If you call Steven Wright and he doesn't answer, you'll be forwarded to his voicemail message, which is him muttering something unintelligible for three seconds before the beep. That's exactly what you'd expect from the 61-year-old stand-up veteran whose deadpan, cerebral one-liners put him on the map in the early 1980s and have influenced countless comedians over the past 38 years.
Wright's career is a mishmash of critical acclaim (his 1985 Grammy-nominated comedy album, I Have a Pony, his Oscar-winning short film, The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, Emmy nominations as part of the producing team for Louie) and oddball roles he does for fun (The Guy on the Couch in Half Baked, Mel Meh in the recent Emoji Movie). Wright keeps a lower profile today than he did in the '80s and '90s, but his influence on modern alt-comedy is unmistakable.
Orlando Weekly: When you started, people hadn't heard anyone like you. Did you get any resistance? Did anyone tell you to be more animated?
Steven Wright: No. I started in Boston in 1979 and there was no show business in Boston. There was no one to say that. The club owners would never suggest anything to the comedians. There were no agents, no producers, no anyone. In hindsight, it was like being on an island. We were shipwrecked on an island and we were just all learning how to do it.
OW: I read in an old interview that part of the reason you were so monotone when you started out was because you had stage fright. Does that still affect you?
SW: It took me years and years to be comfortable onstage. I would just be concentrating and you have to say the joke the exact correct way, one little wrong thing and it won't work. So I'd be concentrating on saying a joke and thinking, "What is the next joke?" I'm focused. I'm doing a serious thing up here. I didn't fake anything; it was real. My face was seriously concentrating even though what I was saying was insane. So it became a style by accident. Nothing I ever did was planned, like calculated, "I'll do this because nobody does this, I'll talk like this," none of it. I just wrote things down I thought they might laugh at and then I said them.
When I still do the jokes, I'm just concentrating. I'm comfortable, but it's never going to be normal because it's not normal. Standing in front of people talking is not normal.
OW: Do you pay attention to who is coming up in stand-up now?
SW: No, I don't. I started watching The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson when I was 16. I was immersed, I was passionate. I'd have a radio in bed with me listening to the Bruins games, and one night I turned the dial and accidentally came on this show where a guy played two comedy albums every Sunday night. I stumbled on it and I tuned into it for a couple of years, every Sunday night. So I'm laying there in the dark, and I didn't know it, but I was studying it. Two years of listening to it every Sunday on the radio. Then I started doing stand-up and I still watched it all the time on TV. Then in my mid-30s I've been watching comedians on television for 20 years and I just changed as a person. I lost interest. [But] writing never got old to me at all.
OW: What's the most excited you've ever been in your whole life?
SW: Why are you asking me trick questions?
OW: Well, you're known for being monotone so I'm trying to imagine a situation where you're showing excitement.
SW: Probably when the Red Sox won the World Series. But when I met Bob Dylan, he was one of the top five most exciting people I ever met, because I love him so much. That's very exciting, but I wasn't high-fiving him.
OW: Any big things coming up?
SW: More live shows. I was just in The Emoji Movie.
OW: What made you decide you to do that movie?
SW: They were the ones who asked me. I didn't really know what an emoji was when I agreed to do that. I knew there were things on the phone, but I didn't even know they were called that. It's just a different, fun experience. I'm saying stuff I didn't write, the director's guiding me on how to say things, you don't even meet the other actors and then it's all cut together. You go see your voice coming out of a 20-foot round animated thing and you're in the theater and you're not even on acid.