The mystery comic.
Like many great comedians, Steven Wright’s voice is instantly recognizable. Answering the telephone from a friend’s home in Rhode Island, the famously deadpan stand-up comic with the kinky tufts of brown hair sounds like Eeyore’s wisecracking older brother or a sloth that’s roused from a nap to discover the power of speech.
His is a low-slung patois, slouching somewhere between meditative and melancholy, and flecked with nasally hints of his native Massachusetts, where he still calls home.
All of which is to say the man just sounds hilarious, whether he’s exploding into fake road rage to explain the last thing that pissed him off, or responding to a reporter’s curiosity about his high school days with a perfectly timed, “Why?”
Yet, just because we know Wright’s voice doesn’t mean we know the man.
A master of quizzical one-liners and the voice of DJ K-Billy in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Wright, unlike other comedians, isn’t one to talk about himself on stage.
It’s a revelation the comedian came to not so long ago himself.
“I’m laughing because that’s true. And I didn’t even notice it for years and years,” he says. “I was talking to someone a few weeks ago and I was saying, ‘The audience doesn’t even know me. They might know that I like the Red Sox and that I’m from Massachusetts, but they don’t know anything about me, really.’
“It’s like a wall between me and the audience, but I didn’t build it on purpose.”
On Thursday, Wright brought that wall—and his sharply honed absurdism—to the Mondavi Center in Davis. On Sunday, he’ll attend the Emmys ceremony in Los Angeles, where he shares a nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series for his work as a consulting producer on FX’s Louie.
Before that happens, the avid biker, reader and guitar-noodler dropped the act to discuss his life, career and how he found that inimitable voice—both figuratively and literally.
Wright led a pretty typical childhood.
He grew up 40 miles outside of Boston in Burlington, Massachusetts, in a working class family with two brothers and a sister. “It was pretty normal, really. I didn’t really even know all that was in my head, so it wasn’t like I was in school going, ‘I have to get this out. No one understands me. I’m such a freak,’” he says, chuckling. “I was a completely normal haircut, normal shoes, no drugs, not in trouble, very Opie. But somewhere in my brain was a little insane asylum percolating.”
His dad was a rocket scientist and a truck driver.
Wright’s father worked as an engineer for a company that tested equipment for the Apollo space program and, later, as a truck driver. “It was like two separate worlds,” he says of the disparate professions. “One time he brought us down to his work on a Saturday, and they had a camera that was going to go up on the Apollo. It was huge. It was like half the size of a refrigerator. It was all wrapped in plastic. It was just so weird to see it there in our town, and then it went around the moon.” Wright pauses, then laughs. “I’m laughing because it’s part of my history, but as I was saying the sentences to you, it just seemed so extremely surreal and it made me laugh. Because I was hearing it be said, to you.”
Johnny Carson showed him the way.
Wright didn’t even consider the possibility of going into comedy until he watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as a 15-year-old. “I loved watching him, and I loved the comedians that he had on there,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this guy comes out, and he says all these things that he made up and it’s hilarious. Look at this, it’s unbelievable what these people are doing.’” Wright’s stand-up education also benefited from a Sunday night radio program that played entire comedy albums. Without realizing it, he says he began deconstructing the material, and trying to figure out why it was funny. His two biggest influences were George Carlin and Woody Allen, but the dream for any comic was to appear on Carson. In 1982, Wright got his shot. “I went on when I was 26. Johnny Carson affected my life twice—from watching the show, it made me even want to be a comedian … and then when I went on the show, my whole life changed. So he changed my life twice.”
Wright tells more punch lines per capita than your average comic.
Fascinated by words, inspired by surrealist art and informed by the rat-a-tat-tat joke structure of Allen’s early stand-up days, Wright has brewed up a performance style that is very much his own. “Even in school, in junior high, I remember being fascinated by words and putting together things word-wise that never existed. I remember sitting with my friend saying—this isn’t really a joke, but just a weird thing—imagine a flock of false teeth,” he recalls. “Right from the beginning, they [the jokes] were like that. Right from the beginning. It wasn’t like someone took me into a room and threatened me, I have to do these one-liners.”
He doesn’t know when Louie is returning for a fifth season either.
Louis C.K. invited Wright to work on his critically-lauded FX series shortly before production began on season four. Wright, who won an Oscar in the Best Short Film category in 1989, says his role as consulting producer is to offers opinions on three things: the script, the shoot and edited segments. “It’s very casual. We were friends for a couple years before he asked me to go on there,” Wright says of C.K., who also grew up in Massachusetts. “He’s brilliant, he’s absolutely brilliant, but yes, I give him truthful opinions on all of it.” C.K. recently announced he would be taking an indefinite hiatus from making the program, and Wright says he has no idea when it might return. “He’s just not doing it now. I know as much as anyone,” he says.
Wright lives for his fans. Literally.
“I’m weirder than them, generally. I mean as a general person. It’s not like I have a fan base of freak people. They’re all very nice people,” he says. “It’s great to get a compliment from a total stranger in a store or something. It’s delayed my suicide many times.”