For a comedian with as big a career as his, Demetri Martin has left much to chance. After departing a future as an attorney, Martin found his calling in New York’s stand-up clubs before landing work on “The Conan O’Brien Show” and eventually his own TV series. After that, he took on high-profile roles in films by acclaimed directors, and ventured into writing, and he hopes, directing. And in almost every case, he spent little or no time consciously strategizing how to get his hands into other creative areas – and more than that, let the experience of doing it refine how he did it going forward.
IFC caught up with Demetri Martin last week to talk about his constantly-changing career. In addition to discussing how he got his earliest start as a comedian, he talked about his approach to writing comedy and constructing a routine, and examined the strangely natural evolution his career path has taken as he’s found success as a stand-up, writer and actor.
Just to kick things off, can you talk about how you got started in comedy? Were you always sort of a class clown and started doing it professionally?
I started in New York in 1997. I was in law school until May of that year, and it was only a few months before I got on stage that I seriously thought about trying stand up. So for me there wasn’t really a long lead up to being a comedian in terms of my planning. I thought I would, you know, go to college, get to law school, finish, and then get a job and work as a lawyer, but that proved to be not a good fit for me. I was luckily in New York and I was at NYU for law school, so that’s situated right here two comedy clubs; at least at the time there were two comedy clubs right there. So for me, it was probably the convenience of being near it and just wanting to try it before I left New York. I remember thinking I just want to try stand up before I leave the city so that I don’t regret it.
And then after I tried it – well, after I decided to drop out of law school – then I was like, all right, I’m going to go for this. So I tried it once and I liked it so then I did it again. I did it actually two nights in a row and then the next week I went up again and then each week I found a place to go on stage. That was my beginning. And of course I didn’t make any money from stand up for years, so I had temp jobs. That was the way I made money.
Had you always considered yourself funny, or did people think of you as funny, or was it more just a matter of wanting to conquer this thing that has intrigued you?
I think since I was kid people told me that they thought I was funny. My father was funny and joked around a lot, with usually I guess people my age more. I don’t know how much grown ups thought I was funny when I was a kid. I don’t think I was the class clown but I was hanging out with people like friends and people like that, yeah. People seemed to think I was funny from pretty early on.
At what point were you starting to formalize your material? Whether through actual training or just organizing the process of coming up with your routine.
I booked that new talent night a couple of weeks before doing it, and probably a couple weeks before booking that, I got some jokes together and maybe for a month or so I had been trying to figure out how to write jokes, or at least what I would consider a joke. So that was pretty much it. It was most trial-by-fire for me. Just sitting down and thinking, all right, you know, how do I write some jokes here ’cause I want to tell some jokes.
Were there any comedians or that you looked up to or whose style you wanted to sort of adopt, be it the rhythms of their delivery or whose style might have influenced you as you were coming up with your material?
The comedians I liked were Bill Cosby and Steven Wright, like just always as a comedic actor. I always liked Gary Larson, who’s really funny for a cartoonist, obviously. I discovered Woody Allen as a comedian after I’d been doing stand up for a couple years, so that wouldn’t really come into play at the beginning there. But I wasn’t really interested in adopting anybody’s style. I was just trying to be funny in the way I knew how but I do gravitate, I like single-panel cartoons and short jokes, for whatever reason, so that’s probably where I started, yeah.
When you first went up and started doing stand up, was that pretty much the same style that you would say that you had for several years or was it an evolving process of sort of refining the small or short jokes?
Well, my first show I did 12 jokes and every night, and I would just do as many jokes as I could fit in to the time they allowed me to have. So I started as a joke writer. I remember even writing when I sat down whatever day job I had, you know, I’d write when I had time on some sort of a word processor, you know, a word document. When I was at someone’s desk filling in for them answering phones, getting people coffee, doing things like that, making copies, mailing things. So the down time you have at those kind of jobs I would use to write jokes. I would sit there and open a word document and just put like jokes and the date and then start writing. And I think in the very beginning I found pieces of paper in my old notebooks that say, like ‘S’ colon, ‘P’ colon. It was for setup and punch line. So I think I was really trying to get it down to exactly where the joke itself shifts, like what word becomes the punch line. I always liked trying to make things have the fewest words possible. It seems more interesting and kind of more elegant to tell these short ideas. So that was like, for me, where I started.
Going on stage even for the first time, it was like just tell my short jokes. Over time I started to learn how to improvise more and how to diversify the presentation maybe, especially by the time years later I got to do an hour or 90 minutes in a theater. And there I was more interested having chunks to the show, so it’s not just 90 minutes straight of one-liners. It’s not as interesting for me to deliver it and I don’t particularly like watching that that much. If I had to see the show I think I’d want to see some sort of a diversification of the material.
