Deadpan Walking
All The Residents’ Men

The Wright Stuff


In 1991, in a book shop that used to be in the Holme Building at the University of Sydney, I discovered a collection of scripts for a bunch of fundraising and awareness-raising AIDS benefits organised by Stephen Fry. The shows were titled Hysteria! and the book Amassed Hysteria!, and I guess I should add that the scripts were compiled by (one-time Young Ones co-writer and former Rik Mayall girlfriend) Lise Mayer and Rachel Swann. In it I discovered the genius of an unkempt stand-up called Steven Wright. Even without being able to hear the man’s delivery, the printed routines were hilarious:

Every morning I get up and make instant coffee and I drink it so I'll have enough energy to make the regular coffee.

Sponges grow in the ocean – that kills me. I wonder how much deeper the ocean would be if that didn’t happen?

After discovering that Steven Wright had an album – I Have A Pony – he soon became one of my favourite comics, up there with Billy Connolly, Robin Williams, Woody Allen and Peter Cook. So the opportunity to interview him was – well, let me put it this way: I’m still pinching myself.

As it happened, the interview was a bit of an ‘exclusive’. Not so exclusive that other media sources that didn’t land an interview would happily run mine; I offered it to a couple of slots on Triple J but they were holding out for his live appearance. A long edit was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio, with an excerpt accompanied by a sample of Wright’s comedy, broadcast on the ABC Local Radio network in one of my monthly chats with Richard Fidler. I also managed to stretch the material out to a couple of print articles in FilmInk and Last.

After all of this, I didn’t quite manage to make it to a performance – but I can’t complain. For the FilmInk article I managed to land a copy of a couple of Wright’s DVDs: One Soldier and A Steven Wright Special. But one day I intend to see Steven Wright live!

For now, a transcript of the interview appears below. Soon it will be moved to the Radio Ha Ha website at 2GB Plus. Meanwhile, you can hear the interview by subscribing to the Radio Ha Ha podcast: paste this link into your podcatcher: It appears as part of Episode 9.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

One night I stayed up all night playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house house and four people died.

I broke a mirror in my house and I’m supposed to get seven years bad luck, but my lawyer thinks he can get me five.

Demetrius Romeo: Having a deadpan delivery and material that deals with a surreal outlook on life – is it a style that you developed or one that is essentially you, and always has been?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well, the way I speak has always just been like that, y’know? That’s just how I talk. But the comedy… the surrealism of the comedy, that was kind of from the beginning when I was twenty-three, when I started writing comedy. I mean, I don’t know… I don’t know really what you’re asking me, really.

Demetrius Romeo: Well for one thing, you’re inviting your audience to look at the world from your distinct point of view, and my feeling is that it’s very different to any other point of view we usually come up against. So I’m wondering if it’s a hard thing to coerce an audience to see the world the way you see it.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Oh no, the audience really doesn’t care. They’re only concerned with whether it’s funny or not. I mean that’s just the style of jokes that I write; that’s just the way that it is. But I don’t think they’re thrown off by the style. They’re only concerned whether it’s funny or not.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

I like to reminisce with people I don’t know. Granted, it takes longer.

Demetrius Romeo: Most of your material that I’m familiar with consists of if not quite one-liners, jokes with so minimal set-up and punch lines that happen so quickly that the gag’s gone in no time at all. Do you find yourself burning a lot of material?

STEVEN WRIGHT: It’s difficult to come up with long, new chunks of time, but that’s just how it’s been. I’ve never done it another way, so it’s just normal to me. It is hard, you know, you tell five jokes in a minute. But on the other hand, I don’t know any other way to do it.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ and ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

I like to fill my tub up with water and then turn the shower on and act like I’m in a submarine that’s been hit.

Just got out of the hospital; I was in a speed reading accident. I hit a book mark. I flew across the room.

