Demetri Martin, known for his stand-up, reports on The Daily Show and Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin, has seen a wide variety of success. His next project, This is a Book, is a collection of essays, musings, and drawings. It’s collecting high ratings from authors and comedians alike. Will Ferrell, Conan O’Brien and Chuck Klosterman are just a few names laughing as they read.
See him April 29th, 7 pm, at Book People!
Texas Travesty: Are you doing a show here in Austin sometime soon?
Demetri Martin: I don’t have a show booked yet, but I do want to do a show in Austin soon. All I have is the book appearance reading. I guess you call it a book appearance or something.
TT: Where are you doing it?
DM: I don’t have my calendar in front of me, but it’s a pretty well-known bookstore… Book People, is that there? Yeah that’s them.
TT: So have you been here before?
DM: Yeah, I performed at Emo’s once. In the summer of… 2004 or 2005 I think. It was my first time to come there. It was great, I had a great time, I was with a couple of friends. I filmed my stand up special, Demetri Martin: Person at the Paramount on Congress. So I love Austin. They have a really great crowd.
TT: So you wear a lot of different hats, then, you’re a comedian, you’re a writer, you’re an actor. What do you consider yourself first and foremost?
DM: The thing I have the most experience at is stand up, so I guess comedian. But now that I’m getting a little further into it I’m trying to do more writing and I want to do films, you know, maybe make my own.
TT: I once read a piece you did in the New Yorker about the anatomy of a joke; I think it was in 2005 that you wrote that. Do you think your material-generating process for stand up has changed since then?
DM: Yeah, I remember that. You know I think it’s all pretty similar. For me, over time I’ve learned that I should let the idea dictate the form, so each day I try to come up with stuff, I brainstorm and draw, write, I go for a walk if I can, you know, depending on what I have to do that day but if I have the time I try to just spend time alone and I guess daydream slash think about stuff, and then I’ve learned over the years to write down things even if they don’t seem valuable at the time, because later I might end up finding a pretty good application for them. And even with music, I’m not a great musician, I’m slightly above a hobbyist probably, but I record a lot at home and with technology being what it is now you can pretty easily record your music, so I just do that, you know, before I turn in and went to bed every night. Guitar, a little bit of piano, whatever. And then suddenly I found myself with that show on Comedy Central, it was great because I had this library and I was able to dip into that and I could suddenly find an application for some of that, so it’s come a little with other ideas: updated dialogue or a stand up joke or a drawing.
TT: You mentioned the show. So, did you ever find it creatively restricting, working with a network?
DM: You know, they were good to me, they gave me freedom. I think the harder thing about working with a network was trying to learn how to sell something that you made. You basically have a partner who has got ideas about how to sell the thing, which essentially they own. I mean they put the money up for it. You feel passionate about it, you’ve put a lot of your stuff into it probably and then you have strong ideas about how you want to sell it, so that was the harder end of it, but I think I was pretty lucky, where there weren’t too many constraints that they imposed other than time and money. Creatively, they said, “Okay we trust you, you do your thing.” The hardest thing was, I was kind of my own worst enemy, because I wanted to do so much and cram so much into a 20 minute episode and time really didn’t allow it, but I did my best.
TT: So you’ve also worked in various different facets, with Late Night with Conan O’Brien, The Daily Show, a whole bunch of different shows. What’s it like working with a show that already has a defined style and sensibility? How do you adjust yourself to that as a writer or as a performer?
DM: Yeah, Conan was a great learning experience because you had to, as a writer there, finish material on a regular basis, and we’d come to work and the head writer would say “Ok, we’re doing Year 2000 today, everybody go to your office and write for 45 minutes and bring me your year 2000 jokes.” That was cool, because they imposed very clear deadlines about getting your work done. And then it was kind of a decathlon of sorts because one day it’d be Year 2000 and then we’d be writing characters, and then maybe you’d have a piece that was a little standalone sketch, then a Clutch Cargo –that was when Conan would talk to a TV star with Robert Smigel’s lips… so each day brought something different. [Meanwhile], they had a really great work environment where you never feared that you would lose your job because you weren’t getting enough on. What you had to do was you had to come up with as much as possible, and if you did that it worked out. So that was great place to be and it taught me about that.
And then at The Daily Show I was fortunate because they called me into a meeting with them and said “Hey, we like your stuff, and we thought maybe you could do something on the show. Pitch us some stuff.” So I had a week or so to go away and then come back and I pitched them a few ideas and they said “Boy, he’s the trend spotting one, the youth correspondent. Let’s do something with that.” And then I was able to write my own stuff. I’m not a particularly topical comedian; I don’t talk about politics or really anything that’s that relevant to the larger world. To me, it was a surprise, granted a short lived one – I got to do 7 or 8 segments on the show – but they did allow me to do what I do in that context, so that was cool.
TT: So your personality onstage, and even when you’re on The Daily Show and other things, is somewhat low-key, and you kind of have a childlike sensibility or way of looking at the world. How much of this persona is intentional and how much is just you? Do you go onstage with this idea that you’re going to be this guy? What’s the discrepancy there?
