Talking with Demetri Martin about Cold Weather, Political Jokes, and His New Stand-Up Special
Tomorrow night at 10PM EST, Demetri Martin returns to Comedy Central for his newest stand-up special Demetri Martin. Standup Comedian. It’s been almost two and a half years since we last saw Martin onscreen on Important Things, but he’s since kept himself busy working on his stand-up, screenplays, and second book Point Your Face at This., which comes out in March 2013. Earlier this week, I got a chance to chat with Martin about his upcoming special, his penchant for simplicity, and the best temperature for joke-telling.
So first how was your summer? What kind of things have you been working on?
Well, I’ve been writing a movie that I hope to get financing for and direct. And I’ve been finishing up my second book, Point Your Face at This, and it comes out in March. It’s mostly drawings and some short little written comedy bits. And I’ve been finishing up a pilot I made for Fox that we’re gonna hand in in November.
Can you give any more details on that yet?
It’s about a family that lives in Redwood, California. It’s kind of like The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers — those family shows that have that kind of support the whole family — something in that vein.
You went on a tour earlier this year called “Telling Jokes in Cold Places.” How’d that go, and is there an ideal temperature for jokes?
It went well. I think generally while these were all cold places, the rooms were all pretty comfortable. Detroit had a slightly colder room than usual but it went well — I’m not sure why, but I think heat can more easily kill comedy. They were good shows and I really got to prepare for the special. I think there were like 32 shows leading up to it so it really gave me a lot of time to work out stuff.
Does this new special run with the same structure you’ve used in your show and your past specials?
Loosely. It’s similar to my past stuff in the jokes — I’m a joke writer — but I simplified it and pared it down. I don’t have any friends coming on stage with me or a cat or a keyboard or anything like that. I do have some drawings and I do play the guitar a little bit at the end, but it’s pretty pared down. The set is really simple — it’s just a black curtain and me in a theater telling jokes. It’s a simpler version of me telling jokes than I did on my other specials.
The names you choose for your work are very literal and post-modern generic. Why do you choose to label yourself that way?
I think I like simplicity and at least seemingly generic titles for things, so that as I build a body of work they can be like a migration, starting off with small things that are kind of an introduction to what I do, and then they can get more specific or esoteric as the work grows or multiplies. But the first one, my album, was just called These Are Jokes because I didn’t really have a unifying theme and it really is just a collection of jokes as a one-liner comic. And then because I did a television special that became a DVD, and then the DVD comes out around a similar time, I thought of choosing a simple title that kind of reintroduces me, because I haven’t really had a special in a while of just Demetri Martin. Standup Comedian. I thought that would work well rather than having some sort of lyrical, specific title because while they are kind of the same show, they are two different recordings and there are different bits in each show. It seemed like a simple solution. And then for This Is A Book it was my first book, and I hope that I can write a lot of books in my lifetime, but I thought, “Okay, this is really just a book by Demetri Martin” so I called it This Is A Book. But then the next book is called Point Your Face at This, which is a little more specific.
[laughs] You’ve mentioned on Twitter a few times that this special has nothing to do with politics. Is political comedy just something you’re not interested in, or is it that you want your comedy to be more timeless?
When I go to make jokes I don’t go to politics. It doesn’t inspire me. I think there are great political jokes out there — I used to work at The Daily Show and they’re great at it — but I’m not that interested in making jokes about politics. Personally, I’m very tired about hearing about the election and politics. It’s been a very long political season with the Republican primary it just seems never ending. I’m just so tired of hearing it, so sick of it. And the special is airing at a time where people could watch it as a departure; just watch an hour of stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Do you enjoy being a producer?
In stand-up it’s nice, because you’re still able to maintain a lot of the greater control it affords you. When you go to a live show, they turn on the microphone, and you go. I can improvise, I can try an old joke, a new joke, I can do crowd work — no one’s really stopping, interrupting, directing, or guiding me through it or editing me as I go. With TV and other media, as soon as you get involved in the production you quickly lose that freedom, but you’re able to have an advisorial role in it and get some of that credit. It’s a way to have some of that control back. And yeah, I like it. When I did my series it was great to have control, but it was also exhausting because there were a lot of decisions I had to make every day.
