Demetri Martin is smart. Graduated from Yale. Two years of New York University Law School before dropping out to pursue comedy.
And Demetri Martin’s comedy is smart. “I think the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades.” “Every fight is a food fight if you’re a cannibal.” “Life. I just don’t see this ending well.”
And Demetri Martin’s career is smart. Starring in the movie Taking Woodstock. Writing in The New York Times Magazine. Creating the highly creative Comedy Central show Important Things With Demetri Martin. Authoring a new book, This is a Book.
But during a phone conversation to promote what he’s fairly sure is his Indianapolis debut, Martin, 37, seems to cringe when the word “smart” comes up.
His first reaction: If my comedy’s smart, I’m doing it wrong.
His second reaction: “Smart comedy? Really?” he says. “I’m doing jokes about chairs and stuff. You don’t need special knowledge. They’re not jokes that require knowledge of specific topics like, ‘Well, if you knew who Winston Churchill was, you would find that joke funny.’”
Rather than being considered smart, “I’m just trying to find people who find the things that I find funny, funny. If I can find enough people who overlap with my sensibility, then I guess I have a job,” he says.
NUVO: Your comedy persona is a guy who appears to be baffled and intrigued by the oddities of life. How close is that to who you really are?
Martin: That is part of who I really am. After doing it for – this summer will be 14 years – I’m pretty close to just being myself. That’s not the only part of who I am as a person, but it seems like the best part to use in my comedy. I walk around and daydream a lot. I like to look at things and write down jokes and little ideas, and then I try those out when I get a chance to be in front of people.
NUVO: How long did it take you to figure out that was going to be the center of your comedy?
Martin: I guess it’s always evolving and changing slightly, but the very first night I did standup, I think I did 12 jokes – 12 one-liners. So when I first got into standup, it was mostly as a joke teller. Then over the years I’ve done some one-man shows where I’d tell stories that are personal and show drawings and play music. Then my standup evolved to feature some of those things too. When I started, I got to do five minutes onstage. Maybe six minutes, maybe 10. And now I sometimes get to do 90 minutes. So that changes what you get to do, how much you might get to improvise. If the larger standup show I do is some kind of an organism, the cells are still going to be jokes, one-liners. And in that sense, I’m probably right where I started.
NUVO: Do you recall the jokes you told your first time onstage?
Martin: I taped it – it’s on a cassette – but I can’t find it. I remember the day after that, listening to it a bunch of times. I know it was 12 jokes because six of them worked.
NUVO: That’s not bad for the first time.
Martin: I was psyched. And then the second night I did the same 12 jokes and none of them worked. That was my first lesson in what can happen. According to the people last night, those were funny. Oh. There are a lot of variables that go into this thing.
NUVO: When I watch you, I feel almost like you’re a comedy teacher. You stand up there and say, “This is funny.” Do you ever think of yourself that way?
Martin: I always think of it as connecting with another group of people. The idea of finding something funny, what’s interesting about that to me is, when somebody says, “That’s funny” or “That’s not funny,” they’re right. If they’re being honest about it, you can’t really argue with it. It’s just very subjective and personal. What’s interesting is, if you’re not trying to present comedy to other people or sell it, then if you say, “That’s funny,” that seems like a very objective thing you’re saying. It’s quantified. But what you’re really saying is, “That’s funny to me.”
NUVO: You’re part of a comedy lineage that would include Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg and, to some extent, Bob Newhart. How much did you pay attention to those guys when you were growing up?
Martin: For me, it was Gary Larson, Peter Sellers, Bill Cosby, Steven Wright. When I look back on my childhood in suburban New Jersey, those were my influences. My dad liked Bill Cosby a lot; Bill Cosby was on HBO a lot, and we had HBO when I was a kid. I saw Steven Wright – probably on HBO. And when I’d go to the mall, I’d go to the bookstore there. B. Dalton was our bookstore and I’d look for those Gary Larson books and be flipping through The Far Side. That was the first thing I could read that made me actually laugh. I liked Cheers and some of those sitcoms from the ‘80s. It was much later that I discovered Woody Allen. I was already doing standup. I had never seen a Woody Allen movie and I didn’t know he was a comedian before he was a director. He was so great. So anecdotal, but so absurd and had some great one-liners in his comedy.