DM: When I started, all I wanted to do, I started writing jokes, and I really wanted to tell jokes with the fewest words possible. I just thought it was kind of an interesting game. That kind of worked for me in New York, because when I started I’d get 5, 6 , maybe a 10 minute spot, but usually you get 5 minutes, 7 minutes, something like that. It was hard to get stage time so I really just wanted to do as many jokes as I could with the amount of time I had for each set. In terms of my demeanor, I think I’ve always been more low-key. It’s weird because I’m not inactive. It’s not like I’m a slacker or anything, I work pretty hard, but I’m not so loud.
TT: I think that it comes across onstage that you’re hardworking, and you clearly have a very high-functioning mind, and you occupy yourself with a lot of puzzles and palindromes and things. This obviously helps you in some way, but do you feel like that ever impedes your ethic, in terms of working on things? Maybe you’re working on something really hard and you get kind of distracted and you feel like doing something else?
DM: That’s a constant struggle for me because over the years what I’ve learned is that I love the beginning of a project. I love what they call the divergent thinking part of it, where you start with a little idea and then you try to come up with variations or different possibilities or twists and turns on it. What’s hard for me is convergent thinking, where you now have to make choices, eliminate possibilities, make a decision, remove possibilities, narrow it down and get to an endpoint. I’ll often have, probably like a lot of people, I have several things going at once, and all of them are unfinished. What I have to learn still is how to finish things because then they exist as more than just ideas.
TT: I think that’s sort of a theme of your standup, unlimited possibilities. There’s art, there’s music, and all this stuff. When you were first getting started, did you ever worry about being perceived as gimmicky when introducing all of these things?
DM: No, I don’t really care too much about that stuff because I always say there are about 300 million people in the country so if I can get 100 million of them I’ll be fine, because that’s 200 million who could still not like me or think I’m gimmicky or hacky or whatever their problem is with me. So if somebody doesn’t like what I do then they’re one of the 200 million. We’re all for the other ones… I’m pretty vigilant about coming with new stuff all the time, and I don’t think I ever do the exact same set twice without throwing some new stuff in there. I’m just looking for different holders for the material. I like telling stories, I like telling jokes, I like playing a little bit of music. I’ve seen people say that I’m a prop comedian, and it looks like they’re using it pejoratively. They probably just don’t like me or like what I do. Sure I use props, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as having a joke based in a play on words with the prop or what is often done with props, but it seems like a waste of time, and after a while I don’t really care. The truth has a funny way of wiggling itself out, so if I come up with a lot of good stuff, then I come up with a lot of good stuff, and if I don’t, I don’t. I can have a kite or a banjo or a pogo stick or nothing. I could just have a T-shirt and jeans. If it’s good it’s good, if it’s not, it’s not.
TT: I think at some point in time the word ‘prop comic’ was used to marginalize people, whereas I think comedians like you and some other people have kind of proved that that’s not really necessary with good material.
DM: I think Steve Martin was one of the best comedians I’ve ever seen, and I think Andy Kaufman one of the best, and both of those guys both used objects onstage. Props, I guess you could call them. They’re prop comedians, and it’s fine.
TT: You mentioned Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman. You have so much exposure in the field, and you’ve worked in comedy for so long, is there anything that still makes you laugh?
DM: I always like Gary Larson’s The Far Side. As a kid that made me laugh and I have the little books that make me laugh. When I look at clips of Peter Sellers in a movie, the old movies, I see a clip of Peter Sellers and I think he was just such a genius, that guy really makes me laugh. I like Hannibal Buress, a guy I know, a younger comic. I think he’s really funny. There’s a guy named Levi MacDougall, who was a writer on my show who was a Canadian comedian. He’s funny. It’s weird you know, I like to take breaks from comedy because just comedy all the time gets kind of tiring and it ruins the fun of it for me, so I think that’s maybe why I like reading non-fiction books, and movies that I like often aren’t really comedies. I do like comedy, but I guess you have to balance it out a little bit.
I do like live music and I think a lot of musicians are funny. If you ever hang out with musicians, I often find them to be really funny in a way different than comedians often are. With comedians, they seem to be trying, musicians are just funny people.
TT: There’s a certain connection that I think has been explored numerous times between music and comedy, with rhythm and timing and certain elements of both.
DM: What’s interesting to me is that times in my life when I’ve laughed at something, I’ve usually been surprised right before, and that’s what made me laugh in some way. So I guess stuff that surprises me makes me laugh.
TT: So is that a challenge that you think you face as a standup comedian? When you go up there, the audience is expecting a laugh.
DM: Yeah, I think it’s a lot to do with the assumptions that we all share as people. The experience of being a person, I guess if you can find a little twist in it then you find these little surprises. If you can find larger surprises it’s even better, and that’s the trick.
TT: So obviously a lot of students are going to be reading this. You’re famous for leaving a structured path to law school. How would you reconcile these paths and what would you say to someone in a similar place?
