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March 21, 2012

Steven Wright's from Boston -- An Interview, Plus Josh Gondelman
by Liz McKeon - 0

By WICF Co-Producer Michelle Barbera

A few months ago one of my favorite up-and-coming young comedians and three-time WICF performer, Josh Gondelman, opened for comedy legend Steven Wright at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, MA. I had the opportunity to do a short interview with them after the show, and a longer telephone interview with Steven Wright just yesterday.
I’ve heard the expression “Never meet your idols” and that’s sometimes true (I’m looking at you, unnamed New Yorker cartoonist) but in this case I couldn’t have been happier to have made the four-plus hour drive to Northampton and back. As I headed home at 1 am in the driving rain, all I could do was pump a fist in the air and say, “Worth it!” Both Steven and Josh couldn’t have been kinder or more generous with their time.
I love a lot of styles of stand up, but Wright’s concise, absurdist jokes are most in line with — and have been a huge influence on — my own style. I started out by asking him about his comedy voice:

Steven: I have no rules, this section, that section, I like Andrew Dice Clay, Robert Schimmel, both filthy comedians, and really smart, especially Schimmel. If it’s funny it’s funny. I don’t go for categories.

The late and great Robert Schimmel’s graphic, hilarious, and instructive (gentle, gentlemen) stories about his first sexual encounter. (NSFW)

Michelle: And your voice finds you, right? It’s just what comes out of you.
Steven: I’m just narrating my brain.
Michelle: Josh, how would you describe your style?
Josh: I'd call it "friendly."  
Michelle: As a young comedian, how is your style evolving?
Josh: I'm working on moving from being a short joke writer to being able to nest jokes inside longer stories and sustain an audience's attention that way. I'm trying to be able to talk about my whole life in a funny way, too, and not just present things that seem like obvious jokes.

I missed New England. It’s in me. New England is part of the fabric of me and I wanted to go home.

Michelle: What was it like opening for Steven Wright?
Josh: It was really fun! The crowd was great, and the Calvin Theater was beautiful. Steven was really nice, and it was amazing to sit backstage and watch him perform.
Michelle: Is opening a show a different beast from headlining?
Josh: Opening and closing a show have different benefits and challenges, for sure. When you open, you've got to get a crowd ready to hear jokes, plus they've never heard of you, so you have to prove you're competent. Closing a show, people are there to see -you-, so there's less to prove up front, but the responsibility of sending people home happy is more on you.
Michelle: So what is it like to close for Josh?
Steven: I was happy that he allowed me to do that and the audience liked both of us so it was good.
Michelle: You still live in Boston, right?
Steven:  I grew up in Burlington, went to Boston, went to New York City, LA, New York City, and then back to Boston.
Michelle: What made you come back to Boston?
Steven: I missed New England. It’s in me. New England is part of the fabric of me and I wanted to go home.
Michelle: What are your other favorite places that you’ve lived?
Steven:  New York City. That’s the best. Have fun there, Josh. There’s nothing like New York City.
Michelle: What do you love about it?
Steven: The energy, the stimulation, all different people. Food, music, art, there’s just a huge spectrum, and the energy’s incredible.
Michelle: Do you think that’s the place for young comedians to go?
Steven: For me I started in Boston. I like that I started not in LA or New York, so I could develop without people watching me and getting in side of me, and then I went, so I think it’s good to start somewhere else and then go to these places.
Michelle: Do you feel like Boston is a good place to start? Is it a welcoming atmosphere?
Steven:  It was when I was in the clubs.
Michelle: What were some of the clubs you were at?
Steven: Comedy Connection (now defunct) was in a different place and Ding Ho Comedy Club was in Inman Square. Those were the two clubs and then there were other places that had one thing a night.
Michelle: Josh, how did you find Boston as a city to start out doing comedy?

If the audience isn't there for comedy, they're not obligated to listen to you. Maybe they just want to drink beer and watch football. Comedy isn't the center of everyone's universe.

