The Wright Touch 

I overruled several amazing writers to be the one to interview comedian Steven Wright, ahead of his April 30 performance at the Florida Theater. I wanted to see if the Steven Wright who entertained me for decades was the same guy who would be on the other side of the phone.  I wondered if his delivery would be different or if I would be caught off guard by his cerebral takes in life?  The interview ended up being everything I wanted it to be and more.

From the start, the interview just about went off the rails when I mentioned I was a lawyer by trade. “What do you mean, you are a lawyer?” Wright asked. It’s not everyday people are interviewed by an attorney… and most don’t like it or even want to do it. But then again, it’s not every day that a lawyer buys a thirty-four-year-old alt-weekly. I told him that this wasn’t a deposition.  I was just a fan and fellow story teller trying to learn from a person who has spent decades learning to craft jokes and to use pauses at the right time for maximum thought-provoking humor.  Our talk wasn’t a typical interview.  It was more like a free master-craft session with Steven Wright on the science of comedy and communication and I feel privileged to have attended it.

Wright hasn’t performed live on stage much throughout the pandemic and is enthusiastically looking forward to being back bonding with audiences.  He spent much of the last two years writing and working on new material. “No one can stop their mind. We’ve all been a bit isolated because of the pandemic, but I am looking forward to going on stage again.” He can’t wait to get back in front of the audience, “They are like my friends, except I don’t really know their names. There is such a connection.” Wright can’t wait to connect with you. Entertain you. Make you laugh. He wants nothing more.

Crafting good jokes is what makes a good show, it “is like a painting which is never finished.” “You can’t truly try (jokes) out on your friends and your family. A one-on-one interaction is very different than the crowd. The pure test is in front of an audience.” It’s a test which Wright has always hoped would be his career. He longed to be a stand-up comedian while watching greats like David Brenner, Robert Kline and Richard Pryor on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

“When I was 23, a comedy club opened up and I thought I have got to go down and see if I can actually do this. I went to an open mic night. I was very passionate about stand-up. I wanted to try it. Maybe it would happen, maybe it wouldn’t.”  It did happen for Steven Wright.  His comedy career has been tremendously successful, with appearances in movies, awards, including an Academy Award in 1989 for Best Short Live-Action Film for The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, which he co-wrote (with Michael Armstrong) and starred in.

Wright and I also discussed the anxiety of performance and how it fuels you, even as someone who is a self-described “introvert.” “It’s just different-contrasting talking to two of your friends compared to five people you don’t know,” Wright added, “I get anxious, but it’s because it’s crazy what I am doing. To be in front of that many people and try and make them laugh for eighty minutes, it’s very intense. So, I get anxious. It’s like walking a tightrope. I know I am going into this intense thing. Just like you being in your office versus being in the courtroom are completely different.” Touché.

He added, “When you start doing comedy, to me, you are the teacher and the student. It’s one thing. You are both things at once. Someone can give you a little bit of advice, but you only learn from going on there. If you study laws and trials, you can study the shit out of it, take classes and everything, but when you walk into that court and are really doing it, that’s a whole different level. I learned that even silence can be used on purpose. Pausing normal on purpose. Even drinking water can be purposeful. It’s the art of presentation and you continue to learn all of these different things.” It is the very essence of being passionate about your craft no matter what that is.

That, my friends, is where passion means science meets comedy. It takes caring about something so much you deeply analyze even the quiet moments between words as to how that makes people feel. It’s a skill that does not come naturally. To then make that funny? That is an art form few people can achieve. Our thirty-minute conversation was a constant give and take and kept me on my toes because Steven Wright cares about people, the role of comedy in our society and the mixed science and art of hilarious communication. He has spent decades wanting to make friends out of strangers through laughter.

The question I had to ask was whether the Steven Wright we see on television and on stage was the real Steven Wright. I asked, “Is the Steven Wright we see on stage or television how your brain works, a performance or some combination of both?” It’s an unusual question, indeed. Certainly, Wright freely admitted, he doesn’t have 80-minute one-sided conversations where his only job is to make you laugh on a daily basis.  His mind works in the same way he performs- smart, funny, analytical. He didn’t have a different voice and it wasn’t a gimmick. It was real and intuitive. “It’s how my brain works. I see things from a slightly different angle- everyday things.” He added.

Wright was ranked one of the greatest comedians of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine and has entertained audiences on and off screen for decades with one-liners, non-sequiturs and the ability to deliver comedy in a rarified way.  We welcome him back to Jacksonville.

Steven Wright will be at the historic Florida Theater on Saturday, April 30, 2022, at 8:00 PM. You can buy tickets at https://floridatheatre.com/event/steven-wright/.

About John M. Phillips

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