I had been doing standup for a while – I had never heard of Mitch Hedberg – and then Mitch got pretty famous in the comedy world. Then suddenly everybody said, “Oh, you’re like Mitch Hedberg.” I said, “Who’s Mitch Hedberg?” I saw Mitch and of course I saw some similarity. That was weird for me. I wasn’t saying I was some original thing, but I was thinking, I was influenced by Steven Wright. People were telling me about Mitch Hedberg and they had never heard of Steven Wright. It’s interesting to see what people know. I think Mitch Hedberg was a great comedian, but if I had an influence, it’s really Steven Wright.
Later, I discovered Newhart. I got the DVD of his first series. He was awesome. The one time I got to do standup on Letterman, Bob Newhart was the other guest. He stayed and watched my set, and that was a total thrill. He stuck around after my set and said, “Good job.”
NUVO: That’s the comedy seal of approval – Letterman and Newhart together.
Martin: That’s the stuff you would never expect. If there’s somebody you like and they like your work, it’s such a nice bonus.
NUVO: On one of your YouTube clips, someone left the comment, “I want to make love to his intellect.” So, two questions: Do you like being seen as an intellectual comedian, and how long has it been since your intellect got some?
Martin: I wonder if that was a guy or a girl. (laughs)
When I started, after I would do my set – sometimes I would do well, sometimes I would not do well – people would come up and say, “We thought you were really funny. You’re really smart. We got your jokes.” And I always felt like, “Oh, I’m not doing it right.” If people think I’m smart, that’s a compliment, but I always think if people have to know something specific or have special knowledge in order to find my stuff funny, I’m doing it wrong. If they think I’m smart or say I’m smart, that’s certainly a nice compliment. But my goal isn’t to be a smart comedian. I’m just trying to find the most people who find the same stuff funny that I find funny.
NUVO: But people do have to think about what you’re saying most of the time.
Martin: I was thinking about this: Why did I like Gary Larson and Steven Wright when I was a kid? I think part of it was they let me finish the joke. I got to be creative a little bit. If I look at a Far Side cartoon, it may be what’s funny about it is that it’s really imminent. I get to play the next couple of frames in my head and then maybe that’s where the punch line kind of explodes. As opposed to being spoon-fed some joke about nostalgia or a silly voice. That stuff can be funny, but I always gravitated more toward softer sell.
NUVO: You have a book coming out (This is a Book). Is it difficult to transfer your sense of humor to print?
Martin: I knew I wanted to write some longer things in there so it wouldn’t just be jokes. I wanted to take advantage of the fact that I was making a book and someone could stay with it and get into some stories. It was a challenge, but I think it worked out pretty well. I’m hoping people will like it. There are some jokes, but there are some lists and short stories and first-person essays, drawings, charts and graphs, poems. Kind of a grab bag of a lot of different stuff. Little experiments, little narrative things.
NUVO: One of my favorite lines of yours is, “I think it’s interesting that ‘cologne’ rhymes with ‘alone.’” I was hoping you’d share either a favorite joke of yours or a new joke.
Martin: I don’t have a favorite joke, but it always goes through kind of a rotation – if I have a new one on my mind or if I find a notebook I forgot. I have ones that I think are funny that are not funny to other people, but they make me laugh. I did one on Conan once: It’s never really gotten a laugh, but I like it. I won’t say it’s my favorite joke, but it’s one of those that I like: Every dance move is The Robot if you can imagine an advanced enough robot.
It’s never really a laugh joke, but I think it’s true. People are doing a shitty robot, but a really good robot would dance like a human.