Demetri Martin was always a pretty studious kid growing up. In fact, the Yale University graduate actually dropped out of law school to pursue a career in comedy.
“I joked around with my friends a lot [as a kid], but I got good grades and was kind of a serious guy,” he reflects. “I did everything I was supposed to do.”
“Now years later, most of the comics I know were more like the class clown or they dropped out of school,” he continues. “I’m in a different part of the spectrum, where I was more the nerd who was trying something else and then decided he would go for this.”
On Friday, March 8, Martin will visit Indianapolis for a performance at Egyptian Room in Old National Centre. Beforehand, our Seth Johnson chatted with Martin about his experiences with TV, music, movies, and more.
NUVO: I always like talking with comedians about how they first got into comedy. Tell me what it was that first piqued your interest in the art form.
DEMETRI MARTIN: I grew up in New Jersey by the Jersey Shore in the late ’70s and into the ‘80s, so my access to comedy was mostly on television. During the ‘80s, there was a comedy boom. Stand-up was really emerging as a form of television with shows like An Evening at the Improv, Caroline’s Comedy Hour, Stand-Up Spotlight on VH1, MTV’s 1/2 Hour Comedy Hour, and HBO’s Young Comedians Special. So, my introduction to comedy was really seeing it on TV. I never thought that I could be a comedian, when I was young especially. I didn’t know anybody’s mom or dad who was a comedian, writer, or actor. Where I grew up, nobody’s parents did creative jobs.
In that context, I would watch stand-up, and I think I found myself analyzing it a lot as a kid. [I’d find myself] trying to figure out the jokes and predict punch lines. But when I first saw Steven Wright, it was different. I couldn’t figure out where his jokes were going. He had no segues. To me, it just seemed very original and really different from all the other stand-up I was seeing on TV. So that was the first moment in stand-up where I felt like I saw somebody who resonated with my sense of humor.
I was 24 when I first got on stage. I think I was lucky that I happened to be in New York and going to law school in the city. At that time, there were two comedy clubs right between my dorm and where my classes were in the law school building. So I’d walk by, and I thought, “Ah man. I should try stand-up before I leave the city.” Which turned into, “I’m gonna go for it.” I dropped out and decided I was just going to give it a go because I really wanted to follow my heart.
So for me, it was a long development process in my head. Because I never felt entitled to do stand-up, or that it could be a job. It took me a while to feel like I could actually go for it.
NUVO: I’ve interviewed a lot of folks from The Daily Show, both past and present. What did you enjoy most about your time with the show?
MARTIN: I had a pretty good setup when I was there. I was there briefly, but I got to show up, write, and co-produce my segments. I’d then shoot them, edit them with a producer, and present it. For each piece I did, I might have been there for a week or a week-and-a-half, and then I was off touring and doing my thing. And then, I’d come back a couple of months later and do another segment. So there was a lot of autonomy, which was great.
I also got to work with Jon Stewart in the edit. He’d come in, look at what we made, and say, “Yeah, this is working, but maybe you can fix the middle.” Or, “If you’re gonna do that joke, maybe try it this way.” It was kind of like having a teacher. When I worked at Conan, it was similar, where you’d get to go to rehearsal and get notes from Conan. So without really knowing, it was kind of like having these comedy teachers at the time, where they were helping me learn how my sense of humor worked in a different form beyond the stage.
NUVO: You often feature musical instruments in your stand-up sets. How long has music been a part of your life? Did you play instruments growing up?
MARTIN: I always liked listening to music, but I didn’t start trying to play instruments until I was 29. So I had no training in music, and I think I’m quite limited because of that. I’m self-taught, but for my purposes, it’s worked out pretty well so far. I still try to push myself and learn more about writing music. I can’t read music, and there’s so much I can’t do with music. But I can finger pick a guitar pretty well, and I’m getting a little better at piano.
Over the years, one of the surprise benefits has been … I had the Comedy Central series years ago, and I’ve made one movie so far on my own. In both cases, I was able to use some of my own original music, which was really nice. I didn’t have to ask for it, get permission, or buy it from somewhere. With my limited abilities, I could try to score little sections of things.