Demetrius Romeo: Early on, in interviews, you were explaining how you can break your material up into three categories: ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ jokes, and you can analyse an audience before you’ve even seen them from the way they sound, and know what sort of structure and pace you need to give your show, and which category to draw the jokes from as you go. How do you get to a point where you can know comedy so intimately?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well, I was just meaning that I was reacting to the mood of the crowd, so then I would arrange the material depending on how they were reacting. I don’t move it around like that anymore. I pretty much know what I’m gonna do before I even go out there. I do it a little differently now.

Demetrius Romeo: So that suggests that you’ve got your ‘show’ and it’s almost set in stone, nowadays.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well I used to have the same amount of material but I would move it around depending on how they were reacting, but now I do it… it’s almost like a play to me, it’s one long flowing thing, depending on if I put some new material in there some how.

Demetrius Romeo: Is that because you’ve done it so many times that you’ve got the material that you know will always work on an audience?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, what happened was, the other way I was wasting a lot of energy figuring out which joke was gonna be next. That was spending a lot of my energy on stage. Then I thought I could perform the material better if I actually knew which material was… the order of it.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Ice’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

I hate when my foot falls asleep during the day because that means it’s gonna be up all night.

When I get real, real bored I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot and then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I’m leaving.

Demetrius Romeo: From the way you’ve spoken about it in the past it sounds like you really know what you’re doing; it’s not just an instinctual thing – there’s actually a mental process involved that you’re conscious of in the process of doing it.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I think it’s both. I mean, a lot of it is a gut feeling and then there’s thinking about it, but it really happens very fast. I never really break it down unless I’m being interviewed like this. Y’know what I mean? I just go about doing it.

Soundbite: Excerpt from the track ‘Dog Stay’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony

Recently I was walking my dog around my building. On the ledge. A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me. I’m afraid of widths.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, there are some schools of thought that suggest that the best stand-up involves physicality, yet you create hilarity by almost having no physicality. The physicality is so understated.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, but again, like, what you said, the audience doesn’t really care about rules or physical or word play. They don’t care about the style of anything, really. Again, if it’s funny, they’ll laugh at the physical. If it’s funny wordplay, they’ll laugh. They don’t really care, I think.

Soundbite: Excerpt from the track ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

Today I was – no, that wasn’t me.

Demetrius Romeo: When you started out, did you know what made audiences laugh?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No. I knew what I liked. I knew what I liked to laugh at from comedians and films and everything, but I didn’t know what would make them laugh until I started going on the stage, started writing stuff. And I still didn’t know if that was gonna work. Going on in front of the audience is really where you learn everything, just from doing it over and over and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Demetrius Romeo: Is this the style that you’ve always had as a comedian, or did the audience determine that somehow by what they laughed at when you were starting out?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, I pretty much had the style of short jokes, abstract jokes, right from the beginning. There was one difference though: in the beginning, sometimes I would connect the jokes into stories. I did that for about two years, and then I stopped. It was connected stuff, and a lot of it was also just floating around one-liners. And then I just stopped doing that: I didn’t connect them anymore. But in the last eight years I’ve gone back to having a lot of the new stuff connected into little stories. Still most of it is one-liners, but there’s a lot that is stories.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Water’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

Yesterday I saw a subliminal advertising executive, but just for a second.

One time I went to the drive-in in a cab. The movie cost me $95.00.

Demetrius Romeo: How do you go about writing nowadays? When you’re young, you’re having new experiences all the time, so there’s a lot of stuff that you look and and say, ‘hey, life’s like this!’ After you’ve been doing it for a few years, is it easy to still find things that inspire you?

STEVEN WRIGHT: It’s the same. I’m really just ‘noticing’ stuff. I mean, it’s endless really: from when you wake up to when you go to sleep your mind is bombarded with words and images and sounds and things on the television and movies and conversations with people and… Writing is really thinking. It’s a specific way of thinking about something, and nobody ever stops thinking and nobody ever stops experiencing. So that’s why I think that it just continues.

Soundbite: Excerpt from the track ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

I got up the other day and everything in my apartment had been stolen and replaced with an exact replica. I called my friend and I said, ‘look at this stuff, it’s all an exact replica; what do you think?’. He said, ‘do I know you?’.

