Demetri Martin: The Renaissance Comic


demetri suscStand-up comic Demetri Martin isn’t tied down to any particular format—music, drawings, books, film, jokes are all grist for the mill of this creative artist. From Yale Law School to the dive bars of New York City, Demetri re-imagined himself from a successful lawyer to a skateboarding stand-up comic whose doodles and one-liners would take the country (and world) with astonishing speed. His CD’s, Amazon downloads, YouTube videos and comedy specials wedged themselves into the hearts of comedy lovers of all ages with such tenacity that his ascent up the comedy ladder is legend. Despite inhabiting the upper echelon of comedy gods, Matrin was easily one of the most accessible comics that SUSC has interviewed. Protected by a wall of management, once we got Martin on the phone he was open, honest and excited about his upcoming show in Santa Cruz at the Civic on May 10th!


DNA: Hey, Demetri, how you doing?

Demetri Martin: Good. How about yourself?

Good. Thanks for taking some time for an interview. Where you at right now?

I’m in LA.

Are you an East Coaster still?

No. I moved here for a long time. I live in California now.

Do you miss the East Coast?

Sometimes. They are so different, so I try to focus on the things I gain from leaving New York, rather than all the stuff I lost. I go back there quite a bit. I was there 14 years. I was just there and it was getting rainy and cold. There’s a heat wave out here, but it’s still nice to be out of that.

We grew up in the roughly the same area. Do you ever have nightmares about shoveling snow?

No, not really. I am amazed that unless you seek out the weather reports you have no clue. When you live there it is such a big part of your daily life—the climate, the temperature, what’s coming out of the sky. When I lived there, especially in New York City, I didn’t have a car so you’re walking a lot, trying to get in a cab or the subway and you forget about the weather pretty quickly. But then you go back and realize it’s been going on the whole time. Especially the last few years, they got battered with weather.

I was back east to go see family and do a few gigs in NYC 2 days before hurricane Sandy. I thought since the airports were open how bad could the storm be?

Oh jeez.

And the funny thing is I’m in the middle of the worst storm of the century and my family is like, “I’ll never move to California because they have earthquakes.”

(laughter) It’s funny.

So, when you were going to High School in New Jersey were you heading across the Hudson to see comedy in New York or was that not on your radar yet?

That wasn’t on my radar yet. The first live stand-up show I saw was in college. I was home on Christmas break and I went with my girlfriend, at the time, up into New York. It was a New York comedy club, one of the smaller clubs.  I saw an ad in the paper with the kind of discount coupon that you cut out and we went and saw a show. That was the first time. I saw a lot of stand-up on TV in the 80s. But the idea of going to see live comedy, that was still far off for me.

Do you remember who the headliner was?

There was no headliner it was just a showcase thing with locals, although I wouldn’t call them locals, there was no draw.  It was just Comedy Thursday Night, something like that.

Did you get the bug immediately, did you fall in love with comedy at that point?

No, but I was definitely curious. Then I saw a show at the Comedy Cellar once when I was in law school and I started thinking I should try this before I leave New York. Just once, before I’m done with law school and go wherever I’m going to go to get a job. That was the idea, but it took a while. I had dropped out of school before I ever got onstage.

I read a bunch of old interviews, there seemed to be some stories of you being a class clown at Yale.

In law school probably more so maybe because it wasn’t a good fit and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. In college at Yale I had some suite mates and yeah, we had fun. But, I don’t know, yeah, I guess so, although I never think of it that way.  In the dining hall you had to have a meal plan if you lived on campus in New Haven. It’s not like going to school in Manhattan or something where there are a lot options around the campus. So we saw everyone, every night for dinner. I would always stay in the dining hall for quite a while and joke around with people—but I wasn’t doing bits in class, or anything. I wasn’t in an improv group, I didn’t do any plays, I wasn’t a performer.

When was your first performance? Was it on campus?

No, I had dropped out of law school so I went to a club in New York. It’s not there anymore—it was called The Boston Comedy Club located in the Village in Manhattan. I think it’s a bar now, I walked by it and they changed the whole building. It was a Monday night, open-mic thing. I had left school in May and this was in July so it was only a couple of months later.

When you left law school was the reason to do comedy?

Yes, to be a comedian. I wanted to be a comedian and/or a comedy writer. I figured I’m going to go for it. I started writing jokes that Spring. I got a notebook and started writing down ideas. I finally booked a Monday night open-mic. I was also trying to figure where I would work and how I would make money. Eventually I took temp jobs for a while. Then I became a proofreader, so I started doing temp jobs as a proofreader. Then the ad agency hired me as their full-time proofreader. So that was my day job—proof reading ads, online ads, banner ads for websites. I would read all the copy. It was 40 hours a week and I didn’t have to answer phones or talk to anybody really—just give me the stuff to correct and I could write jokes while I was sitting there. It worked out pretty well.

Were you doodling at the time, or just writing one-liners?

