Legendary standup Steven Wright’s career has spanned over 30 years. He first performed in 1979, debuting on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1982, and having since then forged a prolific career out of his unique brand of deadpan observational humor and creative one-liners. Throughout his stint as a standup, Wright has toured consistently, starred in several specials, lent his talents for acting and voiceover work to projects as disparate as Mad About You, Half Baked, Reservoir Dogs, and Dr. Katz, to name a few, and won an Academy Award for his 1998 short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings. Most recently, Wright served as a consulting producer on the fourth season of Louie, lending his creative mind to episodes like the “Elevator” series and “Model.” Earlier this month, I got to speak with Wright, who told me about his career, what it’s like working with Louis C.K., and how standup is like pushups for your brain.
You’ve been performing standup for over 30 years, how old were you when you started?
Did you start at home in Massachusetts?
Yeah, summer of 1979. I started in a club in Boston called The Comedy Connection.
How have you noticed your act change over the course of your career?
Well, in the beginning I used to connect jokes into little stories. I did that for a while. That was before I went on TV. When I went on TV, I just did them as one-liners, disjointed things, and I did that for many years. And then I went back to acting a lot, and so stories and one-liner things. Other than that, it hasn’t changed. It’s the same perspective on the world.
So have the small changes been mostly natural or intentional changes?
Very good question. I never made anything I did as a decision. Everything I did was a natural thing. The type of joke, the way I speak, the way I am being onstage — everything I did was just, “Oh, I feel like I should do this now,” not like, “How will this be received?”
How have you noticed the standup scene change around you? Or do you pay attention much to that?
I started watching [standup] when I was about 15 years old, and then I became obsessed with it – listening to albums, watching it on TV, watching it on the Johnny Carson show. That’s why I wanted to get into standup, from watching the Johnny Carson show. Then I started doing it myself and was immersed in it for many many years. I never stopped writing it and I never stopped performing it, but I kind of drifted away from watching it, probably 15 years ago. So I only see people who break through, like Louis C.K., and Chris Rock. I used to see people in the clubs all the time. I was in the clubs, I’d watch them on TV. So to answer your question, I can’t answer your question. I don’t know how it’s changed. And you know what? I think even if I watched it straight through, I don’t even think I’d see that there was a change. Comedy is people commenting on society, really, and that never stops. That’s the whole – where it all comes from. No matter what style, you’re fragmenting the world and assembling it and commenting on it, reassembling it I mean.
Since you haven’t paid attention too much to the standup scene recently and since you said everything comes natural, have you ever felt a need to change in accordance to the rest of the standup scene?
No, never. It’s always been my imagination – I think of something funny and then I think it’s funny enough to try out on an audience. It’s all just, “Is this funny or not?” There’s no other outside reviewing or seeing it from another side. It’s very simplistic. The comedy’s not simplistic, but doing the procedure of it.
When you’re writing for film and TV, is the creative process for coming up with the jokes kind of the same as standup or is it very different?
Well, I’ve never really written a joke for TV or anything, really.
Just when you work on short films, or something.
Oh, it’s different because standup, obviously they can see you and everything, and seeing you is part of the whole thing, but it’s basically obviously just the words, the sentences. In a film thing, you have so much other stuff happening that you have a wider canvas to paint on. The words are important but also the picture, the other actors, the music, the pacing, all those other things come into it. I find I like all of them, but film is more complicated. It has all the elements of all art. It’s the only medium that has all art in one thing: picture, sound, music. It’s like a little art school all in one project. So it’s different in that sense. Something can be just seen, and it’ll maybe be funny. And it doesn’t have to be as funny constantly. Standup has to be constantly funny. I’m not complaining, I’m just describing it. You don’t all of the sudden show a slide of a beautiful field. Or maybe you could, but then that’s how it’s different.
Has doing standup helped you get better at writing for film?
Standup is very dangerous. You learn you don’t want to bore the audience at all, so everything is very tight and everything keeps moving. There’s no extra bullshit, there’s no extra talking. It’s like, “Get right to the point.” So in that sense it would help your sense of keeping the audience interested with film too. It’s almost like you’re training to not have any meaningless information. You’re trained from doing standup, so that will transfer over to film and that might help the film too.
Do you think you’ve learned, outside of art, just life lessons from performing standup?
Maybe. It’s interesting because standup comedy comes from noticing things more than a regular person would notice. All art — painting, everything — you notice subtle things. I started drawing and painting years before I ever did standup. With that, you’re already noticing things for drawing and painting, and then noticing things for the comedy. So, doing comedy almost exercises your noticing abilities. You might notice life in general in a more detailed way than if you weren’t doing that. It’s almost like you did pushups for your brain for noticing things in life. You notice more than if you weren’t doing this.
