Fletcher Hall, Carolina Theatre, Durham
Friday, Jan. 22, 8:30 p.m.
Steven Wright, now entering his fourth decade of comedy, is usually associated with words like monotone and surrealistic and deadpan, but it’s no surprise that beneath his offbeat worldview is a thoughtful and curious individual equally inspired by George Carlin and the Surrealists. The Indy reached him by phone at his home, where he was languishing between shows on his current tour, which will bring him to the Carolina Theatre on Friday, Jan. 22. We plumbed his early influences and asked how this non-confrontational comedian got involved in The Aristocrats, the 2005 film that assembled a team of stand-up aces telling their versions of the world’s purportedly filthiest joke. We also got to rehash one of our favorite Wright jokes: “I was Caesarian-born. Can’t really tell, although when I leave a house I go out through the window.”
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: So I have to ask, were you really Caesarian born?
STEVEN WRIGHT: Ha-ha … no. I still tell that joke.
I took a look at your work in The Aristocrats recently, and I noticed your version of the joke was pretty mild compared to the others. Had you ever told that joke before?
No. I never even heard of it.
How did you get involved with that movie?
It sounded like a good idea for a movie and so I agreed to be in it. I chose to do [my version of the “aristocrats” joke] on violence. My angle was violent rather than sexual.
I was kind of cringing that you were going to go to huge extremes like the others, and I was almost relieved you went with violence, which is almost the mildest way you could have gone about it.
You were worried I was going too extreme?
Well yeah, you can expect that from someone like Sarah Silverman, but I don’t know if it would have felt right coming from you.
That’s why I chose not to go that way. Didn’t feel right.
Some of your lines would be easily reducible to 140 characters. Do you Twitter at all?
No, I don’t.
I know George Carlin was an influence of yours.
Yeah, big time.
Carlin seemed to work so hard on hammering out his monologues, almost in a writerly fashion. How hard do you work on your stuff?
Writing the jokes just kind of comes to me. The main work is figuring out which ones I want to try and which ones work and which ones stay in my act and where to put them in my act.
But you do have to chisel those ideas down to thoseI don’t want to call them one-liners, but those choice phrases of yours. Do you work to have them come out in a certain specific way?
The wording comes pretty quickly. The idea comes into my head and right after that the wording is there.
Besides George Carlin and Woody Allen, what about non-comedic influences or cultural influences. Were you into Mad magazine, for example?
I was into Mad magazine, yes. And another influence was surrealistic painting. When I was in high school we went on a field trip into Boston. I grew up in the suburbs of Massachusetts, and we had a field trip to a museum, and I saw Surrealism for the first time, which I loved immediately. I think that affected me later when I would write material. And I loved Kurt Vonnegut. I still love his books. Every few years I’ll read another one again. I don’t know if that influenced me, but it made me want to be creative. Reading his stuff just jazzes my mind up. And then, Monty Python, that didn’t really influence me but I love them. I mean, that’s like abstract comedy.
Of the Surrealists, are we talking about Magritte and Dalí?
I don’t remember who the artists were that first time. I mean I love Salvador Dalí. I saw that a while after that field trip but the first stuff I saw I don’t remember what it was.
Maybe what you connected with was the willfully skewed way of viewing reality.
Yeah, it was weird, combining different realities that wouldn’t really happen in real life, and that’s kind of what I do with words, sometimes.
I can imagine people must approach Billy Crystal and tell him ‘you look mahvelous,’ but do people ever come up and do Steven Wright shtick to you?
Occasionally, someone will come up to me and talk in a monotone, once in awhile.
I guess it’s a little harder to nail down what you do, which is probably part of your staying power.
Steven Wright performs at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, in the Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall in Durham. Tickets are $29-$69. Visit www.carolinatheatre.org.