Demetri Martin | 3.18.11

"Alright. If I’m going to try to get them to laugh, that joke’s not going to be involved."


As a kid, did you ever read the classic book, The Story of Ferdinand? It’s about this bull who doesn’t want to fight in the ring; he just wants to sit underneath his favorite tree and smell the flowers. Call him naïve, but Ferdinand appreciates the simple joys in life. Comedian Demetri Martin is a lot like Ferdinand. His comedy routines are devoid of politics, controversy and snark. Instead, Martin prefers one-liners, palindromes and drawings. But don’t be fooled; it takes a lot of thought to craft a joke without making someone the butt.
Since the end of his Comedy Central show, Important Things with Demetri Martin, in 2010, Martin has turned his focus to stand-up, screen writing and promotion for his upcoming book, This Is a Book. His stand-up tour brings him to the Pageant in St. Louis on Friday, March 18, so ahead of this stop Martin took time out to chat on the phone with Playback:STL.
PB: You had a piece, “Who Am I?” in the New Yorker a few days ago. [] Is this the kind of format we can expect in your book?
DM: That’s one of the pieces in the book. It’s a first person essay of sorts, where I say “I” in it a lot, and the writer is talking to you directly. But there are a few short stories in the book that are in third person, in more traditional short-story form. There are some list pieces, I put a crossword puzzle in there and some palindromes and little epigrams, and I have some random jokes sprinkled around. I tried to mix it up; it’s about 300 pages, and it has drawings mixed in, too.
PB: Did you sit down and say, “I want to write a book,” and generate all new material, or is this stuff you’ve collected over the years, and you decided to put it all together?
DM: I had wanted to write a book to see how I could make comedy in that form—to be read. It’s kind of a more one-on-one exchange, I think. So I got a deal, kind of a blind deal where they said, “alright, yeah, a book of essays or something would be cool; go do it.” . . . It’s all new material. I went through my notebooks and gathered a lot of ideas, but it’s not like the material was sitting around and I said, “oh, let me collect it into a book.” I wrote everything for that book.
PB: Is that what the process is like when you write jokes as well—you put things down in notebooks and then comb back over it later and decide what works?
DM: Years ago when I started, I just tried to write one-liners. I think my head naturally goes to one-liners, like when I’m walking around daydreaming or when I’m alone. Even when I’m having conversations with other people, little jokes just float into my head. So when I started doing stand-up, I started writing that stuff down. What I found was, some of my ideas work as stand-up jokes, but a lot of them don’t. But I still think they’re valuable ideas, so I write everything down. A lot of those [ideas] also go down in the form of drawings. Now when I want to make stuff I can go back through my notebooks, and it’s like having a little reference book, or a bunch of them.
PB: Over the years have you developed an intuitive sense of, when you find something funny, whether or not other people will think it’s funny?
DM: I think it’s pretty humbling that I haven’t gotten much better at that. Maybe a little bit since I started. But I don’t think I can honestly say, “Yeah, yeah, I just know what’s going to be funny,” and I’m set. I often have to try a lot of jokes on stage and hope that some of them are going to work. But some of them that I think aren’t going to be funny, are. So I say OK, the audience told me. Then other ones that I think are going to be funny to other people, are not. Sometimes I’m stubborn and I try [a joke] a couple more times. Then I realize, alright, if I’m going to try to get them to laugh, that joke’s not going to be involved.
A lot of it seems to be about being perceptive—paying attention to what’s around you and to the audience. I always mention this Woody Allen quote because I think it’s really smart, he said, “The audience teaches you how you’re funny.” It’s true, and in stand-up you have that benefit. One of the interesting things about writing a book was that I didn’t have the feedback of a live audience.
PB: You’ve talked about wanting to be yourself or be honest with your audience. So if you’re not stepping into a persona and you’re really putting yourself out there, does that make the rejection harder when something does fall flat?
DM: Yeah. I think for everybody, we ride these little waves of vulnerability and self-confidence. Sometimes you feel good and a little more confident and so it really doesn’t matter, but then other days for whatever reason you’re feeling more porous and sensitive. But doing something for a while has the benefit of making the disappointments hurt a little bit less, because there’s a larger body of work to compare it all to. When you first start doing stand-up, if you perform twice and you bomb once, then 50% of your career is a bomb. It’s about averages: if you perform ten times and bomb once, now you’re down to 10%.
