kelly Monteith in years but you're right, he was one of those guys. David Brenner, Freddie Prinz – I remember his first appearance; it was like in December of '76. But also what happened during that same time, I was a Boston Bruins fan during that time in the early '70s and even late '70s and I would listen to the games on the radio I had in my bed. And then one time I was flipping through the dial and I stumbled on this show. A guy played two comedy albums. Every Sunday night he'd play two whole albums on the radio. He'd play a cut from one and a cut from the other one, back and forth. It was on Sunday nights. And it was right when I was taken by the standups on The Tonight Show so every Sunday night I would tune in on purpose. This guy had a giant collection. Remember David Frye, that impressionist?
SW: I mean this guy, he had 2001 – you know, the Mel Brooks album [The 2000-Year-Old Man] – just tons. And every week I tuned in and that's where I first heard Woody Allen's albums. You know that double album he had before he did movies.
GM: I loved it.
SW: Amazing, amazing. So I'm laying in bed, and I didn't know it [but] I was studying it really without knowing it. I just loved it so much. So I'm laying in bed listening every week and I'm thinking, "You know, I like what that guy's doing... No, I don't really like... That's alright... Oh, that's interesting." But what grabbed me was Woody Allen's album, how he wrote the jokes. Within the stories there were jokes. So I'm listening to it every week for a couple of years, I think. And I wasn't thinking I need to learn how to do this, "Oh, how can I learn from this radio show?" I wasn't even thinking that. I just loved it. But thinking back years later when I thought back to that radio show, I realized I was studying it without knowing it.
GM: I can see the influence with Woody Allen. His bit about shooting the moose is surreal, too, within a realistic story, and that's similar to what you do, isn't it?
SW: Yeah. Yes, it is. So him and George Carlin. Because George Carlin would talk about everyday things. I do a different thing than he does. ... As I'm saying this to you, I'm realizing how you can, just from loving something and being passionate about it, how it can affect you so much. Just from a great interest in something.
GM: Affect you in the sense that you can go on to do that professionally or just affect you in a gut way?
SW: I meant professionally and your life. I'm not even talking just about me. I am referring to my own experience but it happens all over the world all the time. I just boiled it down to because of your love of something could affect your whole life. Not with just me; I mean with anyone. Like a baseball player. A guy wants to be a pitcher. And then he's in the World Series. It's like amazing. He didn't get into the World Series because he was casual about pitching in high school. "You wanna pitch?" "I guess so. Bill's not here? Yeah, I'll pitch." It's someone who's like, "Let's go! I wanna pitch!"
GM: I'm thinking of Kliph Nesteroff. Do you know him?
GM: He has a book out now called The Comedians. Big thick book on the history of American comedy. He's a young Canadian guy from Vancouver who used to live around the corner from me, and he was just the biggest collector. He just loved comedy and it eventually turned into this big book deal in the United States. And it came from a love of comedy and just soaking it up, buying all the old records, reading everything on comedy. And now he's the expert.
SW: Yes, that's a perfect example. Definitely. What's the name of the book?
GM: It's called The Comedians. It's in its third printing and it just came out a few months ago.
SW: Wow. What's his name again?
GM: Kliph Nesteroff. It's called The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. Anyway, you're kind of a surreal philosopher, too. Is philosophy an interest of yours? Do you read about it?
SW: No, I don't read about it. I think it's just a built-in thing in my head. I don't know how it got in my head. I mean, comedy is noticing. Comedy is noticing things. All the jokes are from just noticing. And I think those philosophical things are from noticing the world. Like a heightened noticing part of my mind, which I think started when I would draw. Maybe I've said this to you, I've said it so many times: I would draw and paint starting in, like, elementary school all the way through into college. I still paint now but I paint very abstract now. But my idea of art was to draw as realistically as possible. And I did that way, way before I ever wrote anything. When you try to draw something real, you notice things about it that you wouldn't notice if you weren't drawing it. Like if there was a bottle on the table and a glass, you would notice the bottle, you would notice the glass, but you would notice the shape between the bottle and the glass. That's something in itself, too. That shape will help you make the drawing look real – by noticing that shape. And on the other side of the bottle, there's another shape and on the other side of the glass there's another shape. And I think that exercised my mind of noticing things in general. And then years later when I wrote, that had an influence, I think, of just noticing stuff.
GM: And probably being a quieter guy, too, in social situations you might observe more than participate.
SW: Yes, definitely. That's probably an influence, too. Yes, you're standing there and you're digesting and noticing everything; you're not really participating in the group. I mean, I participate with my couple of friends. But yes, watching. The wallflower guy watching.
GM: Do you read other stuff? Are you a reader?
SW: Yeah. I read Charles Bukowski. I read all his stuff and then I read it again. I'm reading a book about Red Cloud, the Lakota Indian chief who organized all the Lakota Indians to fight the U.S. government. I never even heard of him and I saw this book and I loved it. It's unbelievable. I love to read because I love the words. I just love it. And accidentally it affects the writing gear because to me it's like our gears are in your head like a watch that has gears. I think it helps you write even though I don't read for that reason. Like you might see a word. I wrote a couple of words down yesterday that were in that book. They were just the beginnings of sentences. It was the first word in like three different sentences and I thought, I would never really use those words, maybe I can do something with those words. I didn't even take what the sentence was. It had nothing to do with what the guy wrote; it's just that those words jumped out at me. You write. Aren't you fascinated by words? There's like another planet. It's such an interesting game to assemble them. Not a game, a fun thing to assemble them in the correct way. To me there's only one way.
GM: In journalism it's different because you often don't have the time to find that one way if you're on deadline. But yeah, reading is another example of what you were saying before. I wouldn't read to study reading, but it would just seep into my brain and you find out what you like and what you don't like and that influences you somehow.
