Q&A: Steven Wright
Steven Wright has been the preeminent practitioner of deadpan, ironic humor, but he has other creative outlets, as he discussed with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen. He’ll share his off-the-wall observations at his upcoming July 5 show at Treasure Island.
I gave you a guitar slide after your last Treasure Island show to mess around with. Did you use it or lose it?
Yes, I remember. That was very thoughtful of you, thank you. You must play electric and acoustic.
I do, but I’ve been working more than playing during the last year.
I haven’t been playing either. It’s weird how it comes over you and you want to play every day, just not even trying to. You want to, even if it’s been a little while, then sometimes it drifts out. It drifted out for me.
Yeah, me too. It feels like it’s coming back, but I guess you just have to let it happen, like your next relationship. Slides give you something cheap to collect in the meantime.
I’m going to have to try it again. My whole life, if I try something and it’s really hard to do … if I can’t do it a little bit in the beginning I don’t have the discipline to work on it. Like golf. I played golf four times and it was so insanely hard I said, “I’m not doing this anymore.” I tried the slide and I was like, “I suck at this.” Talking to you makes me want to give it another shot.
When was the last time you painted? You have paintings up on your site, and you’re confident enough to display them online.
I did one painting last year, then the year before I did about three. I love the painting because comedy has to make sense. No matter how crazy the concept, it has to be logical. It has to make sense, or it won’t work. The abstract painting to me has no logic. It’s a very different way of making something up. It’s just emotion. You put this here and put this there. You couldn’t just go onstage and just say, “Salad … aircraft carriers … bank tellers …” And the music I’ve made before … Music is almost in between. To me, there’s a logic, a pattern to the chords and stuff, but the words don’t have to make total sense. So it’s in-between. There’s comedy, then there’s music, and then painting. You know how lyrics don’t have to be exact?
Yeah. Comedy is more like architecture than abstract painting.
Absolutely. I’m not complaining, I’m just describing.
Do you ever have ideas for comedy while painting or playing guitar, to where you have to stop to make sure that you get it down? Or do you just get in a completely different place?
Usually different … however occasionally I’ll think of a sentence that if I said it onstage it would sound like I’m trying to be funny, but if I put it in a song, same exact sentence, it’s more just interesting, even though it’s the same sentence. I had this thing (where I said), “The present is a past factory.” That’s like a joke that I want to try, but then if it’s in a song then it’s not even funny. It’s more of an interesting concept.
It’s a nice lyric.
Thanks. Thank you.
Are you a visual writer? Do you see the joke?
It’s more influenced from seeing. It’s not that I see … well, I see the joke, but it’s not like I’m hallucinating, and I see the joke. All of the jokes are from noticing things. They’re all from noticing the world. That’s what I meant. All art is just someone reacting to their surroundings—a painting or a book or film, or music or poems or comedy. You’re just looking out then saying something back. Don’t you think that?
Yeah, pretty much. In some ways you’re a mirror, and some ways you’re a cement mixer.
Did I just say that?
That’s fantastic! That’s exactly it! The cement mixer part is like … that’s great! Do you write songs yourself?
Not lately. I would just play for hours, then I’d record ambient soundtrack music. Like two-minute Sergio Leone-inspired loops.
Nice, nice! With the slide, you mean?
Yeah, I think I used the slide later but the things I’d come up with sounded like end-credit music for Dirty Harry films. Electric piano. That’s a lot of fun to do because it’s like the abstract paintings. You just capture a mood and you don’t have to take it anywhere.
That’s writing. There’s no lyrics but it’s still writing. You’re writing an emotion almost. Like Ry Cooder, you must like him.
I appreciate him. I haven’t learned much technically but he inspired me to play in open tunings.
Oh, really? That’s how that happened with you?
His career looked cool. I liked how he approached music, and he did whatever he wanted to do. And he was just good at everything. … I checked out your Wikipedia page earlier. Does the word “paraprosdokian” mean anything to you?
That’s on my Wikipedia page?
It’s in the first paragraph.
I don’t even know what it means. That’s them describing my comedy?