For a comedian who is all about keeping things simple and concise, how do you deal with hecklers?
When I first started way back, I would just do the joke and if someone heckled me it would be really irritating because it would get me off track, but now I do a lot more improvisation when I’m doing a show and a lot more crowd work so the heckling, when it happens, it doesn’t happen a lot, when it does it’s not that different than just talking to the audience. I think heckling is really obnoxious and I cant really ever think of a situation where it’s appropriate, but it’s such a derailment that I can’t keep the show going the way that I want it to. I think now because of the rise of digital media and camera phones and stuff it just really changes the way performances work for a lot of comedians. Whether you tell long stories or you just tell jokes, there’s still this other thing that’s going on in the room with people texting or filming you so it really forces you to break down that wall between you and the audience so the whole thing becomes more like a conversation than just a show.
How do you decide what form a joke or an idea you have will take?
I always start with stand-up, and then a lot of times I’ll try jokes and then think “You know, this could just do better on the page with someone reading it.” And then in terms of the drawings, certain jokes are just a lot more visual and I think “Oh, you know I think I could get another punch line if there’s an actual visual here.” I find just a lot more ideas just by laying it out. For me it’s all about working in my notebook, walking around, stopping in a café, walking somewhere in California down by the beach or something, or I’ll go to the library and I’ll just be writing down ideas, and then sometimes when I’m drawing I’ll just be like, “I like that, I like how that looks, that’s different than anything that I’ve done.” At the same time, I’ve done a lot of drawings out there between 17 episodes of Important Things with Demetri Martin. I don’t know how many more drawing ideas I’m gonna put in my stand-up. And pejoratively, when people don’t like me they say that I’m a prop comedian, I don’t really care what they call me, I’m just trying to get my ideas out there in a different way. But it’s about what’s more interesting for me, what makes it fun for me and what works for the audience. So if I get sick of drawings then I won’t do them anymore. If I think of a bunch of new drawings I like, then great. But right now I’m gonna have a book coming out with a hundred drawings, and I don’t think they would work on the stage. They’re more about “This is just for a book, you have to sit and look at it.” And a lot of them have no words, and it’s nice when you can use no lines to communicate an idea.
You’ve used math and your love of palindromes in your jokes before. How do you think math and the more analytical side of the brain can be best used for comedy?
I’m from Toms River, New Jersey, which is right next to Jersey Shore where that show takes place, and when I was growing up there I didn’t know anybody that was a writer. I didn’t know any artists or musicians, most of my friends’ parents had “regular jobs,” nobody in my family did anything creative per se, nobody played any instruments, nobody was drawing or panting anything. So now as an older person I consider myself a creative person, and I think everyday you should be trying to make things, whether it’s a drawing, a one-liner, a poem, whatever it is — you should spend your time trying to do creative work. Back then I liked to draw as a kid. I didn’t do any jokes, but I was attracted to the process of creative content. So my first introduction was humor and puzzle books from the mall. I loved picking up the Far Side comics then picking up puzzle books — they were like a mental challenge for my brain. I found myself doing that as a way to occupy my mind. I think later, if I were to psychoanalyze myself, I could see a linage between doing the puzzle books and coming up with one-liner jokes, because similarly a joke has an end point, it has a punchline, it’s almost like you coming up with a solution to the premise. It could be one of a thousand solutions, but it’s still a solution. For me if that’s math or if there’s some algorithm to that, then that’s maybe where it lies.
What’s the status on the screenplays you’ve written — Moon People and Will?
I wrote the first draft of Moon People with my friend James Bobin, he directed the Flight of The Conchords series and directed that last Muppets movie so he got busy with other stuff and I got busy with my series. I think it’s still kind of alive — it might be on life support, there might be some chance that it gets made. Will, I’ve done maybe 15 drafts of that over the years since I sold that pitch and the latest on that is that the guy who directed The Artist, his name is Michel Hazanavicius, he’s attached to the script. So maybe it will get made.
Demetri Martin. Standup Comedian. airs tomorrow night at 10pm on Comedy Central.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.