Veteran comedian, actor, painter, and songwriter Steven Wright brings his “surreal, absurdist” comedy to the Ohio Theatre on Playhouse Square on Sunday, February 20 at 7 p.m. Best known for his deadpan delivery and bizarre observations (“Some people are afraid of heights. I'm afraid of widths”), Wright holds the number 23 spot on Comedy Central's list of 100 greatest comedians of all time. He also claims two Grammy-nominated CDs, an Oscar-winning short film, and as been credited with single-handedly and unintentionally launching the alt-comedy scene.
We reached at his home in Massachusetts. Here are some highlights of the conversation.
Q: You are doing three Midwest dates next weekend, with Cleveland as your final stop. Is this the end of a longer tour, or are you touring in mini-bursts these days.
A: Sometimes I go (on tour) for a couple weeks but most of the time it is scattered throughout the year.
Q: Who thought it was a good idea to tour the Midwest in February?
A: (Laughs) I don't care where I go, it's when I go. I never requested a certain place in my whole career. I'll go anywhere: Canada, North Dakota. Where's Mount Rushmore? South Dakota? Middle of the night, me and my road manager went to see the presidents. It was February, and we were the only tourists there. There were these long back-and-forth railings to control the crowds, but we were the only ones there. It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie.”
Q: If weather and location are not important to you, what is?
A: Well, I'm always writing new material. Before I go on the road, I go through my notebooks and see which new lines I want to try out and those are the ones I do. Then I know which ones can stay and which ones have to go. It's like doing a painting that's never finished. It's always going through and changing the little details.
Q: You've been doing this for about 30 years now, right?
A: I started in the summer of 1979. So this summer, it will be 32 years.
Q: Over that long a period of time, most artists are expected to evolve their personas. Harrison Ford isn't still expected to be playing Han Solo. Yet we still expect Steven Wright to be pretty much the same Steven Wright we first saw 30 years ago. What's that like?
A: I never thought of that. But first, my persona is how I am. I didn't make this up. It is exaggerated, yes. When I am with my friends, I do get excited over a baseball game or get mad if I spill my coffee. But you don't hear that on stage. When I first went on stage I was frightened. Whatever monotone I have anyway, it was just exaggerated because I was nervous. I'm not scared to be on stage anymore, but that persona isn't going to change. Plus, while I'm up there, I'm concentrating on my act. I'm doing something. I'm trying to present the joke correctly, so I don't have time to start laughing or getting too animated.
That's the performance part. Another reason I don't think I've changed is the writing part. It's just how I think. It's in my brain. Anything I do is going to be like that — surreal, abstract — that's who I am.
It's like Kurt Vonnegut. He's my literary hero, and he never really changed. All his books came from the same place in his brain, and his perspective never really changed.
Or take the Rolling Stones. I'm not comparing myself to the Rolling Stones, but that's them. One time a friend said 'Why don't they do a different thing?' and I said, 'What? Are you kidding me? The fact that they have one thing is amazing; you want them to stop that and find another thing?
Q: You mentioned paintings and I wanted to ask whether your paintings are a true artistic expression or are they something that is just part of your brand?
A: They are a true expression. I have never, ever thought about anything I do, 'This is what they expect of me, this is what matches my style.' I'm just making shit up. Your brain has a kind of a fingerprint. When stuff comes out of your brain, it's all coming from the same place. My comedy is abstract and surreal and that's what I'd say about my paintings, too. I've been painting and drawing since I was in high school, even before I did comedy. And the great thing about doing those paintings is that comedy needs logic, it has to make some kind of sense. But the painting doesn't demand that logic. I can go completely on my gut. It doesn't have to fit into any model. It's just completely on feeling and emotion.
I write songs, too. That's kind of in-between the paintings and the jokes in terms of logic. And I like doing all those things, just because I like making things up. I didn't chose different (modes of expression) so that I wouldn't get sick of the others, but it does keep the other ones fresher because you're doing it in different ways.
Q: I was on your website, and noticed it wasn't entirely up to date. For example, the first article in the “latest news” section was from 2007 (big laugh from Steven). You don't seem to be on Twitter, and while I can find a Steven Wright Facebook page, it only has 549 fans. Can you talk about how social media has entered your life — or not?
A: I can't tell you why, but I've always been years behind in technology! I think that I am basically an old-fashioned guy and when something new comes down the pike I'm like, 'I don't need that, I'm fine with what I have now.' But there seems to be a seven-year cycle. After seven years I slowly think, 'Well let me try that,' and then I find out it's amazing! I can't believe I didn't have this!
It was the same way with cell phones and computers. And now you are asking me about Twitter. Just by coincidence, it happens that in the next few weeks, I'm going on to both of those. I've talked to my agent, my manager, my friends, and they've all said, 'You have to go on to these things, it's the way of the world,' so even though these things have been out for years, here I go again, seven years behind the times.
Q: I bet you've never heard of Foursquare!
A: No, what's that?
Q: It's an iPhone app that let's your friends know exactly where you are.
A: Ha! I want the opposite of that — something that won't let anybody know where I am!
Q: One final question: Beard or no beard?
A: (Big laugh) I have a beard right now, but when I'm there I'll have no beard. I've been having no beard lately, but now I have one because I just put off shaving. It's a procrastination beard. But I will be shaving before I come to Cleveland!
For tickets or more information, go to playhousesquare.com.