When you put music with picture, it’s kind of magical to see what it can do to a scene. It’s similar on stage. It does change the flow of my shows when I’m on the road, especially if I’m doing 80 or 90 minutes. If it’s just a bunch of one-liners for that time, it can get a little monotonous, even if the jokes are working. To me, it feels that it’s better if you mix it up a little bit, and have end points and resets. I’ve found music is really helpful in doing that.
NUVO: You mentioned your Comedy Central show, Important Things with Demetri Martin. What did you learn from doing that show?
MARTIN: I probably learned a lot more than I thought I would, and maybe in more categories than I thought. As a comedic performer, I learned how to translate my sense of humor into scene work and into writing dialog. For me personally, that was the top reason I wanted to do the show because I don’t have a background in sketch comedy, improv, or any of that stuff. I’ve always just liked stand-up. And even within stand-up, it was usually just jokes. So I thought, “This is a good opportunity to see if I can have a little bit of a range as a comedy actor.” So I learned where I felt comfortable, and it’s now served me well as I write screenplays and am trying to make movies.
I also learned a lot about managing a team of people. The first season, I didn’t pay as much attention to the hiring, and there were a couple snarky people on the staff. It was nobody terrible or anything, but there were a couple people that just changed the vibe on the set. It was enough that it made it sometimes feel a little more snarky than my taste. So the second season, I was really careful in the hiring, and I really tried to be involved in all the hiring decisions. And I did have a better time. That was a really valuable lesson.
NUVO: You mentioned your screenplay work. What prompted you to do down that path?
MARTIN: When I started doing stand-up, it was a big leap to even feel entitled enough to say, “Hey. I’m gonna try to be a comedian.” And then, when I started writing jokes, I quickly learned, “Hey. It’s really helpful to have a notebook.” I always have a notebook with me to write down ideas. Even if they’re not fully worked out or you think it’s a shitty joke, don’t judge it too much. Just get the work down on paper. When I started doing that, a lot of other things came out. That led not only to movie ideas but TV ideas, single panel drawings, ideas for comedy essays, and maybe some day a novel. I just decided, “I’m not going to judge my own thoughts or creativity too much here. Let me just try to get as much down as I can.”
In doing that, it became clear that certain ideas, and some that I would just keep coming back to, were not suited for stand-up. So I just kept those notes, and eventually I had the opportunity [to write a screenplay]. It took a lot of work even to make that first small movie, which was one of my more grounded, autobiographical ideas. Stand-up can be very intimate, and it’s certainly very immediate. But there are things you can’t do in stand-up that you can do in a movie, which is still very exciting to me.
NUVO: We’ve talked about both movies and music over the course of this interview. Do you have anything you’ve really enjoyed recently from either of those worlds?
MARTIN: I never listened to jazz until a few years ago, and lately, I’ve been listening more. When I’m on a plane, it sometimes helps my head get into a flow state. If I have a longer flight, I’ll bring a notebook. Recently, I tried to write 100 jokes over the course of a flight. They’re usually not going to be good jokes when I force them out like that, but it helps me as an exercise.
I always liked this band called Grandaddy. For me, it’s usually indie rock, and then late ‘60s Beatles and late ‘60s classic rock, like Dylan and all that. Lately, I’ve kind of fallen off on hip-hop. I like a lot of my generation’s hip-hop, like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and, when I was a kid, Public Enemy. But, once I had kids, I’ve had other stuff to worry about. When I was younger and in New York, I felt like I was pretty up on music, and I was finding a lot of new bands. But now, I keep going back to older stuff, or I listen to jazz, which is more just a bed of sound that I can listen to.
For movies … my wife and I just watched a documentary about the triplets that were separated at birth. It was kind of disturbing ultimately. A lot of times, I end up watching older movies. I really like Hal Ashby—an older filmmaker from the ‘60s and ‘70s. So yeah. Nothing is jumping out at me.
It’s funny. I never realized that when you have little kids it can really knock out your whole media diet. My wife and I don’t have any relatives where we live, so there’s nobody to help us with the kids or anything. We gotta pay anybody who’s going to come over here and help us. Otherwise, it’s just on us. It’s weird. It knocks out a whole side of everything. You would maybe go to the movies or go out to see shows. It’s totally cool. My kids are entertaining, and they’re great. But, I’m behind on everything.