How did you get involved as consulting producer on Louie this season?
I got to know him a couple of years ago. I used to live in Manhattan a long time ago, but I would never live there again. It’s too much madness, but I like going there for, like, three days. I wanted to go there for a month, two springs in a row because I wanted to get a fix of it, but didn’t want to live there. I became friends with Louie during those two times living there, just completely out of the blue, and then last year he just asked me if I wanted to be involved in the show. We never talked about it — totally, completely, out-of-the-blue thing.
I loved his standup, I loved what I had seen him already do, his shows, and I had seen some of the other seasons. I respect him tremendously. I think he’s just absolutely brilliant. He’s unbelievable. So when he asked me, I was kind of stunned. Like I said, there was no lead up to it. Then I thought, well, I have total respect and admiration for his mind, so I said, “Yes, absolutely.” What a great experience I got to be involved in. It’s great. I love the show, I love what he does with it. He can do so many things really excellent, like if he just did one of them, he could have a great career of one of each thing. Like if he did standup or if he acted or if he was an editor or director — all of those things he does amazingly. That this one guy does all of them is really outstanding. It’s mindblowing.
What do you do exactly as consulting producer for the show?
I’m like a sounding board for the stories. We’ll talk about the episode and different things that could happen in there. He bounces ideas off of me, like what could happen during different episodes, and I give him my opinion. I’ll go to the set when they’re shooting. I’ll watch it and give him my opinion on whatever was happening and how it went, whether it was funny or not. Then I’ll go to editing and watch while he edits it and give him my opinion on changes and cuts and perversions and everything. It’s an amazing thing, talking about how something works, whether it’s funny or not, if the pace is good. It’s just a great experience cause I really admire his mind. So, to be back and forth with him is just great. And it’s fun, because he’s funny. Obviously, he’s a brilliant comedian, but he’s funny hanging out with him, too. We laugh our asses off.
I’m really blown away by his comedy mind — one of the best comedy minds ever, I think. Everything he does, there’s nobody who does all those things. I mean, Woody Allen is one of my heroes and he’s one of Louie’s heroes. Woody Allen is in a whole other dimension. He doesn’t even do all those things that Louie does. Not to take anything away from Woody Allen — he’s top of the heap as far as I’m concerned — but Louie is just incredible.
You’re going on tour later this month and then continuing through the fall, are you doing anything right now to prepare for that?
I go through all the stuff that I’ve written, and I’m selecting things that might be good enough to try. I try things out during these shows, so I’m going through and memorizing some stuff. That’s what I’m doing now.
So if you’re trying things out during the shows, do the sets change a lot over the course of the tour?
They don’t really change themselves, but if they’re not good enough, I’ll throw them away. The wording doesn’t really change, because when I make the joke up, the wording is right there — two seconds later, the exact wording comes. I don’t change the sentence. It either works or it doesn’t. And if it does work, then I might move it around in different places in the show to see where it will work the best.
Do you pay attention a lot to the joke order in your set? Because so much of them seem like non-sequiturs.
Yes, I do. When the audience sees it, it’s like I’m just changing the subject, changing the subject, changing the subject, but the order took a long time to figure out. It’s like a big puzzle. To me, it’s a play. It starts in the beginning and it goes all the way through to the end, and I know exactly where it’s going to go. I moved it around over time, just moved things around, because different jokes will be better in different spots. They can’t just be randomly assembled. Some of the jokes have a lot of words, some of them are quick quick quick, and some of them are stories with jokes connected, and there are some songs, and then it’s like when to play the songs. Where it is affects it a lot.
Yeah, it’s weird. People don’t think that, like there’s no reason for them to think that. It’s like music, if you go to see a band, they assembled that musical set in a way, they don’t just like [say], “Okay, let’s play these fifteen songs.” The way that they play them is very thought-out.
Outside of standup, acting, and writing, I know you do painting and music, is there anything else that you want to try still? That you haven’t done yet?
Yeah, I want to try and do a full-length movie. I’ve made a couple of short films. I’ve never done a 90-minute movie, and I’ve always had pieces of ideas of them and different parts and different ideas, and that’s the thing I haven’t done yet, that I want to do at some point.
Cool. I’d like to see that. Is there anything else that you want to talk about, Steven?
I’m just a really lucky person to have had a career from my imagination and from creating. I just feel very fortunate for that. A lot of people, they have to put that aside and have a regular job, and it just still astounds me that I get to play, really, and make stuff up in my head and write and say things, and it’s just an amazing thing to be able to do this.
The season finale of Louie airs on FX tonight at 10pm. You can find Steven Wright’s tour dates here.
Jenny Nelson is a writer located in Brooklyn.