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January 23, 2018

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Q+A: Steven Wright talks Las Vegas, ‘Louie’ and his Mount Rushmore of comics

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Jorge Rios

Comedian and actor Steven Wright.

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Steven Wright.

Steven Wright

The voice doesn’t change.

Steven Wright, when asked how he feels about visiting Las Vegas, answers in the same Ambien-meets-hangover tone that has helped set him apart in his nearly 40-year career as a comedian and actor.

But listen to the words — not the deadpan intonation or the “This is your brain on muscle relaxants” cadence — and you get a strong sense that visiting Las Vegas is a genuine thrill for him. Wright’s fascination for the absurd and nonsensical (classic joke: It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it), meshes with the city’s carnival atmosphere and over-the-top flashiness.

“I totally enjoy coming there because I love the contrast,” Wright said in a phone interview last Friday. “I live about 40 minutes outside Boston in a town called Carlisle, which is near Concord, which is where Walden Pond is. I mean I’m going from complete nature to, like, the underbelly of a spaceship. Las Vegas looks like a spaceship flew by, and this piece of it fell off onto the earth. And that’s Las Vegas.”

Wright, who has been performing in Las Vegas for about 15 years, is at Orleans Showroom on Friday, July 10, and Saturday, July 11.

It’s been nearly 33 years since he fulfilled a fantasy by performing on “The Tonight Show,” which launched an eclectic career that has featured work in projects as diverse as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Babe.” He won an Oscar in 1989 for Best Short Live-Action Film and has become a regular guest on late-night talk shows.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of several big moments in his career — the release of his Grammy-nominated debut album, “I Have a Pony,” the broadcast of his debut HBO standup special and his first appearance in a major motion picture, “Desperately Seeking Susan.”

Now he’s working as a consulting producer on “Louie,” the FX series starring his friend Louis C.K.

During our interview, Wright looked back on his career, discussed his work on “Louie” and expanded on why Las Vegas delights him. Here’s a condensed version of the conversation:

Please take this as the compliment it’s meant to be, but you don’t seem much like a hard-partying, hard-gambling Las Vegas guy. When you’re not onstage, what do you do when you’re here?

I don’t gamble; I’ve never been interested in gambling. We have friends show up at the show, and I like to go watch people. I like to go to other hotels and people watch because it has a whole other vibe there than anywhere else.

I’ve always loved surrealism. And, to me, the whole Strip — the Eiffel Tower (at Paris) and New York-New York, the buildings themselves — they’re like Salvador Dali paintings that somebody went out and built. I love the bombardment of visual stimulation that is different than anywhere else.

I mean, I’ve rented a motorcycle and ridden to the desert for no reason. As you know, you can go like 20 minutes out, and it’s like you’re in a Clint Eastwood movie. And that magnifies the insanity, too, because then you come back, and it’s all a hallucination — like a seesaw hallucination.

When Jerry Seinfeld had Don Rickles on his “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” show, Seinfeld listed his standup Mount Rushmore as Rickles, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and George Carlin. I’m wondering who might be on your comedy Mount Rushmore?

I would have Rickles, Pryor, Carlin and Woody Allen.

Carlin and Woody Allen are the main reasons I wanted to do this — and Johnny Carson because all of the people I saw were on Johnny Carson. I loved Johnny Carson and all the comedians he had on there.

Going on “The Tonight Show” in ’82 — so that’s 33 years ago in August — that’s the biggest, most exciting thing of my whole career. Even now, even still to this day. Watching that show when I was 14 or 15 and loving Johnny — loving, loving, loving him — it wasn’t even a goal; it was a fantasy to go on there.

Have you ever had an interest in hosting one of the late-night shows? I think you’d be a great interviewer.

You do? Why do you say that?

Because I think you’d come up with unexpected and very interesting questions.

Well, my friend Mike has been telling me for years what you just said to me. I’d like to do it as a guest host, like do it two or three nights. I would never want to do it all the time. But no one has ever asked me to do it.

