Steven Wright on the Craft of Comedy
"My thing is to get the joke across in as few words as possible." Standup comedy legend Steven Wright talks about his stage persona, Twitter, and the art of the joke.
In our teenage years, among my small group of comedy-obsessed friends, the high school cafeteria was a kind of rolling open-mic venue. Each day we'd come in and try out material. The tricky part was, being 15 and all, we didn't really have any material. So we did the next best thing and recited the jokes, monologues and bits of our favorite comedians.
The rotation was spectacular, really: Eddie Murphy jokes stolen from our older sibling's record collections. Steve Martin jokes stolen from our parents' record collections. Even Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner routines, like The 2000 Year Old Man, stolen from our grandparents record collections. Or acetate discs. Whatever.
My particular specialty was the comedy of Steven Wright, whose absurdist and conceptual humor appealed to my lateral-thinking ninth grade mind. I memorized entire sections of Wright's debut album, I Have A Pony, and recited them in Wright's trademark deadpan voice.
So it was a genuine thrill for me when I recently got the chance to interview Wright before his appearance headlining the North Carolina Comedy Festival. I'd recently listened to Wright's appearance on comic Marc Maron's WTF podcast and was amazed at how relaxed and funny he was. Because of his stage persona, I realized I'd never heard the guy laugh.
Speaking by phone from the road, doing standup in California, Wright was indeed funny and relaxed. I confessed to him right off the bat that I'd been stealing his bits since 1986. We laughed a lot and ended up talking about the craft of comedy for about half an hour. In the spirit of reciting Wright verbatim, following are some excerpts from the transcription of our conversation.
On emulating older comics and loving comedy as a kid…
"For me, it was really all the comics on The Tonight Show. I guess I was studying it, and I didn't even know it. I just loved it so much. At that age, you're making little conclusions and stuff in your head. But it's not like you had an assignment to do it. It's just from your interest.
A guy came on Johnny Carson – he's on for five minutes talking about all this shit he made up about the world. And then he left and went and sat down with Johnny. I thought, 'Look at this unbelievable thing these people are doing.'
George Carlin's album, Class Clown, came out when I was in high school. I memorized a lot of that album. I'd come home from school, put it on, and listen over and over. I started memorizing it. I don't even know why. I loved it so much I memorized it.
Then a few years later when I was at Emerson College in Boston, I had this communications class. Part of the class was public speaking. Everyone had to go up and speak for five minutes as part of this class. And I went up and I did a couple routines off his album, since I'd memorized it anyway. I'd say it was George Carlin. I didn't try to pass it off. I remember the guy that went after me read from the Bible.
On his stage persona…
"When I didn't laugh onstage, which is part of my trademark or whatever, I didn't decide not to laugh. I mean, I laugh my ass off with my friends and stuff. I was so afraid. I was so frightened being on stage. I was scared out of my mind. I was just trying to say the joke the right way, and in the right order. Concentrating fiercely. And that's why I had such a straight face. It was like there was a guy in the wings with a rifle pointed at my head and he's like, 'You better get that right.'
About eight months after I started doing standup in Boston there was an article about me in the paper, and I read the article and it said I delivered in a monotone. And I'm reading it going, 'Monotone? Do I talk in a monotone?' It wasn't until people from the outside started to break it down and describe it that I even thought about any of that. So I'm lucky. This is how I think. This is how I talk. I'm lucky that the fabric of it wove all together.
I mean, just talking to you now might sound like I do onstage. Maybe there's a little more enthusiasm. But this is just how I talk. I was really just concerned with the delivery. I wasn't relaxed enough to just have fun. It was so intense. It still is very intense, though now there's a fun element to it. Now I laugh a little onstage."
On the process of crafting a joke…
"It's very interesting, the joke comes first and then the wording comes within five seconds, maybe ten seconds. My thing is to get the joke across in as few words as possible. However, sometimes a word that's not really needed does help the rhythm of it. It's a gut feeling.
It's not like I come up with a joke then I spend an hour writing it or testing it onstage. I mean, I test it onstage but by then it's already written and if it doesn't work, its not because I didn't write it the right way. The joke comes, then the wording comes pretty fast.
In fact, when I write a text – just writing a text to my friends. Even if it's not a funny text, I'll make the sentence the right way. I just love writing. I love it."
On Twitter as a modern comedy vector…
"Well, I have a little story about that. A long time ago, I wrote a story for Rolling Stone magazine, it was about how the beach was invented. I read it every few years because I like it. About a year ago, I was gonna go on Twitter, and I thought, Why don't I write a story on Twitter? When I got on there I started writing about a boy named Harry who was in elementary school. And it was two sentences at a time. Then nothing until the next day, or two days later.
But again, it wasn't a calculated thing. It wasn't like, 'It's Twitter, everyone's writing little things, I'll write a story.' It was because I read that long beach story and I wanted to write another long story, and I thought, 'I'll do it on this.'
And people were leaving me messages, it was hilarious. 'What are you doing? Someone needs to tell him what thing is for! He's the one-liner guy, this is perfect for him. What is happening? Doesn't he know this is supposed to be little tiny things?'
All these messages from people thinking I'm an idiot and I don't know how it works. Questioning it. And then other people going, 'I can't believe it. He's writing a novel on Twitter. This is amazing. This is fantastic. He's known for one liners and now he's on here writing a novel. This is great.' So I'm gonna go back on it and continue the story."
On delivering jokes onstage...
"Now I'm not frightened like at the beginning. But I'm still doing a serious task. Like, if they were going to build a 50 foot Mickey Mouse statue at Disneyland, and he's slipping on a banana peel. The guys constructing that – pouring the cement, putting the forms up, trucks all over the place – they're not laughing at Mickey, that's he's going to fall. They're trying to build the thing in the correct way.
And that's what it's like with my jokes. Even now, I know what I'm saying is crazy and funny, but I'm like those guys trying to build that thing. They're not laughing at Mickey. They're like, 'Where's that truck? It's supposed to be here by ten!'