Out over the years, if you perform thousands of times there might be hundreds of times where you bomb or it doesn’t go well, but you can put it in a larger context and it becomes part of a larger mosaic. Then no one thing really means too much, both the good and the bad. It’s more like a larger experience, which is cool. I’m grateful for that, and I’m glad that I started when I did. In fact I often wish I’d started earlier, but it’s nice to have some of that experience racked up.
PB: Stepping in front of a live audience is an adrenaline rush, and a lot of times that comes across as manic energy in comedians’ routines. On the other hand, your routines are usually low-key. Do you experience any nerves?
DM: That was one of the things that made me think I had found the right career for me; I really don’t get nervous before I go onstage. You know, if I’m on Letterman or something I might get nervous because I don’t do that regularly. And even then I don’t get too nervous. But in terms of being in a room with people, that feels totally fine to me.
It’s funny; it took me some years to understand that some comedians do get nervous before they go out. Or like, they can’t eat. I’d have friends who, we’d be touring together, and then we’d get food and I’d be eating a sub sandwich or pizza right before I’d go onstage, and I’d be [asking], “You’re not going to eat?” They’d say, “No, no I can’t eat before I go on.” That was one of the things that made me feel lucky, that I can eat a sandwich right before—like still be chewing and come out, and be totally fine. Imagine if this was your job, and you’d get nervous every time you had to do it. That would be terrible.
PB: Don’t some comedians like that rush?
DM: If you connect with the audience there’s a real high, and that can be great, and it’s so nice when people clap and cheer and stuff. That’s clearly a wonderful feeling. But I think what’s more fun about [stand-up] is getting to share some new material and improvise. You know, see what’s going on in the room and really make comedy, not just deliver it.
PB: When you’re daydreaming and generating ideas, is the process more visual or verbal?
DM: When I draw stuff, that certainly feels more visual. If I’m putting words together it feels more verbal or auditory. There’s also a kinesthetic aspect to it—how things feel and even, in a performance, how someone moves onstage and uses that space. When I’m daydreaming I like to go on walks, it helps me combine all three of those elements. I’ll have my Walkman—or, iPod, since it’s the 21st century—and my headphones and just walk around. When I lived in New York it was really easy, you [could] just hop on the subway and get off anywhere and go walk around. It’s like a show happening for your eyes, everywhere; you just look. California’s a little different, but I live close to the beach so I can go walk down there and the people watching’s pretty good. Your mind can kind of wander and get into visual spaces or [you can be] listening to things, thinking of word combinations, reading signs, stuff like that.
PB: When you’re walking around are you more attuned to the external surroundings, or are you in another place in your head, imagining a scene or a bit?
DM: It goes back and forth; I think for me, to flow back and forth between the two is helpful. Even when I’m driving, I pay attention, but if I’m listening to the radio—I remember one time I was driving to do a show and I thought alright, let me listen to the radio and see if I can write some jokes based on words that I hear. . . Or, if I’m in a conversation with friends, something can trigger [an idea], so that’s why I always have a little notebook. Something leads to an idea and then I jot it down and save it, rather than just say something in a conversation spontaneously, and then I go do it onstage and that person ends up seeing my show.
PB: That would be awkward, is that something you’ve run into before?
DM: I think that’s common among comics. Over the years comedians find ways to grab material or little triggers without cannibalizing their whole lives, hopefully.
PB: You were a producer on your Comedy Central show. Do you like having that level of control, or do you prefer to stick to the creative side of things?
DM: Having done it, I like it and I’m glad I know more about it. . . . I think it’s a lot easier to empathize with others and collaborate with them when you’ve had to carry that burden. But, I think it’s easier for me to just come up with [material]. To have to worry about budgets and everything, it’s not a natural fit for me. I think I got better at it by the second season.
It just really helps you appreciate what everybody is doing and how valuable creative thinking is, in any aspect. From the budgets to locations to wardrobe—every aspect, if I had a more creative problem solver in the job it really made a huge difference for what we got to choose in the end, how many options we had and what ended up on the screen. In the second season I had a line producer who was much more flexible and creative than I had the first season, and I could see the results. It was unbelievable—in terms of what we had to choose from in the edit, how many more options we had, how much more footage—I could see a direct result.