Why wouldn’t you want to do it all the time?

Because I love the freedom of what I do. I work on “Louie” when he’s shooting. When he’s writing, I go and do shows. I have a lot of freedom in my life. I’m like a painter, and I wouldn’t want to drive to this place and talk to 80 people all day and then do the show and then go back the next day. You know? I like this version of it. I could do it three nights. Every two years.

OK, so let me move back to comedians and rankings. Comedy Central ranked the 100 greatest standups of all time, and they had you at No. 23. You were two spots ahead of Bob Hope and one ahead of Redd Foxx. You think that’s about right?

I think that’s like measuring clouds. Bob Hope. I’m ahead of Bob Hope (laughs) …

So you’re basically saying that something like who’s the greatest standup can’t be quantified.

No, it’s too many angles on everything. The era, when you were alive, you know what I mean? It’s too abstract.

So let’s move on to your work with Louis C.K. I’ve heard you say that he has one of the best comedy minds ever. Can you expand on that? What makes him one of the greats?

I’m astounded by his mind. He writes the show, he edits it, he directs it, he’s in it. He could have a career in any one of those. He could do any one of those things as an entire career. Then his standup mind — he’s unbelievable.

What do you do as a consulting producer? Do you write material for the show?

I’m like a sounding board. He tells me the story; we talk about the episode. I go to the shooting and watch it being filmed, and we discuss how it’s shot, whether it’s funny and what we think of that. Then I see it as it’s being edited and give him my opinion of how the show is when it’s edited together.

It’s like Louis has a band. And he has me sit in a little bit sometimes in the band. That’s what it’s like.

What’s the atmosphere and the creative collaboration like? Do you discuss funny things very seriously? Or is it more like you laugh about the things that are coming up?

It’s not like (voice goes deeper), “If he would come in two seconds later, then that would mean this.” It’s like a very high quality of joking around.

Totally random question: I’ve seen you in a Red Sox hat a lot, but are you also a fan of the Patriots? And, if so, as someone who seems to really appreciate the absurd, what do you think about the flap over the air pressure in the footballs?

I follow the Patriots, but it’s not like I’m crazy about them. What fascinates me more, and it’s funny you bring it up, is I cannot believe how long they’ve been talking about it. All sports is escape. And then you’re not even watching the sport. You’re hearing guys talk about the sport. Next I should get a stencil book of the guys talking about the game and then keep getting further and further away from the reality of it. You’re exhausting me by making me think of things like this.

I don’t want to get into anything too proprietary, but what’s your process like? Do you sit down at a computer? Do you write in a notebook? Or do you even have a formal process?

You know at an airport in the tower, those radar screens? They show where the planes are in the sky, you know, with those little green dots? My subconscious was scanning (like that). It’s like I’m not going to the supermarket to write a joke. I’m not going to the museum to write a joke.

I’m just going to look because my subconscious is scanning. And then I’d see a sign or a word, and I’d think, “Oh, this can mean this or that,” and I’d write it down. That’s still what I do.

You’re on Twitter and Facebook, but it doesn’t look like you tweet or post very often. How come?

I guess it’s from the time that I grew up. I write jokes and perform live in front of people, and to me that’s enough of gushing something out of my head. That’s enough. I stand there in front of hundreds of people; I don’t also need to say, “Ooh, what do you think of this?! Look at this and look at this and this!”

I’m not criticizing the rest of the technology people who are doing that. I just don’t have any need to do it. Do you follow that? How old are you? Like 29?

No, I’m 50.

You are? You sound way younger.

Well, I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but …

No, it’s fine, but I thought I was talking to a much younger person the whole time. We’re going to have to start this all over again because I have different answers for different age groups (laughs).

What projects can we look forward to?

I’m working on a book of secrets, and I don’t want to discuss it (laughs.)

Steven Wright is at Orleans Showroom on Friday, July 10, and Saturday, July 11.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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