Steven Wright

Steven Wright
Since the early 1980s, Steven Wright has put his own distinct stamp on the world of comedy, one of the few who’s identifiable from the first drone of his deadpan, monotone delivery. He’s popped up in the occasional film role (the voice of K-BLLY "super sounds of the ‘70s weekend” in Reservoir Dogs, as well as Half Baked, Coffee and Cigarettes and Canadian Bacon), but he’s himself an accomplished filmmaker and Academy Award winner. Yep, he took home a golden dude in 1988 for his short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings (he co-wrote and starred). He’s just released a new concert DVD, When the Leaves Blow Away, which is paired with a new film, One Soldier, set in the Civil War. In this unedited Exclaim! exclusive, Wright tries to tackle our Questionnaire, discusses why Canadian audiences are a good fit for him, and what he’d love to win from a game show.

I don’t know if anyone explained the concept of the interview to you...
It’s a bunch of questions?

It’s a bunch of questions. It’s the same questions we ask everyone. You have to be interesting to make up for the generalised questions.
What is this feature?

It’s called the Questionnaire. We stole it from Vanity Fair. Or like James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
How many questions is it?

More than four. Let’s just see how it goes. Let’s start with "What are you up to? What current projects are you working on?”
I’m having a DVD of my stand-up come out. And also going on the road. And later in the year, I’m having an album come out.

What are your current fixations? Music, films, books art – anything you’re really interested in right now.
I’m watching a lot of crime television shows. Law and Order, CSI, and then real ones – forensics shows. I didn’t really realise; I saw the pattern a few days ago, that that’s what I’m generally watching on television. But that’ll all change when the baseball season starts. I go from crime to baseball.

You’re a Red Sox fan are you not?

But you didn’t grow up in Boston?
Yeah, I did. I grew in Burlington, Mass.

Where do you live now?
Where my house is.

Can you name something that you consider a mind-altering work of art?
Mind altering? Not mind altering. Well, some of Salvador Dali’s paintings, where there’s two images going at once, depending on what you focus on. But it’s not really mind-altering, it’s just interesting.

What has been your most memorable or inspiration gig, either one you did or one you attended, and why?
My most memorable was going on The Tonight Show for the first time in 1982 because Johnny Carson was one of my heroes and I always wanted to go on that show, so to actually go on it was a dream come true for me.

Was it what you expected it to be?
It was way more intense and thrilling than I thought. I only thought a little bit about what it would actually be like. What it was like was way more of an experience, in a positive way.

What have been your career highs and career lows?
That is my career high, what I just described to you. That, and winning an Academy Award in 1988. My lows were working in little clubs in Boston when I started – going on at 11 at night or maybe even earlier, when there were maybe eight people in the audience. But that’s just normal. That’s just what you have to go through.

What’s the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you, before, during or after a gig?
[Laughs] Geez. No one’s said anything really mean. I can’t really think of an answer for that one. Can you say it again, maybe that will jolt something. [Repeated.] Can’t really think of anything. We’ll have to come back to that one.

What do you think everyone should shut up about?
I’m not being very amusing. That’s not my answer. I can’t think of anything.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
I like my... the fact that I think I’m a nice guy and my imagination. What I don’t like is probably that... I need to make more risks.

What advice should you have taken but you didn’t?
Take more risks.

We’re a music magazine primarily. The next question is "What would make you kick yourself out of your band or out of your bed? And have you?”
I’ve never had a band, so I couldn’t kick anyone out. If I did kick them out of the bed, it would probably be something to do with what happened with the band. It doesn’t matter if the answer makes sense, right?

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I think of where some of my great friends are from. And I think of how large the place is and how low the population is, compared to the United States. I think that’s kinda cool.

What’s your vital daily ritual?
Coffee. Coffee is... Coffee hints to me the answer that there probably is a God.

What are your feelings on piracy, internet or otherwise?
I think it... I think it’s too bad, but I don’t think about it that much. I don’t agree with the dishonesty of it. I do have a stolen Walkman though. A Walkman, when was the last time you heard that word?

What was your most memorable day job?
When I was 23, I was living in Aspen, Colorado, and I shovelled the snow off the roofs of buildings around the town so they wouldn’t cave in. It was just such a beautiful place, it was an amazing thing to do that exercise and look around at all that beauty.