Demetrius Romeo: The other thing is, when you’re starting out and you’re doing a lot of little clubs all the time and you’ve got to always be writing new material if the same people are seeing you every week because they want to see new stuff – when you get to be a comedian that’s operating on the world stage, do you still have to be writing a lot of material, or do you get to develop and polish older ideas?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well, even when I was in clubs, I was writing a lot but I was still adding to what I know already worked. And I still do that. That is an endless process. I mean, I haven’t been in Australia in seven years – I’ve done a film there but I haven’t done stand-up there in about seven years – so there’ll be a lot of stuff that I’ve written over that time that the audience has never seen before. But there’ll be stuff that I did that they have seen before.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘7s and Museums’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.

I’ve been doing a lot of painting lately. Abstract painting. Extremely abstract: no brush, no canvass. I just think about it.

Demetrius Romeo: Now you said that you came out to do a film. Do you do a lot of film work?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, I do it occasionally. I mainly do stand-up. I just do a film once in a while.

Demetrius Romeo: When you do do film and television work, you’re still portraying essentially the same persona – the Steven Wright I’m talking to right now; the one that I’ll see on stage. [Wright laughs] People don’t actually hire you expecting you to act as someone else; they’re hiring you as you. Does that make the acting harder or easier?

STEVEN WRIGHT: The actual acting it doesn’t affect. This is how I am, so when I’m acting, I’m really just acting like me saying some sentences someone else made up in their movie. I think it limits my opportunities, though, because they either want it or they don’t want it. I mean, I’m not going to go in and act completely another way; I’ve never done that. I’ve never really focused on acting, so it’s not disappointing to me. It’s not like, ‘oh, they should give me a chance, I could act like a high-powered lawyer in a courtroom scene’. That never was my goal anyway.

Demetrius Romeo: What about when you’re doing something like voicing a character on The Simpsons, when you’re hanging out with other funny people doing funny lines? Is that fun? Would you want to do more of that?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Sure, I would do more. But it was more like working… I mean, it was ‘light’ in there, but it was more like getting the lines down. They do them separately; it’s not like you’re even talking to many of the other actors.

I’ve done a lot of other movies like that. I mean I did Babe 2, and Swan Princess, an animated film where you’re not even talking to the other actors.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s the magic of cinema. In my head, everyone at The Simpsons was standing around the microphone making each other up.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Well they didn’t when I was there. I was only there that one time. Maybe they do that when the rest of the cast is there. I was just a guest.

Demetrius Romeo: Fair enough. I should have known what it was like.

STEVEN WRIGHT: No. How would you know, y’know? Nobody knows.

Soundbite: Excerpts from the track ‘Water’ from the Steven Wright album I Have A Pony.

I’m tired of calling up the movies and listening to that recording of what’s playing, so I bought the album.

Went to the cinema. It said ‘Adults - $5.00; Children - $2.50’. I said, ‘alright, gimme two boys and a girl’.

Demetrius Romeo: How did that role in Reservoir Dogs come about?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Sally Menke was the editor of that movie. She edits all of Quentin’s movies. They got to the end of the movie where everything was almost finished, and they didn’t have the guy on the radio yet, the DJ, and she suggested me to him. It was her idea. She suggested me and then Quentin Tarantino really liked it, so that’s how it happened. It was before he even had a movie out, and she told me that he was a different filmmaker and this film was really going to be very different and she really thought that if he wanted me to do it, I should do it. So I totally went on her. I knew her and I trusted her sensibility. So I went in and did it. She was very, very correct. I was happy to be in that film. To be in a movie that was such a milestone in cinema… it’s fun to be part of that.

Soundbite: Opening tracks of the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs

K-Billy Supersounds of the 70s weekend just keeps on coming with this little ditty that reached up to 21 in May 1970: The George Baker Selection – ‘Little Green Bag’.

STEVEN WRIGHT: It was funny because I made some mistakes on some of the takes. When I said ‘behemoth’ I stumbled on that word and he used that one. He chose the one where I stumbled and he put that in the movie. That’s always amused me.

