Demetri Martin on Luck, Fatherhood, and Why There’s Always Room for Jokes
Every notable comedian has their “brand” or style of comedy, but Demetri Martin stands out more than most. If you’ve caught one of his specials on TV or were a fan of his show Important Things on Comedy Central, then you probably remember his unique gift for discovering the humor in words and drawings and one-liners because his jokes jut from the norm in a world of anecdotal, storytelling standup.
Even his name, “Demetri Martin,” has potential hidden meanings in his work. Like if you remove the letters that are present in both his first and last name — M, T, R, I — then you are left with D-E-E-A-N. If you look at the “E” as a recurring letter and only count it once, then you have “Dean.” Which was also the name of the film that he wrote, directed, and starred in that was released earlier this year, though that may be about as far as Martin went with injecting wordplay or high concepts into his movie. (And even that is unconfirmed, just an “educated guess.”) But Dean may have just been a sign of him evolving his comedy for the next phase of his career, much like how his life has evolved as a person who is now a husband, a father of two, and a homeowner with bills to pay and no pension for the future.
These are themes you may see if you catch Martin on his latest tour, Let’s Get Awkward, where he delves more into storytelling than he ever has before. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t still see the one-liners, drawings, or wordplay that you’ve come to expect; Martin still has a strong adoration for the written language, and his style isn’t sure to change dramatically anytime soon. That’s probably going to sit just fine with the fans who remember him for bits like that and are interested to see what’s next.
But Martin is more focused on the now. What he can control. Knowing that much of what comes next will probably be based on luck.
You’ve been talking recently about how your material may evolve as time passes. How would you say your standup has evolved with the Let’s Get Awkward tour?
I’ve been experimenting with doing some material that’s a little more personal. It’s kind of a work in progress. I have a little bit of that, lots of new jokes, some nights I show some new drawings, other nights I don’t do the drawings, toying around with guitar stuff, but mostly I’d say I’m trying to be a little bit more personal. For me it’s a weird challenge because I’m just drawn to jokes. I mostly write one-liners — from day one that’s just how my head has worked when it comes to doing material. But I think it was around 2002 or 2003 that I tried my first one-man show, and those were very personal narrative shows that had a lot of stories in them. I just find it exhausting. I don’t mind doing stories and they seem to work, but I get sick of telling them. So I don’t tell them that often, I mostly just do jokes, but I feel like the world has changed since I started doing standup. I think there’s still room for jokes, but it doesn’t feel like the time we’re in now; it’s much more autobiographical. It seems people tell a lot more about their lives. I’m just trying to mix it up a little bit.
Your life has changed a lot in five years — you’re a father of two now. How has having kids changed your worldview or material in ways that you didn’t expect?
Probably the biggest thing is that I feel more compassion, just generally, for other people. That’s probably a normal response to becoming a parent, but I think it can open you up and make you feel for other people a little bit more. You see other people as somebody’s kid or parent or both. Beyond thinking less about yourself, you’re trying to keep somebody else alive and make sure they’re okay and everything. It’s made me feel a little more vulnerable or sensitive, and it’s reminded me just how delicate we are as people. It does for me just make me feel like I grew up a lot. I didn’t feel particularly immature, and I don’t feel particularly mature now, but I do feel different for sure. There’s maybe material coming out of the kids and stuff but I’m kinda private, so I don’t talk too much about them up there. I think other comics have done some really great material about being parents, being a new parent, but aesthetically for whatever reason I still like my little jokes that I randomly come up with. I’m sure over time, because what I think about a lot are my kids, it’ll probably seep into my material more.
You’ve talked about how you favor the process of being a comedian more so than focusing on the results, like gigs, shows, movies, whatever. What’s your favorite part of the “process” of being a comedian?
Daydreaming. Kind of like directed, focused daydreaming. The writing of the jokes, finding the material, I think I always enjoyed that. I associated that strongly with the time I was in New York, walking around, riding the subway, going to coffee shops and bookstores. I used to go the Met — if it was cold I’d go to a museum and just walk around with a notebook. Now living in California it’s different, but I’ve found a routine at home that I really enjoy. It’s very solitary and quiet but I like it. I’m trying to learn how to write movies and I’m working on a book of stories, fiction, so not that different. There seem to be greater constraints when I’m trying to make a story work. The nice thing about one-liners is that you’re kinda just floating around. You don’t have to make a big narrative to put together too much. So it feels pretty free. On the other hand, I have a bit of material behind me now, so it changes the game a little bit because I find that my brain sometimes goes back, and I gotta work a little harder sometimes to get ideas where my brain would naturally land: “I already have a joke about that. I don’t know why I’m thinking about balloons again.” I gotta dig a little more. I gotta push it.