It took me a year or two to really begin drawing. I used to like drawing as a kid that fell off and I drifted away from it. Then doing stand-up I started carrying around a notebook like most comics and that led to drawing out some of my ideas. My drawing style is pretty similar to where I left off in 5th to 7th grade.

That’s a perfect place to ask a question from Elijah Stoll, he’s the drummer in the house band for my comedy shows. Elijah asks, “Did you stop riding your long board to comedy shows when you started bringing the large pad with you?”

(laughter) The thing is, I skated to so many shows in New York. I have a long board and I have loved skating for so long. Then I got a little bit older and I wasn’t trying to learn new tricks anymore, I would just skate around. I had no money so it was a great way to get from spot to spot. I started comedy in 1997, the first time I used the large pad was in 99 or 2000, so it was a couple of years later. I originally just started doing jokes. Once I started doing drawings and playing instruments here and there those were when I would do a one-man show, or a little theatre show—I did a run of those at UCB and then comedy festivals overseas, or when I had a TV spot. But I didn’t do those kinds of bits when I was skating around New York, usually. But I would at a room called Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street on the lower east side. That’s another one that’s gone. I think it’s an apartment building now. It was a really cool bar that had music mostly. On Monday nights there was a comedy show and that’s where I first saw Louis C.K., Marc Maron and might have first seen Sarah Silverman there. This was in the late 90s and everyone was still pretty young. I’m younger than those guys by quite a bit and I started after them, but I got to see them in those small rooms. But it was on that night, at that show, people would do all kinds of weird things. Comics would have a plant in the audience as a fake heckler or something. People would use music, and that’s where I first tried out the drawing stuff. So that was a show where comics would bring all kinds of different props or puppets or whatever you want. So that was the first real place where I did that kind of thing. Then when I got on Comedy Central Presents I would go to my friends taping—actually, this interview is cool—and we would watch it on TV and go like, “Oh man, they took his closer and put it at the end of his second act.” They would lop a tag off a joke to go to a commercial. Whoever edited at Comedy Central had no respect for the comedians. It was sad and they would just butcher it. I thought, “If I do drawings that would be hard to edit. If I do my jokes with a boom box playing and then strum a guitar every now and then, that would be hard to edit.” So, with all of those things my show was virtually untouched and it came out the way I wanted it to, which is good. At that time there were fewer specials, fewer comedians. Not that it was that long ago, but in the last decade it has multiplied dramatically. It’s harder to get attention.

A lot of comics struggle to get their 5 minute set, or 15 minute set and upwards. How did you progress with a one-man show in Edinburgh so quickly?

I was in the Montreal Just For Laughs New Faces doing a short set and I got meetings out of that. I went to California and I took meetings with FOX, NBC, CBS and everybody. I got a deal with NBC to help write a script and hopefully do a pilot for a sit-com. That was in 2001. I moved to California and I wrote the pilot with a writing team, these two young guys. We handed the pilot in and they gave us notes, as they do for every network script—a lot of notes. Like, “on page three why did she walk into the kitchen?” It can get really specific. It’s exhausting. After all that, I didn’t even shoot the pilot, let alone get a show out of it. But it was cool, they paid me for the deal and I flew back to New York. On the plane on the way back, I remember putting the little tray table down thinking, “OK. Why don’t you just write something that is not marketable at all, the opposite of a sit-com?” That’s when I started writing my first one-man show. That was in the winter, in the beginning of 2002 I started brainstorming and jotting down ideas. By the summer of 2002 I did the show at the UCB Theatre. I had finally put together a show. But the foundation of all of my stuff is pretty much jokes and most of them are one-liners, although some are longer. Whether it is a TV special or a stand-up CD or a touring set, I mostly do jokes. The one-man show gives me the opportunity to do more personal stories and longer stories. I’ve done three of those shows over the years. But I always go back to jokes and pretty much that’s where I’m at as far as stand-up goes. I’m more interested in putting the stories into a book of short stories, or taking a story idea and turning it into a film, or something.

With so many personal passion projects under your belt, are you more comfortable now collaborating with Hollywood? Your screenplays Will and Moon People are still out there—have you learned to play the game a little better?

I think so. What I have learned over time, in a funny way is where I started. I always thought that if I get on camera whether it’s a TV show or a movie it’s going to be because I wrote it. Because I didn’t go to acting school, I didn’t have a lot of experience acting or auditioning. I was coming out of stand-up and had done a little bit of screen writing. Now, I’ve written screenplays and a book of drawing with a new one coming—so I’m finding my way in. I’ve been happy to be cast in other people’s things when I get those chances. When somebody puts me in their movie or when I audition and somebody picks me, that’s great—but, I’m kind of still where I started, which is I gotta write it and make the part perfect for me. Then I’ll do the lines the way I think I should do them and then I’ll shoot it and I’ll edit it and hopefully it will be good. Then I’ll do another one, and another one. I spend a lot of my time working on my ideas and trying to write every day in some form or another. I’m writing jokes or working on a screenplay or a TV pitch or something, then I try and sell that. So in terms of my relationship to the business, I’m learning that’s the best way it works for me.