Demetrius Romeo: Directors tend to do that. I was watching a documentary on the making of Dr Strangelove and George C. Scott was annoyed that it was always an ‘over-the-top’ take that Kubrick used.


Demetrius Romeo: Yeah. But I think that makes the film.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Where did you see that? I’d like to see that. That’s cool. I didn’t know there was a Making of Strangelove.

Demetrius Romeo: It’s part of the DVD extras on the new re-issue.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Oh, okay. I love that movie. I’ll have to check it out.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you still live in New York?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, I live in Massachusetts.

Demetrius Romeo: So you’ve moved back to your home town?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Not to my home town, but to near my hometown. I lived in New York. I went from New York to Los Angeles and then I lived in LA for seven years, and then I wanted to go back to where I started. I was gone about twenty years.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you happiest where you are now?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I like being in New England. I mean, I’m from that area. I travel so much so it’s not like I’m just there, but I like that I live there again. I’m very comfortable there. From growing up there, with all four seasons, that area is really in my blood so I’m comfortable to be there just because of that.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you watch a lot of DVDs?

STEVEN WRIGHT: I watch a lot of movies on the movie channels – on Bravo and ANE. I don’t really buy or rent a lot of DVDs.

Demetrius Romeo: So you wouldn’t get to see a lot of ‘making of’ documentaries or hear directors’ commentaries when DVDs are re-issued?

STEVEN WRIGHT: No, not so far, no.

Demetrius Romeo: You were saying that Dr Strangelove was one of your favourite films; there are a few ‘bells and whistles’ included as bonuses with the new re-issue, like an extended interview with Robert McNamara, who was the US Secretary of Defence during the 60s.


Demetrius Romeo: And he gives a lot of good info about the milieu that Dr Strangelove was created in.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I don’t know. I should do that. I don’t know.

Demetrius Romeo: What do you do when you’re not writing material or performing material? How do you kick back?

STEVEN WRIGHT: I like to visit with friends and my brothers and sister and just hang around. I’m a big baseball fan, and I’m from Massachusetts, and I was excited that the Red Sox finally won the World Series last year. I like to play the guitar, I fool around with the guitar, I make some songs, I recorded some songs with a friend of mine just for the hell of it, I have a couple of them on my website. There are two that we’ve recorded on there – serious songs. I like to read, I like to go to movies. Just tuff like that: normal stuff. I’m a bicyclist, I ride a racing bike almost every day. I like to exercise. I like to occasionally go downhill skiing. I like to be around in nature. I’ve lived in cities for so long; that’s one reason I wanted to go back to Massachusetts and live more in the country.

Demetrius Romeo: Now Steven, you said that you like to record songs. There was a time when you used to strum short songs on your guitar on stage, that were dedicated to your girlfriend. Does that sort of performance mode still enter into your live stand-up?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Yeah, I have about three or four really insane songs now in my act. That’s one of my favourite parts of the show. The one about my girlfriend’s not in there anymore, but the other ones, I really like doing that.

Demetrius Romeo: Would there be a time when you would release your more serious songs?

STEVEN WRIGHT: I don’t know. Sometimes I think of that, and at other times I think, I don’t know if I want to have that be criticised also. I go back and forth. Actually, I would like to do that some time. We’ve piled up a bunch of them. We have about ten or eleven of them.

Demetrius Romeo: May I ask permission to download the ones on your website and use them for this broadcast?

STEVEN WRIGHT: Um, maybe, you know, but let me talk to some people about that. That might actually be a good idea. That would be fun, actually. But first I want to make sure that they’re copyrighted. But if it’s okay, that would actually be fun to me.

Demetrius Romeo: Excellent. Well, Steven, I’m very happy because I’ve finally had a chat with you – you’ve been one of my heroes for a little while; I actually got you to giggle a couple of times through the interview; and you used the word ‘fun’ by the end of it.

STEVEN WRIGHT: Oh, thank you. Very nice talking to you. I appreciate it. And if you go to the show, come backstage and say hello if you want!

Demetrius Romeo: That you very much.

Soundbite: ‘Run to You (So Goes)’ from Steven Wright’s website

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