Speaking of pushing, you wrote a 224-word palindrome for your one-man show, and then a 500-word palindrome in your book. Do you dream of writing an even longer palindrome, like to keep doubling it?
The palindrome thing for me was in high school, long before I tried comedy or thought I’d be a comedian, for some reason palindromes entered my life. I found it was an interesting challenge, so I tried to see if I could write them. A lot of it was working at my family’s diner, pretty much against my will, so that helped me pass the time when I was bussing tables. So now years later, it’s kind of a last resort when I’m on an airplane and I feel like I’m tired of trying to write jokes or drawing, and I don’t feel like watching a movie. I’m just sitting there, not reading. I have so many flights, but palindromes seem to help the time to pass really quickly. Minutes just vanish. “Oh, we’re landing, great.” Of course, they’re not very useful for anything. I did some in my standup, that one show years ago, put some in my first book. When I was writing that book, over the months, I chipped away at this one palindrome. It’s funny, I thought it was this big accomplishment. We all live in our own worlds. “Oh, this is gonna be a story!” But nobody cares. [laughs] You’re one of the only people to ever mention it to me. I thought, “I’ve done it!” Patting myself on the back. Georges Perec, a French writer from the 20th century, wrote a 500-word one in French, and I thought that was fascinating. I can’t read French. But I wanted to get to 500. I think that’s in line with what you were saying about a creative process or pursuit. A lot of my time I spend trying to come up with ideas and develop material in different forms. If I only do jokes or one-liners, I get worn out. Tired of it. Every day thinking of jokes. For some reason, I still find palindromes enjoyable.
I hope this comes off the right way, but you seem like a surprisingly normal person. I mean, I think your standup and specials are so impressive with how you think about things that my expectations would be almost savant-like, but instead it just seems you’re an everyday normal person who just works very hard at writing. Would you say that’s true?
That sounds pretty accurate to me. A couple things happened for me. I think before I did standup, I don’t know if I’d say I was “funnier” off stage, or maybe I was “on” more, but I was using that part of my brain. Hanging out with my friends in high school, college, I led with being funny or trying to be funny. Then doing standup just lifted a burden off of me that I didn’t even know I was carrying. I had this outlet on the stage. My personality just adjusted a little bit or something. Then over time, I’ve probably blown out part of my brain from doing so much comedy over the years. A lot of my friends are comics and some of them are still “on” when you hang out with them, but a lot of them, it’s just people hanging out. If the waitress comes up to the table, she wouldn’t be like “Oh those guys are comedians.” Maybe she’d think we’re unemployed — writers or something. I’d consider myself normal. I do feel grateful that I have a wife, two kids, I was able to buy a house. I feel great, I have a life in a traditional sense. I don’t feel like I’m in showbiz that much. My wife does interior design so she’s in a different industry, so I’ve gotten a lot more interested in design, art, painting. I can take a break from my job and I’m not living in comedy in the way that I used to, especially when I was in New York. All my friends were comedians, I was out just about every night doing a lot of spots. I’m 20 years into it, I’m a little bit older, my kids are so young, my son kind of knows what I do but basically doesn’t care too much.
You mentioned in your WTF interview that you read a lot of books at one time in New York, specifically calling out Tony Robbins. I’m just curious if there was any reason for that specific shoutout. Did he have a big effect on you?
That was an example of one of probably a pile. At that time there was a self-help phase for me, I was reading a lot of those kinds of books. I wouldn’t say I’m a disciple but I remember enjoying whichever book of his that I read. With a lot of stuff that I read, I don’t have great retention. I dog-ear pages and then never go back and look at them. For better and worse, not having such strong retention of all the material, I’m left with the feeling that helped me through something or that was encouraging or inspiring. Over the years, I’ve been drawn more to nonfiction than fiction. And that time in my life — thinking back to starting out in comedy, trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps — in my circumstances, like a lot of comedians, nobody was saying “You should do it!” or “Go do comedy!” People in my life at that time were mostly discouraging. Not even neutral. It was like “I don’t think you should do this” and “You’re making a mistake.” Maybe Tony Robbins popped in my head because it was a memorably encouraging book. “You can do it. Make a plan. Believe in yourself.”
You’ve written high-concept movies and you wrote, directed, and starred in your low-concept movie Dean. Are there any high-concept movie ideas that you can share? Like maybe it’s so high concept that you couldn’t get it made anyway?
