In standup comedy circles, the saga of Steven Wright has become something of a fable, – a parable from another era.
On Aug. 6, 1982, the Boston-area comic got his big break. He was booked to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. In those days, an appearance on Carson could make or break a comedy career. If Johnny liked your set, you were instantly elevated to the top of the American comedy depth chart.
Wright seemed like the longest of long shots, really. His deadpan delivery cut against the grain of the go-go ‘80s comedy club boom. His style of surreal one-liners was like some narcotic riff on old-school vaudevillian comedy of the 1950s Borscht Belt.
Then the strangest thing happened. Wright delivered a five-minute set so strange, so singular, and so impossibly funny that Carson did something he had never done before. He invited Wright to return the following week for an encore set of sorts.
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The back-to-back appearances – along with the benediction from the king of late night – rocketed Wright to comedy superstar status. What had taken other comics decades to achieve, he managed in one crazy week.
“It was like being swept into a river,” he said.
Wright then spent the next few years making Grammy-nominated comedy records (1985’s “I Have a Pony”), touring incessantly, and even winning an Academy Award for his 1989 short film “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings.”
Wright has been performing comedy for almost 40 years now, and he still tours the theater circuit regularly. He is scheduled to perform Oct. 10, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. His appearance was postponed from Sept. 14 due to Hurricane Florence.
Speaking by phone from a tour stop in Pennsylvania, Wright talked to the N&O about his stage persona, his writing process, and his famous seashell collection. His speaking cadence is familiar – he really does talk that way – but he’s a much happier guy than you might expect.
Q: Your onstage persona is famously low-energy and almost morose. Are people still surprised to learn you’re not like that offstage?
A: You know, this is just how I talk. When I’m onstage, I’m completely focused. Even though I know what I’m saying is funny, I have to say it the right way, I have to remember the next joke. So in that way, I’m doing this serious thing and that just heightens the monotone voice. I don’t have time to get excited. I have to say the joke correctly.
But no, I’m not depressed at all. For one thing, my friends are hilarious. I’ll be watching a baseball and I’ll lose my mind if a guy hits a home run. You know, I ride a bike. That’s my exercise, every day. I used to downhill ski. People probably don’t imagine me speeding down a hill.
Q: And I imagine your delivery is specific to your one-liner style of comedy, too. You’re not up there telling stories, you’re delivering 200 individual jokes in sequence.
A: Yeah, totally. And I’ve learned that if I foul it up, if I pause wrong or stumble over a word, the joke doesn’t go as good, and sometimes it doesn’t even go at all. It’s so much about timing. If there’s a three-second gap and I don’t say the next joke, I can lose the whole thing.
It really is a lesson I realized early on: You better know what you’re gonna say and say it the right way. Even if I wasn’t doing one-liners, even if it more traditional, telling stories, I’d still have to say it in the exact right way. It’s just how my brain works. I’m lucky all of this just meshed, you know? I didn’t decide to talk like this or sound like this. The surreal jokes and the voice just worked together. It was all by accident.
Q: It’s like you found some mythical path of least resistance for a comedy career. It’s such a great showbiz story.
A: I just got lucky. This is how I talk, this is how I think, this is what I look like onstage. And it’s still like that for me: I gotta write stuff and then I gotta go onstage and I gotta say it.
Q: Has your onstage approach changed over the years? Is it easier than it was?
A: Well, I’m really used to being onstage now. Next year will be 40 years. But being onstage, it’s not normal. It’s not a normal place. Because everyone is watching you, it’s all heightened. Everything that goes good goes great and everything that goes wrong goes horrible. So that has changed over the years. I’m not as nervous. But I still feel the tension of it.
Q: Do you feel any regional differences in the crowds from place to place? Do shows in the South feel different?
A: No, not at all. I think the television has made the United States into one big town. I’ve noticed it’s different in different countries, though. Like, Canada laughs a little bit more. I don’t know why. I’ve done specials in Canada for that reason. And England, they love the surrealism. They had Monty Python, of course, so they have that sensibility.
Q: More than maybe any other comic, you have very specific one-liner jokes that people remember: That’s a Steven Wright joke. So I’d like to throw out a couple of your classics, and can you just talk about the origin of the joke, or any memories, or what it makes you think of?
Q: “I have the world’s largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world... perhaps you’ve seen it.” Do you remember the genesis of that particular joke?
A: Hmm, no I don’t. Not at all, now that I think about it. But I do remember this one thing. I was on a talk show – in Canada, actually – and I said the thing: “I have a seashell collection and I keep it scattered on beaches all over the world.” And that was the whole joke. Then he said, “I think I’ve seen it.” And that got a giant laugh. It makes the whole joke way, way better. I remember asking him after the show if I could take that and attach that. I got his permission.
Q: How about this one: “I was once walking through the forest alone. A tree fell right in front of me … and I didn’t hear it.”
A: Ah, no I just don’t remember, that was just from that old saying.
Q: There’s not even really a joke there, but it’s such a weird take. It’s like a little existentialist crisis.
A: Yeah, it’s a weird extension of an already weird thing. I remember talking about it with my friends, though, like really debating it. If no one is there, does it make a sound? I still don’t know.
Who: Steven Wright
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 10.
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Tickets: $37 and up. Those who bought tickets for the original Sept. 14 appearance can use the same tickets.
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org