We're not sure if anyone under the age of 50 would get it if we described Steven Wright as "the Pat Paulsen of his generation," but, trust us, it's true. Wright's pretty much the poster boy for deadpan comedy, having burst onto the scene -- albeit very solemnly -- with his 1985 debut album, I Have A Pony. Given his quiet, contemplative style, it shouldn't come as any surprise that it's taken 22 years for him to get around to releasing a sequel, but 2007 has finally brought us the long-awaited I Still Have A Pony, on Comedy Central Records. It's not like Wright's been just chilling out since '85, though...well, not entirely, anyway. Bullz-Eye had a chance to speak with him recently, and we asked him about his stand-up career, his famous film roles (I think we can all agree that the Academy really dropped the ball by not awarding him Best Supporting Actor for his role as Guy on the Couch in "Half Baked"), and, most importantly, if he ever gets tired of people asking him if he's stoned.
Steven Wright: Hello?
Bullz-Eye: Hi, may I speak to Steven?
SW: How are ya?
BE: I'm pretty good.
SW: Good. Where are you calling from?
BE: Virginia. Chesapeake, Virginia.
SW: Oh. (Pauses) Is this for a website?
BE: Oh, yeah, sorry: it's for Bullz-Eye.com.
SW: Oh, good.
BE: I actually saw you at Chrysler Hall, in Norfolk, years ago, when you had James Lee Stanley opening for you.
SW: Oh, wow! Twenty years ago! Wow. We did shows together for years.
BE: And, bizarrely, I actually traded email with him on MySpace a few days ago.
SW: (Surprised) You did?
SW: That's cool!
BE: Well, I really enjoyed your new special. I haven't heard your new album yet, but I did get a copy of the DVD, "When the Leaves Blow," and I loved that.
SW: Thank you very much. Well, the album is the same thing.
BE: Oh, okay. And speaking of the album, 22 years between releases might not be a record, but it's gotta be approaching one.
SW: (Laughs) Yeah. I didn't want to be overexposed.
BE: I understand.
SW: Nah, I'm just kidding.
BE: So you couldn't resist the sequel-ized title?
SW: I couldn't. Like, years ago, I thought that if I ever made another one...I mean, that title just cracks me up. And it just stayed in my head. And, then, when we were making it, I told it to the Comedy Central people, and then I was thinking of changing it, but they said, "No, you've had it in your mind so long!" And I think it's just funny. It's nothing really to do with the other album, though.
BE: No, but your style has still remained approximately the same: the deadpan observational thing.
SW: Oh, yeah.
BE: Well, I mean, if you're comfortable with that description, that is. How do you describe your comedy?
SW: I see it as kind of abstract and, uh, funny.
BE: Always a plus for a comedian.
BE: Did you have any personal inspirations in comedy when you were first getting started, or did you just come up with your voice and run with it?
SW: No, I loved watching "The Tonight Show," watching Johnny Carson and the comedians he had on. And I listened to a radio show in Boston where the guy played two entire comedy albums every Sunday night. I was, like, 14, and I had the radio in the bed with me for two years, tuning in every Sunday night. I really loved Woody Allen's albums, how he wrote jokes. And I was very taken by George Carlin, his Class Clown album coming out when I was in high school. And I think he really influenced me, Carlin, talking about all the little things in life. Yeah.
BE: Well, it's not like you were completely away from stand-up for all this time, but nor did it seem like you went out of your way to promote it as much. Was that a conscious effort decision on your part?
SW: No, I just, like, kept touring all through these years, and I'd go on a talk show occasionally, and that was just what I did. I'd write, I'd try it out, I'd go on the road and I'd do it. And that's what I was doing. I just didn't do it on TV that much. I just was a guy doing the live stuff. And then I started noticing a few years ago that the audience was barely...there were some people in their 20s, but not a lot. It's weird, because as a comedian, you notice things. That's where you get the comedy. But I didn't really notice that 15 years had gone by since I'd done an HBO special. And then I thought, well, the people in college now, they were only 5 when that came out, so they don't even know that I do stand-up. So then I thought, well, I'd better do this Comedy Central thing, to try and reach a whole other generation, as well as for all the other people who know me who don't go to live shows, so they can see something else, also.
BE: You've got an entire generation who only knows you as The Guy on the Couch (from "Half-Baked").
SW: Yes! I do! Like, around ages 18 through 26, they don't even know that I do stand-up. Or they didn't until this.