Josh: Boston was a great place to start out. There was a great mix of really accomplished headliners like Tony V and Lenny Clarke to learn from, as well as a crop of guys like Joe List and Myq Kaplan who were starting to come into their own. There's a lot of good stage time, and a really supportive and loyal community of comedians. 
Michelle: How is New York different? Any tips for comedians moving there?
Josh: New York is so vast. There are so many shows, and so many comedians, and it's taken me a little while to figure out what places I like to hang out at and like to perform at. I'd say if you move, be prepared to work really hard all the time, because people here have a really intense and inspiring work ethic for both writing and getting onstage. Also, I'm still pretty new, so if anyone has tips for me, I'll take those!
Michelle: Who are some of your comedy influences? Who are some female comedians you admire?
Josh: So many influences! I'm a big hometown booster, so I love to see people like Bill Burr and Shane Mauss and Joe Wong who came out of the Boston scene. In terms of female comedians, I think that Wendy Liebman's joke writing is pretty perfect. And Kelly MacFarland is just such a dynamic and engaging performer onstage. Gah! So many! I love how Tig Notaro can work so quietly and really draw the crowd in to her. Maria Bamford has such a singular comedic voice, which is a thing I really try to strive for.
Michelle: Do you write everyday? What are some of your techniques?
Josh: I do write every day. Sometimes travel makes it difficult, but I try to at least tweak some old jokes or make notes for something I want to work on. It helps me to write for different projects, so if I'm burned out on jokes, I'll write an essay or a sketch, and then I'll come back to standup stuff.
Michelle: What have been your biggest challenges in stand up?
Josh: It's always frustrating to have an idea that you think is funny that you just can't get audiences on board with. Translating my actual thoughts and feelings into jokes is challenging, but really exciting when I can get it right.
Michelle: Which have been your best experiences?
Josh: I always love to do shows with people I like as friends and admire as comedians. When I recorded my CD ("Everything's the Best" out now on Rooftop Comedy Productions and available on iTunes), I had some of my best friends and favorite people on the shows with me. Shawn Donovan, Sean Sullivan, Myq Kaplan, Dan Boulger, Erin Judge, and Gaby Dunn. It was really nice to have people that I really like and enjoy around on a night that was kind of important for me. My parents and sister came too, and they're not comedians, but they are terrific.
Michelle: You ran an open mic night on Boston for a long time. What is your advice to comedians trying to perform for less than rapt audiences at open mics?
Josh: Don't be too self-deprecating if it's not going well. Just learn how to be onstage and feel comfortable. If the audience isn't there for comedy, they're not obligated to listen to you. Maybe they just want to drink beer and watch football. Comedy isn't the center of everyone's universe.

Gabby Dunn (catch her at WICF 2012 in the Stand Up Showcase hosted by Myq Kaplan and Micah Sherman on Saturday) and three-time WICF performer Josh Gondelman, very happily posing with comedy great Steven Wright after the show at the Calvin Theater in Northampton.

I continued my interview with Steven Wright more recently by telephone:

Michelle: I went to call you and I realized I had no idea when a good time to call you would be. What is a typical day like for you?
Steven: Reading and exercising and just writing something I write stuff down all the time the notebooks are all mixed together with serious thoughts, funny thoughts, play the guitar, hang out with my friends and then a joke jumps out and and I write it down.
Michelle: Have you ever had a regular office job?

 Paula Poundstone. I started with her. I went to see her a couple of weeks ago at the Wilbur and I was stunned. She's a genius. She's absolutely amazing. 

Steven: I had jobs in college. I got lucky. I started doing comedy in '79 I was painting dorms, MIT COOP bookstore, then when I started making a little bit of money I just started making a living doing comedy. Back then there were a bunch of clubs in Boston you could make a living just performing in Boston. I don't mean a good living  you could just barely pay your rent. I got lucky. Wen you're in your early twenties and you can pay rent, that's really something.
Michelle: I was really heartened when you took an interest in the Women in Comedy Festival.
Steven: I like to see people at an early stage of comedy. I know hard it is and I like to see someone figuring it out. I respect people who put themselves on the line like that. It's like watching someone walk a tightrope. It's not just new people. I went to see Don Gavin a couple of weeks ago and he's been doing it for 30 years. I like seeing people do it, especially because I do it myself. It's like seeing another baseball team.
Michelle: Who are some female comedians you like?
Steven: Paula Poundstone. I started with her. I went to see her a couple of weeks ago at the Wilbur and I was stunned. She's a genius. She's absolutely amazing. She was talking to some people in the audience and she did almost 30 minutes off the top of her head that was the same level of her act. She was amazing.
Carol Leifer, Elaine Boosler is an amazing comedian. Wendy Liebman is great too. 
Michelle: You don't go out to clubs to work out new material. How do you do you develop your new jokes?
Steven: When I'm out touring, I just slide it in. The clubs I haven't done a while. When I'd put together a five-minute set for TV even that was material I was familiar with and would assemble it into a set. I'd go to the clubs to assemble the it.
Michelle: I don't know why it's so weird that I'm talking to Steven Wright and you sound just like Steven Wright. That shouldn't be weird but it is.
Steven: [Laughing (yes, people, I made Steven Wright laugh)] I've gotten versions of that before. Somehow people think that how I talk on stage is something I'm putting on. What happened was that when I started out, I was so afraid of being on stage even though I talk like this it was more of a monotone, it came out afraid in the beginning and then what I do now is a version of that, but it's just how it comes out. I don't think I'm going on stage now I have to talk like this [monotone].
Michelle: But you do have a slightly modified version of your speech on stage. Right now you're more animated than on stage.
Steven: That's true. But it's not something I think about, "now I'm going on stage, I have talk a certain way", it just come out.
Michelle: You've said in the past that your comedy comes organically from your thoughts and conversations, rather than sitting down to write, how do you keep track of and develop your thoughts into jokes?
Steven: It all comes down to kidding around but only some of it's jokes. Kidding around with your friends, but sometimes a joke will pop out. You just have to have a sense of humor.