That’s one word they use to describe your comedy. I had to look it up. It’s an unexpected ending “that causes the reader or listener to reframe or reinterpret the first part.” Apparently it dates back to 2nd Century B.C. Greek rhetoricians.
People have been practicing this since the time of Aristotle, so you’re part of that lineage.
Oh my God.
Do you think there’s a comedy gene you share with Aristotle?
I’ve never said this to anyone but I’ve always thought that. (Laughs) … You know I’m kidding, right?
Yes, I do. I caught that.
I had brief paranoia that you’d think I’m connected to Aristotle, and how insanely arrogant that would be. A brief overthinking second.
Let me ask you this: Do you take any credit for vocal fry?
Vocal fry. Do you know what vocal fry is?
No, I don’t know. What is that?
It’s a way of speaking embraced by millennials, in which you consciously lower your voice and let it trail off like you’re dehydrated and need sleep until it almost creaks to a stop.
That’s a millennial thing? … Why would they do that, though? I mean, they’re doing that on purpose?
Because they’re woke.
No really, do they have a reason?
There’s a lot of reasons. I can’t really sum it all up, and I can’t speak for them. I don’t even know if I do it. I hope not.
To answer your question, yes. I take full credit for that. (Laughs)
It’s an affectation; a way of speaking a lot of people started communicating simultaneously.
Are you serious? Why would anyone talk differently than they really talk? Why would they even do that?
I also wondered if President Trump’s tweets could be influenced by your act? First thoughts, non-sequiturs, damn the consequences.
Please don’t put me in the same sentence as him. In fact, you can put that in there. … When I think of a joke, the sentences come immediately, within 10 seconds. My mind is like a factory that only makes jokes one way. Jokes can only me made one way in my head, and that’s fewest amount of words to get the concept out. There’s not one wasted word, because an extra word will throw the rhythm off. It’s almost musical, really, where you’re like, “This should change. This should end right here.”
Is it effortless for you or is it sometimes …
Yeah, it’s effortless. It’s completely effortless. The concept, I’ll see: “Oh, this sentence. Oh, this could mean this instead of that. Then it’s like bang, bang, bang, bang. I mean, 15 seconds and it’s there.
When I think of you writing, I picture all these jokes and phrases and concepts swimming around each other like ribbons, and you’re tying them into the right bows at the right time, or something like that. That’s what I meant when I asked you if you “saw” the joke.
Oh, yeah. No, it’s not really like that. The world is like a giant mosaic painting. In these little squares is the whole world, and sometimes I’ll see a square and think, “Oh, that has the same meaning as that over there, but it could be taken a different way.” That’s how it happens.
Have you been on Conan lately?
No, I haven’t been on a show since Craig Ferguson ended. I love Conan. I want to go on there again, but I keep, uh … procrastinating. I’m a big procrastinator. I love going on with him. The last time I went on we made everything up right then. Usually it would be subjects that I’d want to get to, but he agreed to just make it up. It was funny.
You share a vibe with each other where you keep pushing each other a little higher. We’ve talked about Craig Ferguson before, but you have a different kind of chemistry with Conan.
I have to tell you something. This is a really interesting interview. It’s not the regular questions. It’s so different. I really enjoy talking with you. It’s more of an art thing than a specific comedy thing.
You write some of these things down that could be interesting for the interviewee to discuss, see how they flow. It was easy to be random.
Yeah, but you directed it from the beginning. You steered the boat this way. … It’s more interesting than the regular questions and the regular route.
Oh, here’s one I forgot to ask! Why did you pronounce “Behemoth” with a “w” after the “h” in the opening of Reservoir Dogs? “Behwemoth.”
Because I made a mistake. I said it wrong.
That’s a legitimate mistake?
Oh, yeah. That’s a legitimate mistake. I’m in there with Quentin Tarantino and whoever else was there, and every sentence I said I would say two or three, four or five times I think. I said it wrong. I said it right on other times, and that time I said it wrong on that time, and that’s the one he used. (Laughs) Were you wondering if it was on purpose?
I didn’t know. It’s a very happy accident.
Yes, it is. I’m glad he picked that one. It’s more interesting. It’s like, this interview is more interesting.
It’s a behwemoth of an interview.