Is Moon People or Will getting any traction under them right now?

I have done a bunch of drafts of Will over the years and I’m working on a new rewrite because a director got attached to the movie. It’s Michel Hazanavicius, last name is pretty long, but he directed The Artist.

Wow. Great movie.

Yeah. Great movie and he won a lot of awards. So he read my script at some point and said, “I like this script and would like to direct it.” He met with Paramount, the studio that owns my project and they said, “Great, we would love for you to do it.” So I got notes from him and doing the rewrite off notes that he sent me—it’s so hard to get these things off the ground—but if it all works out, they would try to shoot it next Fall. So anything can happen, but that one is still in play. Moon People is not as far along—it needs work, they all need work, but that one needs a director. So Will is my best bet for those studio films. Separately,  I have been working on smaller independent film ideas for myself. Kind of like Albert Brooks style or Woody Allen, where I’m writing it, directing and starring—it’s a whole different approach.

My wife and I really liked Taking Back Woodstock.

That was one where I was so happy to be cast.

I thought the subtext was hilarious that the movie was centered in one of the largest cultural events of the 20th century. . . .but like 20 feet to the left.

I know. A lot of people were like you’re not going to show the festival? It was great and a real learning experience to work with Ang Lee.

Does he speak good English on set?

His English gets worse when he wants it to. If somebody is arguing with him, he recedes and stops speaking English. If he doesn’t want to deal with you he cannot speak English, but it improves once their gone.

Thank you for your time. A couple of quick questions from the internet. The first is from a celebrity. Will Durst asks, “Are you going to Edinburgh this year?”

I haven’t been to Edinburgh for a while. I went fours year in a row, I went the summers of 2003, 4,5 and 6. I miss it, it was really fun. It will probably take me two years before I get back there. If you go you can do 30 shows in a month, at least, not counting late nights and smaller shows. If you put together an hour long show you can do it 28-30 times a month. It was really amazing and  I got to meet guys like Will Durst there. I met Jon Oliver there and Daniel Simpson and comedians from all over the world. It’s a trek for an American and hard to get together a show and go, but for any comic, if the opportunity ever presents itself it’s totally worth it. It’s a great way to get better at comedy. People approach it differently over there because there are so many comics with a theatre background.

Thanks for the pep talk on Edinburgh.

No problem, it’s cool.

Bay Area comic Chris John asks: “How do you come up with a premise for a one-liner? I really want to know the answer, I hope the question isn’t stupid.”

I’m not that interesting. Now after doing 17 years of stand-up, it’s funny how if you do things enough you begin to take it for granted, like “Yeah, I’ll just write a bunch of jokes.” When I think back when I started—for me, and I guess it’s different for everybody—I respond to games. I like puzzles and dorky stuff like that. I think that’s partly why I ended up with one-liners because I started with one-liners. I’m drawn to short jokes. There’s something very mathematical about short jokes, when you boil them down to just a few words. The short answer is by carrying a small notebook and if I noticed anything that seems like it has any chance of turning into a joke I wrote it down—especially if I have a deadline. The short practical answer is if you have a reason to wrote them, that helps. If you book a set, or you are trying to get on someone’s show, or have a special or record an album, I find that I’m going to write jokes a lot faster. I have a deadline and I have to do it. When you have to do it you find ways to do it. Me, I do everything through daydreaming, which is maybe the traditional way of coming up with a joke. You know, something explodes in your head and you write it down. I’ve been on 5 hour flights where I try to write a hundred jokes before I land. Even if they suck, write one hundred. Pump them out and they are terrible. But out of a hundred maybe I’ll get a few that are worth trying or doing. I’ve brought a dictionary with me because I know I’ll be sitting in the airport and I’ll read it. It’s weird, it’s like approaching language differently. The short answer is I have a lot of games for squeezing ideas out of my head.

Demetri, I was really nervous to talk with you, but that was a great interview.

Thanks man, I really appreciate it. I’ve been to Santa Cruz once before and it was way before I did stand-up. I was still in high school. It was the first time I got to visit California from New Jersey.  I always wanted to visit California and so I went on spring break. Long story short I went to this summer camp in Greece. I’m Greek-American, my parents are Greek. So they send me to this camp and it was in Greece and it was really cool, but I met these two girls from San Francisco. Two sisters and they said, “Oh, you should visit us sometime if you ever come to California.” And, I don’t know if they were just being nice or something, but I took it literally. So I wrote them at the time, way before email, in the 80s. Then I called them and said, “My parent’s said I could come. I got a ticket.” So I flew out and got to see San Francisco, I went to LA for a couple of days. The girls in San Francisco were about to go on spring break with their parents and they drove down to Santa Cruz. So I just glommed on to their family. I got to go surfing in Santa Cruz with one of those little foam boards. I love Santa Cruzand I’m excited to get back there.


Check out Demetri Martin at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on May 10th.
Click here for tickets



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