BE: Is it weird to now be known for something other than what made you famous in the first place? To be known as...well, like I said, The Guy on the Couch, or as the DJ from "Reservoir Dogs"?
SW: It is a little weird, but only in the sense... (Hesitates) It's weird, and it isn't weird. It's weird because I think writing is the hardest thing about what I do, so to be recognized in other areas that I didn't write is a little odd for me. It's a little like a free pass. Like, I didn't write "Half-Baked," and I didn't write the "Reservoir Dogs" stuff, or even if I get recognized for a movie that... (Trails off) Yeah, I think writing is the hardest thing.
BE: Are you much of an ad-libber?
SW: On stage? No.
BE: In any of the film performances, did you have an opportunity to write your own stuff?
SW: Oh, yeah, when I was in "Natural Born Killers," by Oliver Stone, I made up a bunch of lines that he liked that stayed in the movie.
BE: That's funny, because I would've thought that he would've been the least likely to appreciate an ad-lib.
SW: Well, now that you mention it, you're right. But I was at this rehearsal, and I was just making up stuff, and he said, "That's good, that's good," and someone was writing it down. And in "So I Married An Axe Murderer," where I'm on the airplane, I wrote most of that section, which was fun.
BE: I think you may have the most diverse character names of any actor. You've got K-Billy DJ, Guy on the Couch, and, in "Mixed Nuts," you're credited as Suicidal Man at Pay Phone.
SW: (Laughs) That's funny! One of the things I like is that "Natural Born Killers" and the animated movie, "The Swan Princess," came out within the same year. I thought that was interesting, to be in those two pictures.
BE: I saw "When Stand-Up Stood Out," the documentary about the Boston comedy scene in the '80s, and I really enjoyed that film. (Writer's note: Wright was a major player in that scene, though his modesty would have you believe that he was unaware of his prominence.)
SW: Oh, yeah! That guy, Fran Solomita, the comedian who made that, he'd never made a movie before that, but I thought he did an excellent job.
BE: Yeah, we talked to him for Bullz-Eye when the movie came out on DVD, and he was a really nice guy. It's a very informative film about the scene there.
BE: And he spoke extremely highly of you.
SW: Wow. That was a great time, that time. It's interesting to have a movie about a time in your life...it's so lucky, y'know? I mean, if we'd all been rowers on a rowing team or we were on a softball team, it would be less likely that one of the athletes was going to turn around and make a documentary about it. So he was a creative guy, obviously, to be a stand-up and a filmmaker. I mean, I think he did a great job.
BE: During that era, did you personally have an eye for who you thought was going to be the breakout person among your peers? Because they all tend to say it was you, but I was wondering if you had a vision yourself.
SW: No. I didn't know they thought it was going to be me, and I didn't think of who it would be of them. I didn't really think about it. We were just in this little world. It was like being on an island, playing these clubs in the city. Making it was like a fantasy. The fantasy was, like, "Maybe someday I'll make it," but the reality was just going to the club, trying out stuff, doing your act again, and...that was the reality.
BE: How do you go about writing your jokes? Do you have a specific regiment where you sit down and work a specific amount per day?
SW: No, I can't...a long time ago, I wrote a lot of it on purpose, but then, when I started doing that, it got forced. It was very contrived. So I don't do that. I just see jokes here and there through my daily life. Like, from the minute you wake up 'til you go to sleep, there's a million, billion pieces of information that float by you, and just some of those things jump out to me as jokes. I can't sit down and write them on purpose.
BE: Have you been working on any other short films? I know you did "One Soldier" back in '99, but have you done anything else since then?
SW: I've got a few different film ideas written down, but nothing that's about to be filmed or anything. I did that, but I've mostly been focused on stand-up. I want to do more of it, though. I really want to do more. I loved directing that movie and being involved in all the aspects. I even wrote part of the music. So I want to do more. I'd like to do a full-length movie at some point.
BE: Actually, I was going to ask you about your music, too. There are a couple of samples on your website, but do you have a backlog of songs that you haven't recorded yet, or do you just do it when the muse hits you?
SW: I have recorded a lot of it already. I have a bunch of it recorded. I just put those on as, like, samples. And I have some other ones that I've written that I haven't recorded. I love music; it's one of the funnest things that I do. I make these songs up and record them, and then my friend has a little studio, and he adds...he can play every instrument, and he just switches things around and adds other instruments. It's really an amazing process. It's a lot of fun. I want to do more.
BE: Who are some of your favorite musicians?
SW: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Cowboy Junkies, Van Morrison.