GM: I know you're a musician, too. Do you listen to music as you paint?
SW: Yes, I listen to music. I did a painting a month ago. It was the first painting I've done in three years. That one had no music. But yes, I would put the music on. The paintings are done in like 25, 20 minutes. I would go by how the music is making me feel. Painting is amazing because it's totally abstract. There's not demand for it to make any sense. And the jokes have to make complete sense. I'm not complaining; I'm just saying it has to be logical no matter how crazy it is. You just can't say, "A hundred sparrows robbed a bank." You need more than that. And then the music is like in between with the melody and the chord changes and everything. That has to follow a pattern but then the lyrics can go in and out of reality. So it's interesting to do all three of them because they have different rules and they're all fun in their own way. Do you play music?
GM: I do, just for myself.
SW: Yeah, isn't it fun?
GM: It's the best. And I'm trying to tell my kid that he'll like the piano some day. But it's not today.
SW: So you play piano?
GM: Yeah. And a couple weeks ago I went back to my high school. They had an alumni band. I was in the concert band. So I dug out my trumpet after years and years.
SW: And you played at the reunion?
GM: I played second trumpet. I didn't have to play the hard part. But I practiced for four days before.
SW: Great! How was that experience?
GM: It was amazing. It's like I had just done it yesterday.
SW: Wow. And was it your class reunion?
GM: It was a ceremony for our old band teacher. So anyone who played in the band during the years he taught could come back and play.
SW: Great, great.
GM: What kind of music do you listen to?
SW: Mainly like Lucinda Williams or old music. I don't know, like Bob Dylan. You know Pandora Radio, I'll just put what I like and you know how they play that type of stuff. It's incredible.
GM: Your comedy is timeless and the kind of music I like isn't of a particular era. It might be but it stands the test of time. Whereas you listen to some pop music from a given decade and it sounds exactly like that era. Like some political comics may be great and fun and you like them, but you listen to them ten years later and you don't get half the references. Yours is timeless in that way.
SW: Yes, I did that right from the beginning. I thought I don't want anything to be attached to time. I didn't want to talk about the president or something. I wanted to be able to do the joke two years later. Everything I talk about is not connected to time. I'll say 'tape': "I put the cassette tape in the car." I still say that even though people don't have cassette tapes. Sometimes I rebel against time. I'll say fucking cassette tapes because I want it to be cassette tapes! (laughs) Imagine if I was walking through the mall saying that out loud? No one even with me: "I'll say cassette tapes! I will not be trapped by time." "Sir, can you please leave the mall."
GM: (laughs) Norm Macdonald was telling me he doesn't like political comedy and he considers "important comedy" is the comedy of guys like you and Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld who talk about everyday little things because those are the things we do every day; that is life.
SW: Mm, mm, mm. Yes, and like all these little things almost have more of an impact on you than the big things. You're dealing with them every day, over and over. That's interesting. I love him. I think he's fantastic. I loved his last appearance on Letterman. I think he was the last comedian. That was incredible that set he did about the Germans and stuff.
GM: So funny. I wish he didn't get emotional but that's okay. And I love that Letterman didn't.
SW: (laughs) Yeah, that was funny.
GM: Oh, by the way, did you know that Charles Bukowski spent time in Vancouver?
SW: Are you serious?
GM: Yeah. I thought you'd know that having read him.
SW: No, I did not know that. I don't even remember Vancouver ever being mentioned in one of his books.
GM: He wrote about it in the book called Women.
SW: Oh, really? I read that book a couple of times.
GM: I guess you need to re-read it.
SW: Good thing you're not the teacher and I'm taking the test.
GM: You've been doing standup 37 years now, is that about right?
SW: Yeah, phew!
GM: Does it get old?
SW: No, it doesn't because I love to think and I love to write. And being in front of the audience is an intense thing. It never gets old. I feel lucky. It's like fooling around. Writing is like fooling around. It's just fooling around. It's kidding. Everyone likes to kid around. And I like to go in front of the crowd. I've never gotten bored with it. It's just too of a heightened situation in front of the audience, you know?
GM: I know you put your act all in order so you have to memorize it. What does that look like? Are you in front of a mirror? Are you walking through the mall muttering it? What are you doing to memorize your act?
SW: Oh, no, I'm just looking at the notebook. From my history of drawing, even when I started writing I would be drawing notebooks. I don't like the lines on the pages. To me, paper with lines – they ruined it. The factory ruined it! (laughs) It's used paper even right out of the factory. So I write on blank drawing books, sketch books. So it's just rows of words. One word will represent the whole joke or two jokes. So it's just columns.
GM: Carlin put out a lot of books. What about you?
SW: I didn't. (laughs)
GM: I know you didn't! You should. All those jokes that didn't work after three times that you thought were funny and you threw out, that could be a whole book and people would love it.
SW: That could be. Maybe I should do that some time ... Have we ever met?
GM: No. Uh, in one of those meet 'n' greets where you say hi and bye in a second. But other than that, no, we haven't.
SW: Well come back and say hello if you want.
GM: Okay. Will you speak to me?
SW: Of course! I invite writers back. If you go, really come back, if you go.
GM: What do you do when you're on the road?
SW: Sit in a dark room and just think about third grade.
GM: (laughs) That was a good year, was it?
SW: Not really. I still can't figure that year out. (laughs) You don't really get a lot of time. You get into the city, you get to the hotel, you hang out and rest up, you do the show, back to the hotel, off again the next day.
GM: Well thanks for talking.
SW: It was fun talking to you. Really, that was a lot of fun. Please, if you go, come and say hello, really.