It’s been nearly 30 years since Steven Wright brought his sui generis mix of monotone, deadpan and logically taut absurdist one-liners to The Tonight Show. In the three decades since, the Boston comic developed into a titan in comedy whose influence far outstrips his recorded material and film and television appearances.
With only two albums (both nominated for Grammys), a few stand-up specials (the last coming in 2006) and about two dozen film credits (including his own Oscar-winning The Appointments of Dennis Jennings), Wright is in no danger of being overexposed. Yet for all that, he’s the benefactor of an entire style of comedy that gave us the likes of Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin.
Is there anything particularly striking about it being the 30th anniversary of your Tonight Show debut this year?
No one’s brought that up, but it’s very powerful in my head. That was the best thing in my whole career, that first night. I can’t believe it’s 30 years. I’d never had a job more than seven months or something. I was parking cars or painting. I never had an actual career-ish job. But it means something to me, definitely. I watched that show as a kid and my fantasy was to someday go on it, so when I did it was huge.
A year or so ago, you did a long-form story on Twitter. Was that a deliberate reaction to the medium? Did you feel like Twitter was pushing other comics into your territory?
No. I wrote a long story about the beach, how the beach was invented. I wrote that for Rolling Stone in the late ’80s. About five days before the Twitter thing was going to be activated, I read that story again, for no reason. A few days later when I knew I was going to be doing something on Twitter, I thought I should see if I could write another long story. But I didn’t really think about it like you just said. There was no thought like that. It was just I have to write something on this thing. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I’m going to fuck with the whole system. Oh look, this will be different. Everyone is doing one-liners, fuck them, I’m doing a story.”
Does the idea of legacy mean anything to you?
I never think about that. It’s weird, even that I influence people. I’m still thinking of something, writing it down and trying it out. When I was breaking through and going on TV, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, there’s probably a 10-year-old kid in Texas and 18 years from now, he’s going to be doing a version of this. That’ll be fascinating.”
Is there any kind of larger thematic resonance to your work? Is absurdism a way to get to a bigger point about anything?
(Laughs) I think unintentionally, it’s just showing the world has these rules. But it can’t all stay in the lines. There’s too much stuff to stay within the rules. The stuff spilling over the edge is comedy to me. The world is so chaotic, and it has to be so organized. You can’t just ride 100 mph through the woods. You’ve got to be on the highway. There are rules and they’re valid, and I’m not saying this like I’m complaining, but there’s too many things to stay within the rules. Comedy is just pointing out the errors, but I don’t even want to say that, because that’s just by accident.