How careful are you about the mechanics of stand up? Do you think about the refinement of language in the way that, say, one word might be funnier than another or less funny?
I think a lot of what I like about doing stand up and about comedy in general is that it’s so mysterious and kind of imprecise. So I always have ideas about what I think is funny and often I feel like I know what is funny to me, but what I really never know is what’s funny to other people. So I have to perform in order to find out the answer to that and then even then it’s never a definite answer. It seems like more of a probability. “With those 80 audiences, that joke worked 74 times, so it seems like a pretty solid joke from those reactions.” And then along the way, probably like a lot of comedians, I might change a word or a part of the joke just dependent upon the feedback I’m getting from numerous audiences.
Then I’ll do things that I kind of keep coming back to over the years maybe, just some random joke I find in my notebook. I’m like, “I think that’s funny but I’m doing something wrong because the way it’s funny in my head isn’t coming out right, when I say it out loud. So then it’s not funny to other people. Let me try it again.” So in that sense the audience is really helpful, cool, for refining the material so then I can give it to other audiences over time. But that’s I’m sure similar to a lot of people. I don’t know if my batting average has gone up over time. If my guesses are a little more accurate now than they were 14 years ago when I started. I’d like to think they are, but I don’t think the difference will be that great. It seems like it’s still pretty mysterious.
Have you pretty much decided which types of material work best for the different components of your show?
I mostly still just tell jokes. So if I do a 90-minute show I’m guessing over an hour of it, maybe an hour and change of it is composed of me standing with a microphone and talking, between telling jokes and improvising, maybe telling a story. It’s I’d say pretty traditional stand up just standing there. And then the little chunks, if I have drawings for, you know, seven minutes of the show maybe then that’s going to be somewhere in the middle of the show. So in my notebooks, I write jokes and I jot down ideas, and then in there I have a lot of drawings, so that as I walk around each day, there’s just this grab bag of ideas then I put ’em down. And later, depending on the project that I’m working to finish or create, I’ll go through the notebook and I can pick out things that’s irrelevant to that.
Sometimes I look and say, “Oh, this drawing, I think maybe I can tell this on stage ’cause it’s kind of diagrammatic so I can describe it, I can get a couple of punch lines off of this little visual idea here.” Then, yeah, the other way’s kind of like what you were saying, which is, “Oh, I have a joke. You know, I think I can get a better laugh if this joke has a visual with it. So let me try that, you know. Try it and maybe it works, great. All right. Cool. I got an extra punch line off it because now I see it that when I say it out loud to people there’s an extra punch line in it I didn’t realize.” Or that seems unnecessary and I’ll just tell the joke, just leave it as a spoken joke. And then with music, for me, that’s fun — you know, that can be fun. In the course of the show, I’d go and sit at a keyboard or to play guitar to end it.
It’s just fun to talk and finger pick and try to play different things. There’s like two rhythms going on, the rhythm of the jokes and the speaking and then the rhythm of the music – and when they work together, that’s pleasing to me. I like that kind of combination of the two, but, again, really short jokes, you know, I don’t usually tell a long story with the guitar. It’s just like a bunch of jokes in a row that are just one sentence each or two sentences. Its kind of fun to just have a run of them in a row with a guitar. And again, that’s a small portion of the show, so. It’s usually just about me walking around and talking and telling the jokes. But then I’ll think of some other new form and I’ll show some, so there’s different ways to play around with it.
Did it take you long to get comfortable with being on stage?
I wasn’t that nervous the first time until the guy, the host said, “Hey, you’re next.” I remember getting nervous right then and thinking, “Okay, here we go.” And then once I got on stage I wasn’t nervous at all, which I was happy about. It seems like a good fit for me, so I’d say nerves aren’t a big part of it for me. I think I’ve gotten more comfortable over time on stage. I thought I was pretty comfortable when I started, but I think I was maybe a little less comfortable than I realized. Now being able to improvise more and interact with people, look right at people in the audience and shift gears comfortably in the course of the show, that does feel more comfortable than when I started. But at the time I thought I was comfortable, so maybe in ten years I’ll think now I’m finally comfortable.
Today, when we did the interview, I thought definitely in my career I was comfortable. But either way, you know, I have friends who they can’t eat before they perform or we’ll be backstage and they can’t eat or really get too involved with anything ’cause they’re trying to get ready to go on stage. So they could be a little more nervous, but I don’t have that problem. I usually can eat like the whole pizza and just walk right out on stage, be in the middle of a phone call until they tell you have to go on now. So I gotta go and then I just go out on stage. I don’t think eating a whole pizza’s a good idea ’cause then I’d be tired, you know, I’d be sluggish from the carbs and everything, but luckily it does seem like for me personally a good job because I don’t feel nervous. Every time I have to do my job I feel comfortable and looking forward to it.