You mentioned Monty Python. I really loved them too. They were surreal, like a Dali painting.

Michelle: Were you always like that? Always kidding around?
Steven: I was funny with my friends in junior high, but my one or two friends. I wasn't trying to get a whole class of 30 to turn around and laugh.  But I wanted to just kid around and I was funny at doing that.  I realized I wanted to do stand up by watching Johnny Carson. I loved Johnny Carson, and then the people who would come on, this was around 1970, people like David Brenner, Bill Cosby, Robert Klein, and of course George Carlin, and I thought, this is fascinating! These people are just standing there saying this stuff on stage, and that's when I realized you could do that and I started to want to do it.
Carlin is tops. When I met him I couldn't believe I was talking to him. He wrote more than any other comedian ever. And he was so nice and so supportive.
Michelle: He seemed like he was really passionate about comedy and about what he thought was right and wrong, and that he wasn't a jealous person. He wanted to see others succeed.
Steven: Yes, he did. He was amazing.
There was a radio show in Boston when I was a kid that would play comedy albums. Every week on the show the guy would play two comedy albums and that's where I first heard Woody Allen. To me he's the greatest. You mentioned Monty Python. I really loved them too. They were surreal, like a Dali painting.
Michelle: You’re also an artist. How long have you been dong art?
Steven: I was drawing since second or third grade, I switched to abstract stuff in my early twenties. When you draw something real you really notice the details in things and then later in comedy is based on noticing things in the world, that's were the comedy in the world. If there was a wine bottle on a table next to a glass, you want to make it as real as possible, there's a shape between the bottle and the glass. It took my along time that there was a shape in between. Really noticing things because you're really trying to draw them accurately.
Two ideas that have a common denominator that aren't usually connected.
Michelle: I love that quote!
Steven: With painting, it just hits me I need to paint. Usually it's just one painting, but last summer I did a bunch. (You can see some of Steven Wright's work on his website here.) I love the abstract stuff because it doesn't have to make any sense. It's in your gut and comedy is complete logic. It's another way of creating where there's no logic. I barely even know what it is. It's just a feeling.
Michelle: Now that's the technology is so accessible, have you thought of doing more of your own films or is stand up really where your heart is?
Steven: I want to do more of everything. Comedy is thinking. You can't stop your brain. I've mostly been doing stand up but I want to do more of everything.
Michelle: (Amen to that. We all want more of everything from the mind of Steven Wright. )
Thank you so much Steven, this has truly been an honor.
Steven: Thank you and congratulations on the festival. I'll definitely try to get something this weekend.

Steven Wright and Rowan Atkinson in a scene from Wright’s 1988 HBO film “The Appointments of Dennis Jennings." The film was co-written by Steven Wright. Clearly.

- Josh Gondelman on "Why I Quit Teaching."


You may see Steven at the Women in Comedy Festival watching the WICF performers out there - putting themselves on the line and walking that comedy tightrope.

Michelle Barbera is Co-Creator and Co-Producer of the Women in comedy Festival. She has been performing, producing, writing, and directing comedy for over a decade. She lives in the Boston area with her husband, daughter, cat, and various species of unwanted ants.

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