Steven Wright’s first TV stand-up comedy special in 15 years, "Steven Wright: When the Leaves Blow Away," premieres at 9 p.m. tonight on Comedy Central (repeats at 11 p.m. tonight, 10 p.m. Monday).
The hourlong special shows Wright is still as funny as he was when Bostonians and everyone else first heard his unique yet simple takes on life back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Wright was kind enough to talk with me at length. Then again, most other comics, from wily vets to newcomers, say the same thing about him. At any rate. He told the audience at last month’s Boston Comedy Festival to "trust your gut" and "you have to take risks," whether it’s about comedy or anything else. Does taping your first TV special in 15 years count as a risk? Wright initially told me what he has told other interviewers. "I don’t know. Maybe I should’ve. I just…I hadn’t done one in so long. All comedians notice stuff. That’s where the comedy comes from, from noticing things, but I didn’t really notice that the time had gone by so fast, which is strange…I would look out at the crowd at the theater as they’re coming in, there were 20-year-olds, and 30s, but mostly they were in their 40s and 50s and 60s. Which is fine. But the people who are in college now were 5 when I did my last one…The young people might think I’m the guy on the couch from Half Baked. Which I am. I did that. But they might not know that I did comedy. Will the young people be into it like the old people?"
At the BCF, Denis Leary said he was shocked to learn that his Emerson College classmate Wright had started stand-up comedy a year after they graduated. What did your classmates expect you to be doing? "I was so laidback and such a quiet, introverted person, which I kind of am in a way still, but I was way more at that time. Anyone who knew me in high school…the notion of me going onstage, it was opposite of my character." And Wright has said he was initially afraid to do stand-up. "I was focusing on radio when I was at Emerson. I was going to try to be a guy on the radio. I didn’t think that this would happen. I fantasized about it and thought I would try it, but the other half of me thought this would never happen, so I better have something else going on. I thought being on the radio and saying funny things would be cool."
Wright’s right, of course. And he did appear as the DJ on the soundtrack to Reservoir Dogs. Did you think you’d still be doing comedy at 50? "When I started doing this, I never thought about how long. I didn’t think about that. I just wanted to someday go on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. That was my goal. That was my fantasy, because I loved him. I loved the show. I loved the comedians on there. He affected my life. He affected my life twice. First, he affected it by making me want to become a comedian, and then he affected it by having me on there…Then when I traveled around and did shows year after year, I never thought about how long this would go. Sometimes I don’t think ahead. But now that you’re asking me that, now that I am that age, if someone asked me when I was 23 when I started, if a fortune teller told me that I’d still be doing this 27 years from now, I’d be amazed. Wow."
Did you realize what impact your Tonight Show appearance would have on the Boston scene? "Now I see that it was an example of the fantasy that could come true. That’s how I, if I did that, other people could do that, too. It made the dream a reality, not just for me but inspired other people to go on there. I think Kevin Meaney went on there, Jack Gallagher, Jimmy Tingle, Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone. So it showed that it could happen. I was lucky that the talent coordinator, Peter Lassally, liked me." Wright went on about Carson, though. "He always wanted you to do great. You could tell that. He really wanted you to get the laugh sitting there. Even though he was this giant legend guy, you felt he could relate to you because you were both comedians. You both felt that connection."
Of course, many young comics look to Wright as a giant legend guy. "I don’t know if they consider me a giant legend guy. I know that I looked up to him and George Carlin and Woody Allen. And now some people tell me I influence them and they watched me when they grew up. Because to me, I’m just me. But then I have to step out of it and say, well, I guess. You don’t think of that. You’re so focused about just doing the show and hopefully having a good set that you’re not really thinking of an overall impact. It’s fascinating to me because, like I said, to me I’m just me, so to have that, it’s kind of weird."
We talked a little bit about things we have in common. We also compared notes about the impact of crowd sizes. The smallest crowd Wright has performed in front of? "In the early days, 15 or 10-11 people. A weeknight, late at night, you’re on last, it’s just bizarre. It makes what you’re doing, it makes it seem like a crazy angle to it. You’re not only a comedian. You’re also a crazy person. I don’t know how it does that. The awkwardness because if you weren’t up there, the awkwardness wouldn’t be happening, so you being up there means you’re to blame for the awkwardness, even though it’s not you, it’s the situation." Some comics point out the situation right away. Wright? "I think I would just try to do my act regular, so it was probably extra weird."
His previous specials aired on HBO. Tonight’s debuts on Comedy Central. "Way more people see Comedy Central than HBO, I guess, because it comes with the regular cable package, and there’s people like devoted to that channel. So we thought it would reach more people. It also has a younger base, I think, than HBO, so I think for trying to introduce me to a bunch of people who don’t know me, it’s really a good place to go. And they’re hoping some of the older fans I’ve had for years and years would get drawn to watch me there and then they’d watch some of the other stuff, too."
Do you ever get an impulse to go see another comic perform anymore? "If I know someone who’s performing, I might go out to specifically see them, like Kevin Meaney or Schimmel, or Gilbert Gottfried," he said. "I don’t usually see the new people unelss I go out to try some new jokes. I’ve done that in the Comedy Studio. So in waiting to go on, I’d see these other people."
A lot of the new comics say you’re very helpful with advice, which is something comics wish they’d get more often from established stand-ups. Wright says it’s no bother. "I like talking to them," he said. "I just tell them simple things. You know, pretty basic things. They’re hard to do, but it’s basic."