I don’t know if I have anything that’s so high-concept that it could never be made, but I have this corkboard that I have different ideas on that I am always fantasizing that I’d someday get to make. And they vary. I kind of balance to think, if I could make a couple movies or a TV series, I’d like to think “This list is more high-concept and this other one is more grounded.” Because I want to be able to do both kinds of storytelling. My favorite high-concept movies or stories that I’ve seen or read tend to have an emotionally grounded component at their core. And that’s what I’m drawn to. I love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A bunch of Woody Allen movies that I love. Albert Brooks, I’m a fan of his. In some of those examples, the higher concept is paired with something you can relate to as a human being. The whole thing isn’t about the idea, the idea just helps embellish, or the concept becomes part of this great fabric that the story is told through. But my first movie, Dean, was low-concept. I just wanted to get the movie made, so I wanted to tell a story that kinda had no frills. Just a straight story to keep people interested.
Now that I’ve done that once, it gives me a little more confidence for the other stuff. Now I can bring what I’ve learned from that into the higher concept stuff. The movie I’m writing now is about artificial intelligence. I hope I get to make it, but I won’t finish the script until my tour is over. Hopefully I get to shoot it next year. If I get to make another movie after that, maybe the next one I’d go even higher in concept, or I’d go back down and say, alright, let’s just do a character study. I sold a movie called Will and one called Moon People. They never got made into movies. But those are more concept-y. One takes place in the beyond, above Earth, the other one was about people who’d secretly been living on the moon in a colony for years and get discovered. I like those kinds of ideas. The short stories I’m writing for my book are all higher concept ideas. Maybe one or two are grounded, but mostly magical realism or sci-fi.
Someone asked you in a Reddit AMA four years ago what your “big break” was and you said that you were still waiting for it. Are you still trying to find your big break in comedy?
It feels like luck is such a big part of all of it. Maybe I knew that from the beginning, but the longer I’m in the business, I’m split between two feelings: One, I feel lucky that I’m still in it. I can tour, I’m selling books, I got to make a movie, my standup album will come out, I get to do another special for Netflix. So hey, it’s great. The other part of me feels like I wish I could’ve made more movies by now. I wish I could do studio films. I don’t have a TV series, it got canceled after only two seasons. I’d like to maybe do a season 3 now that some time’s passed. I read somewhere that people tend to look up when they’re thinking about their goals and who they compare themselves to — most people don’t look to their side or down or whatever, to where they were or where they came from. Maybe it’s natural human nature, instinct — there’s a homeostasis when you get to the next step in your own little path: “I’m not going fast. I’m stuck here.” When it comes to “breaks,” I think less about that stuff now. It’s a weird, typical answer, but having a family has changed my gaze. I’m just thinking less about that stuff and unsurprisingly, I’m more worried about money. “How am I gonna make this? I have this many years until they go to college. How do I make sure we have savings?” Whatever success I’ve had in showbiz, you just don’t get a pension plan with standup.
There’s a lot that’s not taken care of later, so you have to be smart with the money you make while you’re making it. Unless you’re a lunatic or super lucky, you do have to worry about your audience and if you’ll be able to sell tickets in five or ten years or if you’ll be too tired to tour. When people ask me about making it, the goal line changes. It just kind of keeps moving, which is probably a good thing so you don’t get too complacent or end up feeling despair or something. For me, like most people, it is a complicated equation. I think it’s just humbling when you discover that luck is a big part of it. It’s funny — when I was doing Q&As for Dean, I said, “It’s hard to write a bad screenplay.” Somebody thought that I was saying that whatever I write is good. No, what I’m saying is it’s also hard to write a shitty screenplay, just like it’s hard to write a good screenplay. You can work so hard and you think, “Well, I just worked so hard on it so therefore it’s gonna be good.” No, you can kill yourself and still end up with a piece of shit. There are no guarantees.
When I see someone, especially people on camera, it just feels like a lottery ticket. You get on a big show and it’s on the air for eight years. You get a big studio movie and there’s a sequel and you get a lot of money, then you want to sell a book, and you could write the same book that you would write but because you’re more famous you sell more copies and get more money. It’s literal material difference in your life even though the comedy material, the essence of the stuff you’re selling, might not be very different. Sometimes I think about that stuff but I can’t wait around like “Oh, I got my big break!” I’m trying to focus more on my own output, what I can come up with. When I talk in interviews about process over results, it’s probably because I have to remind myself of that. My natural inclination is to worry about the results. Like any other nerd, I got good grades, and I did well on my tests, but those are all just results. I don’t remember the process of high school, like enjoying learning. It was always a game of getting the results to get to the goal or whatever. But because standup and comedy and showbiz is so hard to get a foothold on and it’s so not linear, you could drive yourself crazy to look just at the results, because you just can’t control what happens at all.