How do you spoil yourself?
Lately, I’ve been really into a lot of chocolate. Chocolate and going where I want to go when I feel like it.

If you weren’t a comedian, what profession would you like to attempt?
I would wish it was something else using my imagination, perhaps advertising. Something along those lines. I would probably end up playing live music for when people were on hold, rather than a recording. And I would probably be playing an accordion.

What do you fear the most?
Man, these are serious questions. What’s with that?

You’re lucky that I changed the last one then.
You made it less serious?

Yeah, we’ll get to that. What do you fear the most?
Probably not spending more time in the moment.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
What are you talking about? You should put that as the answer.

You wouldn’t be the first to misunderstand the question.
I think that’s my good answer.

What’s been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Geez. Probably when I met Neil Young briefly, and I was... he’s one of my heroes, and the way I talked to him, he might have thought I was crazy. He’s one of my heroes, so I was... it was... I couldn’t really talk to him. If you can just put "he’s one of my heroes.” Are you going to do that?

Yeah, I’ll take care of you. Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Wow, man. These questions are so wide open. Can you ask it again? [Repeated.] I would like to have Leonardo Da Vinci, and I’d like him to bring take-out so we could get right to the talking and not waste time.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
My mom wishes I was the third son rather than the second one. You’re leading the witness! Your questions are leading the witness! How many more are there?

One more. Plus the one I changed. This is the one that I changed, and then we can do the one that it used to be. What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Happy birthday.

What it used to be is: Given the opportunity to choose, how would you like to die?
I would like to be tickled to death.

Switching gears to some easier ones, about the DVD and stuff. The concert DVD was recorded here in Toronto. Any particular reason?
I did one before in 1990 that was also in Toronto. The Canadian audiences are just the best of anywhere I’ve played, in any country – and I’m not just saying that. That’s why I did both those shows in Canada.

Any theories why that is?
I don’t know why. I think it’s maybe the connections that Canada has to England, with the absurdism of the humour, but then you’d think that English audiences would be the best. To answer your question, I don’t know why, but it is done on purpose, doing them in Canada.

In terms of style and influences, it’s observational comedy, but you’re a pioneer. Who were your influences?
Definitely, even before I went on stage, George Carlin – he’s one of my main heroes. He always talked about everyday stuff. Little things you don’t discuss with anyone. I was influenced by him, definitely, because I talk about everyday thing too. I just do something different with it. He’s a major influence, even why I became a comedian.

In terms of your movie work, which role was more challenging: the voice on the radio in Reservoir Dogs or guy on the couch in Half Baked?
That’s a great, hilarious question. No one has ever asked me that. Probably the guy on the radio, but that doesn’t mean it was hard. When you point out those two jobs, it makes me tired quickly.

Can you tell me about One Soldier? You wrote, produced, directed and starred in it.
It takes place right after the civil war and I play a civil war soldier who’s obsessed with all the unanswerable questions. It’s funny but it asks some serious things. I wanted to make a film about these things that were in my head, but chose that time in history because I like how it looked. I loved, right at that time, how the industrial revolution is changing everything. It has nothing to do with the civil war, or late 1880s, that’s just the background. It’s just some of the stuff in my head. It went on the Independent Film Channel, but a lot of people never saw it. It was one of the best things I did, doing that movie, because of all the creativity involved. Casting, working with the cinematographer, editing, working with the musicians - it was a very excellent experience.

Many people would be surprised to hear you’ve won an Academy Award.
Yes. I was one of the first people to be surprised.

Is more film work something you’d like to do?
I definitely want to do more. I love to perform live, I love it and I want to keep doing it, but you’re working in a narrow window when you’re working with things that people are going to laugh out loud about. But there’s a lot of other stuff in my head that I think is interesting that doesn’t fit into that window. I want to get it out in more film. I want to keep doing both, though.

You’re hitting the road again this year. Do you like touring?
I like being in front of the audience, and doing the show, and working out the material. The travelling is just part of it. I don’t really like it, but it’s travelling. If I won a contest on a game show or something, I’d probably win two months in my own house. That would be awesome – I’d be jumping up and down, I’d be hugging the host, there’d be confetti coming down. "You don’t have to go anywhere!” Oh thank you!