DM: I had a good time in college and I’m grateful when I get a chance to perform at a college because there’s a lot of possibility in college. Maybe there is in your whole life, but college seems to be a very focused time for that. There’s a lot at your disposal and a lot ahead of you, which is great, as opposed to staying in a retirement home where maybe you’ll be around for a while but maybe most of your life is behind you if you happen to live in a retirement village. College would be a much nicer place if we’re talking about possibility. What I learned was that once I had an idea of something that I would love to spend my time doing then I just felt like it was up to me to find a way to make money and if it wasn’t right away getting money from the thing that I love doing I tried to find things that would complement my quest to get to a point in my life where I get to wake up each day and look forward to what I was doing and then get paid for it. It seems like it’s a simple formula, and that can change, it moves around in your life and your goals and dreams can change, but if you’re lucky enough to know what one of those things is then it’s just a matter of how much stamina and guts you have to go for it. I guess some people know and then they’re just afraid and they don’t do it. Other people, they just don’t know what something like that for them would be and they’re kind of running in place, but I think maybe to be really lucky is to just know what you would work really really hard for even if you weren’t getting paid for it for a while. I college unfortunately I just didn’t figure it out, so I was a little late, but college is a good chance to figure something like that out.
TT: So you were talking about finding things that complement what you do. What was that for you?
DM: I started out temping, and I had to answer phones, but that didn’t really work that well for kind of daydreaming and writing down jokes. It was ok, and I would often open up a Word document on my computer I was sitting at for the day, trying to write jokes but I was also getting coffee for people or answering phones, whatever I had to do. But then I discovered I could be a proofreader. When I did proofreading I didn’t have to talk to anybody, all I had to do was correct documents. So, that meant I could daydream and I could write jokes as long as I was kind of doing both at the same time. I didn’t have to talk to anybody, so it complemented my larger goal and the fact that I ended up proofreading at an advertising agency, they offered me a couple times a writing job at the agency, they’d say “Hey, do you want to write ads, do you want to be a copywriter?” I tried to respectfully decline and say, “No, I’m fine being a proofreader, I like proofreading, thank you.” At some point a friend at that company said to me, “What are you doing? You should take this, you can make good money doing ads! You can make good money as a writer, they want you to be a copywriter! You should take this!” I said, “I want to be a comedian though.” He said, “What if it doesn’t work out?” I was like “Well I have to try. ‘What if it doesn’t work out’ is a time-based question. What’s the deadline you’re giving me? What if it doesn’t work out next week or in ten years?” I think that’s where the stamina comes in, because then you’re just like, “Alright, I’m in. I’m gonna do this for this amount of time and see where it goes.” I mean this is all stuff that’s been said probably in many different ways by a lot of people but for my own little experience it came down to having some clear idea of what I was after and then practical skills I developed along the way, just from being in the work world. Once you can pay your own bills, if you don’t have to worry about taking your work home with you, that’s a pretty good setup to complement a more creative aspiration.
TT: So did you have a deadline for yourself?
DM: No, I think when I dropped out of school I don’t think I had a deadline right away and then it was this thought experiment where I learned for myself that my deadline could be my whole life because if I fail then I’ll be dead so it kind of won’t matter. If I get pushed into procrastinating I’m like “Oh, I’ll be dead.” Unless after you die there’s a council that’s like “Oh, we’re really not impressed. You really… You didn’t make it so now you’re in trouble.” Then I’d be like “Oh, shit. I wish somebody told me that that mattered. I thought that it was just people’s opinions, so I didn’t care. Now there’s something else.”
TT: That’s the worst theory of the afterlife I’ve ever heard, I think.
DM: Somebody’s parents would come up with that one.
TT: About your book, it’s called This Is A Book, is that right?
TT: And what it’s about?
DM: It’s a collection of short stories, essays, drawings. I put a couple poems in there, there’s lists, there’s little scenes that I wrote. It’s just kind of a grab bag of stuff that I wanted to put into a book that I thought would be fun to read. Like little comedy ideas that are designed to be read off of a page rather than presented onstage or in a movie or anything like that.
TT: And when you write something like this or you’re putting it together, is it things that you find amusing or are you writing it more for someone else? Do you think about who your audience is?
DM: I think that my favorite things are the things that I find amusing that I can get the most other people to also find amusing or funny. But of course, they don’t always line up. Onstage I have the benefit of people making sounds that tell me, “Yeah, we’re with you” or “No, don’t do that again, we didn’t like that.” But in a book it’s a little different. I learned it’s more of a vacuum, so I had to go with just my guess. I said “OK, I think this is funny and I think other people will find this funny.” But again, there’s a lot of different content in that book so, as with a TV show or one of my standup sets, [the book] is more of a collection. It’s not like one long story, it’s not a novel. The same way that my standup wouldn’t be one long story, it’s a collection of jokes, it’s a collection of written comedy bits. But it’s nothing recycled, it’s all new content.
TT: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
DM: I really appreciate it. I love Austin, I’m psyched to be coming down there, and I do want to do a standup show soon, but if people come to the book reading and buy the book, you know I’m going to talk and take questions, probably do some bits.