BE: Somehow, I can totally see you enjoying the Cowboy Junkies, given their laid-back vibe.
SW: Yeah, I love that stuff. I think that music would be great in a movie as a background soundtrack. What a vibe they have! It's very surreal.
BE: Yeah, I've followed them off and on ever since their cover of "Sweet Jane."
BE: Do you ever get tired of people coming up to you and asking about "Half Baked"? "Were you really stoned? Are you stoned right now...?"
SW: (Laughs) No, I don't get tired of it. I usually say it to them! Well, not usually, but occasionally. They'll say, "Hey, you're The Guy On The Couch!" And I say, "Yes." And, you know, people have either never seen that movie, or they've seen it, like, 35 times. So, occasionally, I'll say, "Are you stoned right now?" They say they aren't stoned, though.
BE: How did you get involved in that film, anyway? Because you're not actually credited in it, but, clearly, you're pretty recognizable.
SW: Well, Dave Chapelle was guest-hosting some talk show that was on at, like, 1:30 in the morning. I don't remember which one, but it was a network show, and he was guest-hosting, and I was the guest. And after the show ended, I said, "Man, we should be in a movie together sometime." And he said, "Well, I wrote a movie, and we're going to be filming it soon. You wanna be in it?" And I said, "Yes!" And then he gave me the script, and that was it. I love him. I think he's brilliant.
BE: So how is your touring schedule now? Do you do it as much as humanly possible, or do you set aside a certain part of the year to do it?
SW: I do it scattered throughout the year. I do it in chunks where I do it without getting burned out from it. I do an amount where it's still enjoyable. I'll go out for a few weeks, then I'll come back and won't do it for awhile, then I'll go out and do maybe three or four shows, then come back, then maybe go out again later. It's all scattered throughout the year.
BE: Do you find you get a lot of feedback from your MySpace profile?
SW: Yes, I do. I was...I didn't even know...I knew of the concept of that, but I didn't really see one 'til my agent said, "When you do this special for Comedy Central, you need a MySpace page, because people are gonna look at that when they see the special." I'd never even seen a MySpace page! So, then, we made it, and I've looked at it, and I'm fascinated by all the contacts and little messages. I think it's really interesting.
BE: And you've 30,000 friends, too. I presume you've met them all...?
SW: (Laughs) It's a whole other world, that thing.
BE: It is. It's bizarre, but it's very cool.
BE: Do you have any other film projects in the works, or are you just focused on the stand-up at the moment?
SW: Mainly, I've been focusing on stand-up, and having the DVD and record come out.
BE: Speaking of DVDs, have you heard anything about "Wicker Chairs and Gravity" (Wright's 1990 HBO special) ever being released officially?
SW: Uh, maybe sometime... (Pauses) Probably. I don't know when, though. It's interesting: people only occasionally ask me about that. That's, like, my...I really liked that thing, and I like that I haven't put it out yet.
BE: It seems like something that...well, I don't know if it's actually on You Tube, but it seems like something that fans would put up on there, just so people can see it. Like, I'm aware of it, but I've never actually seen it, either. I didn't have HBO when it originally aired, and it's not one of those comedy specials that gets re-run a whole lot.
SW: Yeah, I think someday I'll put it out.
BE: And I don't know if you've seen your Wikipedia entry, but it lists your hobbies as solar energy and collecting your own hair and fingernail clippings.
SW: (Bursts into laughter) That's hilarious! No, I didn't see that. You mean you just put your name in there, and that's the first thing it says?
BE: Well, it's not the first thing, but it's definitely in there. That's the beauty and curse of Wikipedia: anyone can put anything in there.
SW: That's great. Oh, man, that's hilarious.
BE: They also mention the list of jokes that floats around the internet that's attributed to you but is actually filled with a bunch of stuff that isn't your material.
SW: Do they list any actual jokes, or does it just say that that's happened?
BE: There's a link to a site that's supposed to offer the jokes as well as their actual places of origin.
SW: Interesting. I'll have to check that out. I've never been on there.
BE: Yeah, Wikipedia is dangerously addictive. Well, I'll keep you on schedule, but it's been a pleasure talking to you...
SW: Yeah, good talking to you, too!
BE: If you get back to this area...and I don't know if you have been back here since 1986, but I'll definitely be there when you do.
SW: If I do, come backstage and say "hello" if you come to the show.
BE: It's a plan. In fact, I'll drop you a reminder through MySpace right after this call, since I know you check it all the time. (Laughs) Well, anyway, pleasure talking to you.
SW: You, too. I enjoyed it.