It’s been nearly 30 years since Steven Wright brought his sui generis mix of monotone, deadpan and logically taut absuridist 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 Dmitri Martin. He'll be at the Orleans Showroom tomorrow and Saturday. (8 p.m., $38.50-$60.50)
Is there anything particularly striking about it being the 30th anniversary of your Tonight Show debut this year? Do the round numbers mean anything to you?
Yeah, no one’s broght that up, but it’s very powerful in my head. That was the best thing in my whole career, that first night. One of the best things in my whole life. I can’t believe it’s 30 years. When it got to be 10 years, I was like oh my God, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. I’d never had a job more than seven months or something. I was parking cars or painting. I never had an actual careerish job. It got to be 10 years and I was like oh my god. I didn’t really pay attention on 20 years. 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 for me.
I loved what you were doing on Twitter a year or so ago with the long-form story. 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. It’s so insane. It’s a long, long, long story about this thing. 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, just to see if I could write another long one. The other one was still in my head and I liked it. I liked the idea of it. I think that was the only time I ever did it. I kind of thought, this is kind of interesting, because it’s made for two sentences. 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. I read the story and I liked the story, let me see if I can write a long story on here. That’s as much thought as it was. 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.” The reactions were hilarious. People were like “What is he doing? I thought he would be perfect for this. This is perfect for him. What the hell? Someone has to tell him how this is supposed to work.” All negative, negative. Then the other guys were going “This is amazing. He’s writing a novel two sentences at a time.”
My favorite part was every one ended “TBC.”
That was just because I’d think of about two sentences, four. And I’d be like “That’s enough. I did my job today.” Well I did it for a while, and it was about Harold. The last thing I remember writing was he had an Asian teacher, then I got bored and forgot about it.
There are so many comics hustling other media now – books, TV, podcasts. Do you ever feel any pressure to keep up?
No. I like my life. I like my career. I’m very content. I’m not like hungry. Maybe I’ll get into that sometime.
Is it even possible for a comic starting today to carve out the kind of career you’ve had, that’s mostly live gigs, without having to engage in the rigmarole of engaging with an audience through social media?
Why are you calling rigmarole?
It seems like comics have to—
You’re saying it like that’s a hassle to have to do all those things. I think now you’d have to go there. That’s what they should do. It’s like when television was invented, that’s how big it is. Maybe even bigger. If I was a young guy, I’d be seeing what I could do on there. That’s the whole new planet.
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.” It never even entered my mind until years later it started popping up here and there.
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.