It seems like the point of acting is to transform yourself into another character. But how different or easy has that adjustment been, particularly given the fact that as a stand up, whether or not it’s a persona or it’s just being yourself, it’s a persona that you created yourself as opposed to adapting to another thing?
The biggest acting part I got was in a movie where I couldn’t improvise at all. It was strictly do the lines and take direction, so that was really good school for me because I couldn’t re-write something if I felt uncomfortable saying it. So there was no chance for me to fiddle with it at all. So I learned a lot about how much acting is an interpretive assignment, you know. So that was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. It just made me want to act more. It’s challenging ’cause I don’t have a lot of experience with it, but it feels kind of fun being untrained because it was more of a discovery process and I don’t really know my moods yet or anything. I just kind of trust whoever I work with to direct me and find the performance in there. I haven’t had a lot of experience yet, so I don’t know. And then in terms of making my own films, that seems like it would be a lot of fun if you’re writing a comedy because then you have access to the edit, you know. I’ve heard they say the film is written three times. Scripts, in the shooting, and then in the editing. So you can see that it be direct — you have three chances there to write it, which is kind of cool.
How actively have you tried to develop your comedic repertoire in other areas? Having done some acting and some other writing, were those things that you always harbored aspirations to do, or is it just a matter of how naturally your career evolves?
When I started, my goal was specifically just to do stand up comedy and I think first I wanted to see if I could do it and then, second, I wanted to see if it could be my job. Then along the way, as a result of writing down ideas every day trying to find jokes, making jokes that I could tell, I started to find other ideas and ones that seems like they could work in different forms. So then I thought, “Oh, yeah, I’d like to write a movie and I’d like to eventually maybe put a book of drawings ’cause I’m drawing all the time and a lot of stuff I don’t feel like sharing on stage, doesn’t seem right.”
It would be more interesting for someone to just look at the page and then there’s an idea just in a few lines there, a couple words and there’s like a joke just waiting for them on that page. So I don’t know when this was for me but at some point I started realize, “Why don’t I just try to make as much material as I can and not worry about the end point while I’m making it and not worry too much about how I’m going to make money from it or what form it has to take. Let me just get in the habit of being productive creatively each day and then hopefully the things that I want will just be byproducts of that process.” So if I think I want to direct a movie some day, well hopefully I’ve done the work along the way so that I can put together a script and I understand why I need to direct it rather than someone else because there’s a certain way I want to tell the story. Hopefully I’ve been thinking a lot about what I have to say, like what my point is and it’s in these notebooks and when someone says, “Okay, go do a one-man show.” I don’t know what the hell metaphor works, but that’s just a kind of fun soup to be in, you know, of just different ideas. It’s more of kind of like wandering and daydreaming. And then when I have a deadline then I can go back and find what I think is valuable in there and use that as a starting off point to now really work towards the deadline and be more goal-oriented and focused. Like when I wrote my book, it was a year back from this summer, so the summer of 2010. That was like three months of really having to focus and write the book. But leading up to it I had some just random ideas floating around but then I knew I had a deadline so I had to really focus and I can’t make believe that it’s just going to happen, like it’ll just be the byproduct. I’ll have a book finished ’cause I like to daydream. It’s like, “Okay. Let me daydream to get some of the seeds here but now I have to really focus and finish the thing.” But that would be like a stand up special, a book, a movie, a one-man show, I don’t know. Like whatever it is, those all seem to follow us the more I process.
Is there a permutation of your comedy that you feel like you really haven’t been able to showcase yet that you’re eager to explore? One thing that you mentioned is directing a film; is that something that has developed as a possible venue for your creativity?
Yeah. I think, if things work out I’ll get to direct, I’ll get to make some movies. I’m working on this animated series for Fox; well it’s just a pilot. If that goes that could be fun. If I did a TV thing again I think I would be interested in playing a character or being part of an ensemble or something rather than trying to play myself on a show. That doesn’t really interest me so much. And so for movies that would be excited because I could make up some stories and characters and then I can be one of them or direct it and tell the story. Both, I don’t know. Hopefully it won’t be neither but I can find a way to do at least one. And then some day I’d like to write a book that’s a whole story, like a novel. Something that’s got a beginning, middle, and an end and it’s one long narrative. That seems like it would be a really good challenge. So yeah, those — I think it’s now more interesting to me to learn how to tell stories. I still love telling jokes and when I walk around each day from driving jokes kind of flood into my head. So that’s I think my natural place is just like a joke, but stories does seem like it could be very rewarding.