PB: You have a new movie out, Take Me Home Tonight, with Topher Grace. Would you like to talk a bit about that?
DM: I’m only in a couple scenes. They let me improvise a little bit, so I got to have fun with the part. But [Topher Grace] produced it. Really it’s Topher’s movie, he worked really hard on it. . .  I’m still pretty new to acting but I think it’s a funny movie. I just watched Sixteen Candles last night again, hadn’t watched a John Hughes film in a while. . . . I think they did a good job of capturing that feel of ‘80s movies without making it a parody of the ‘80s.
PB: Are you working on any other projects right now? There have been rumors about a contract with CBS, a movie with Zach Galifianakis and Paul Rudd. Are you moving forward with any of that?
DM: With CBS, I finished my pilot and they’re not going to shoot it. I wrote a pilot this fall and it was going to be like a multi-camera show. So that’s finished. And the movie with Zach and Paul is a script that I’ve been writing for years. I got the deal, like, five years ago or something, then it didn’t go forward, then it moved forward a little, then it didn’t, and back and forth, back and forth. The latest is that [Jonathan] Dayton and [Valerie] Farist are attached to direct it; they directed Little Miss Sunshine. Zach and Paul and I are attached as actors in the movie. We were almost going to shoot it last year then the financing fell through, and now it’s being considered again, so I don’t know.
But I’ve learned some real lessons about patience in that world. It’s like, don’t even think it’s going to happen, just get back to work and write something else. So my next move is going to be to write another screenplay, and I’m not sure yet what it’s going to be about. I have a few ideas so I have to figure out which one could be a good movie.
PB: That seems like a movie a lot of people would like to see, just given the actors and directors on board. Do you know why there’s such a holdup with the financing?
DM: I worked hard on that script; it’s a good script. I guess movie-making is such a risky business that even with all of the elements in place, when it comes time to get that money, if the movie isn’t a straightforward—like, it’s a straight-out comedy; or it’s dramatic, it’s going to be Oscar-worthy; or whatever they want it to be, however the analysis goes—I guess if it’s not clearly, according to their metric, a certain kind of home run. . . then the perceived risk really goes up and people don’t want to lose money. So I think I understand some of it. It’s certainly not my money. But I think it’s a movie that could be really good, because it is supposed to be funny, but it’s also supposed to have emotion in it, and be heartfelt, and be a real story and have something to say about life.
PB: Do you ever feel pressure or temptation to modify your work to make it more marketable? Will the next screenplay you write be more mainstream or by-the-book?
DM: No, so far I haven’t. It’s just not that appealing, I mean, after dropping out of law school. I had access to something that would have been a better or quicker way to make money, and I left that. That set the table for me. I try to live below my means so I don’t have to make choices creatively for money. I mean I’m sure at some point I probably will, but right now I’m OK.
It’s funny; before I did stand-up, I was not aware of the deficit of jokes that I would then encounter. But once I started . . . there was immediately a deficit before me, which was: I need material, I have to start writing material. For as long as I want to be a comedian, it’s always there. . . . If I do a late-night show or a stand-up special and it goes well then great, I need more material because now I want to tour. And if it goes poorly, I need more material because I need better jokes. So it’s like, there will never be a situation where I won’t need more material. And it’s the same thing with a screenplay; if I wrote one and it became a movie and it was a hit then great, now people want your screenplays, so you better write another one. Or if I write one and nobody buys it and nobody wants it, then I better write another one so I have a chance. The answer is never don’t write.
PB: Who do you think is funny? Who makes you laugh these days?
DM: There’s one guy I always go back to who’s not alive anymore: Peter Sellers. Sometimes I’ll just watch YouTube clips of Peter Sellers and he always makes me laugh, he’s so funny. I loved the Pink Panther movies when I was a kid. Monty Python still makes me laugh. I always thought David Tell was really funny when I lived in New York. I don’t know how much he’s on TV these days, but he’s really funny to me.
I think I like a lot of the stuff that reminds me of when I was a kid or of [comedy] from an earlier time—that’s not snarky. Snarky stuff, maybe I’m already too old or something, but a lot of that doesn’t make me laugh. It just seems really easy, kind of weak. It’s not as inventive. | Taban Salem

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