The story of Steven Wright’s rise to success is one of almost comedy cliché. Back during a time when landing a gig on late night could turn someone into an overnight success, Wright got his big break on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” This would have been a career-altering performance for any up and coming comedian. One filled with high stakes, sweat-inducing lights and nerves — not whimsical butterflies flitting around in your stomach, but cold, unforgiving nerves.
Saturday, October 25
Royal Oak Music Theatre
$35 at the door
Wright’s comedy dreams started when he was a teenager watching Carson, and despite his anxiety and the inherent stress that comes with performing on television for the first time, he managed to stake his claim as a late night mainstay. His deadpan delivery and bizarre non sequiturs were a refreshing contrast against the brash vulgarity of predecessors like George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Since his crucial set, Wright has gone on to release Grammy-nominated comedy albums (I Have a Pony, I Still Have a Pony), create an Academy Award-winning short film (“The Appointments of Dennis Jennings”) and most recently, serve as a producer on the Emmy Award-winning “Louie.”
Wright recently sat down for a phone interview with The Michigan Daily to discuss his life in comedy and his upcoming performance at the Royal Oak Music Theatre this Saturday.
“I got so nervous that I wasn’t nervous anymore,” Wright said about his first set on “The Tonight Show.” “I got numb. When I watched it, when I was 14 or 15, it became my fantasy, like, ‘If I could go on (“The Tonight Show”), that would be amazing.’ That was the only thing I wanted to do was to go on there … It’s still the highlight of my career.”
Decades later, Wright is still making the rounds on late night television. He’s a frequent guest on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” which provides Wright with a platform to exercise his not-so-often-used improv skills.
“I never did that on the other shows,” he said. “It’s very interesting for me. It’s fun and it’s different. (Ferguson) is very trusting. He doesn’t want it to be set up … He’s one of the fastest comedy minds I’ve ever seen.”
When Wright isn’t seated next to suited up talk show hosts, he’s traveling around the country to perform stand up, usually going a few weeks at a time then returning home for a break, which is much different from the schedule he maintained when he was starting out.
“When I started in the clubs, I would do it Thursday through Sunday in Boston,” he recalls. “Then when I went on TV I started traveling around the country. I would be in comedy clubs for weeks at a time, then I went to theaters … two weeks, three weeks all in a row. I did that for years and years and years.”
This isn’t to say that Wright has slowed down. While living in New York, Wright became friends with fellow stand up, Louis C.K., who unexpectedly asked him to be a consulting producer for season four of “Louie.”
“It would be like if you asked me if I wanted to open a bakery in China with you,” Wright said. “You’re not going to ask me that are you?”
While he’s not committed to working on the next season of “Louie,” he’d love the chance to work on the show again.
“It’s amazing just using your comedy mind in that way,” he said. “Because usually I do write my own stand up and perform it, I don’t talk about it with anyone. I just go out and do it … so it was interesting to discuss all these things with another comedian, a brilliant comedian.”
Regardless of whether he continues to produce, Wright will stick with what he knows and loves best — stand up. And for fans coming to the Royal Oak show, they can expect the same dry, nonsensical one-liners that brought him there all way from “The Tonight Show” in 1982.
After decades in comedy with more accomplishments than most can dream of, it’s hard to imagine that there’s much territory left for Wright to conquer. But in the midst of his stand up, late night appearances and potential producing, he may have finally found something he hasn’t done yet.
“I’d like to join the Air Force.”
Let’s just hope he’s as good a pilot as he is a comic.