Demetri Martin, 32, is one of Gothamist’s favorite stand-up comedians. Born and raised in New Jersey, Demetri dropped out of law school to pursue comedy. A former writer for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” Demetri’s career really started to soar after winning the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in 2003. Demetri is currently performing in “These Are Jokes” a one-person show (that we highly recommend) at the Village Theatre. The show runs until October 29, for more details go to the website.
Gothamist caught up with Demetri last week via phone as he wandered the streets of Manhattan.
Are you in the city?
Yeah, I’m walking around and writing jokes. I went to the library for a little while. I’m working on my new website. I made it really really elaborate and if I actually create what I’m trying to do, I have to make 33-pages of these little paintings that have things that pop-up on them. It’s so many pages. It’s ridiculous.
I went to Barnes and Noble to look at random books and it turns out Martha Stewart was doing a book signing right when I got there. So I listened to Martha and read an article about Paul McCartney at the same time, which was interesting.
What did Martha have to say?
She was really pleasant and nice. She has a book out about entrepreneurialism. The basis of the book is that you should spend your time working at something your passionate about, than it won’t seem like work.
Is this a typical Demetri Martin day?
Yeah, this is pretty typical. I wake up and the first thing I do is play guitar and keyboard, just in case I got better at music while I was sleeping. I go get breakfast and usually eat it while I’m walking with a little notebook and just start writing stuff down. I feel like I am constantly in some weird brainstorm. It’s half really fun and half nagging me. It’s like I can’t figure it out. It’s cool. I like it. When I look at it in a meta sense, I’m lucky and happy that I get to do this. It’s just in the last couple years that I don’t have to have a job, which is so nice.
It sounds like your brain is just going full speed all the time. When do you turn it off? How do you fall asleep?
I just relent. I literally fall asleep playing the guitar a lot of times, or drawing or doing something. I’m like, “My mind is changing because I’m really tired. I should try to make stuff now because I’m in a different state.” Then I just fall asleep with the light on or the guitar on me. It’s pretty pathetic.
In my best phases I feel like I don’t want to go to sleep. I feel like I’m missing out on something. I think that’s when you know you’re doing life right; you like being awake so much you that you’re like “ok…I’ll go to sleep.” Then of course other times I’m bummed out, “Ah, I can’t wait to go to sleep.” But, that’s not too often.
What’s the show you’re doing now at the Village Theatre?
The show is called “These Are Jokes.” I just wanted to take some of my favorite jokes and do a nice solid hour of high LPM - high laughs per minute. So I do tons of jokes and present them in different ways; some are with drawings, some with music and some anecdotal. But really it’s just a nice big pile of jokes.
I don’t usually get to do an hour in New York. I mostly do 10-minute spots that I prefer not to publicize. Why would I tell people to come see me for 10 minutes? It seems silly. But for an hour there can be a trajectory and a relationship with the room.
How does the show compare to the 10-minute sets?
It’s like the shorter sets, but much deeper. If the short sets are like a kiddie pool, this show is like an ocean.
This is the show you recently performed at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh…
Yes, I did 11 nights in a 450-seat theater. It’s crazy that I can do that in Scotland but I can’t do that here. This show was created as a stopgap while I’m working on my next show, “Dr. Ernest Parrot Presents Demetri Martin.”
What’s that show going to be like?
It’s a high concept and trippy show. Hopefully they’ll be one dance number and I’m trying to make all these costumes and stuff. “These Are Jokes” is sort of my primer. It’s to acquaint people with my sensibility and how I find things funny. The next show is more in keeping with the first two shows I did, “If I” and “Spiral Bound.” Those shows were based on stories from a few years ago that led up to where I was in comedy. “Dr. Ernest Parrot Presents Demetri Martin” will debut in the spring.
There must be some times when you go out there and an audience doesn’t get you. How do you process something like that?
A few years ago I changed my approach to the whole performance thing and became more purposeful. Every time I go on stage I feel grateful for the opportunity. I try to make the experience valuable. Whatever the audience gives back just changes the category I put the joke in my head.
I also look for other ways to use the show. Maybe I’m going out there to get my new jokes to work, or it could be to try out new endings for some of my old jokes, or to do crowd work, or to learn how to be more present, or to not look at my feet on stage, or, it could even be to learn how to bomb. If that’s the case I’ll just make up bomb lines on stage. So it’s never a wasted set.
You recently wrote an article for New York Magazine called “How to Build a Joke.” Is there some sort of formula to follow? Do you think comedy can be taught?
I don’t know if it can be taught but what I like about it is that it forces a person to focus on a process and not on a result, which is a little bit ironic in that with comedy you’re judged by the result. But it’s not about having these things in the end, it’s more about the methodology or approach. Usually the people that are the best at it are the ones that have the most honest approach for who they are. It’s more like learning how to clarify your own lens or sharpen your focus.
Say someone got a guitar when they were 10 years old and they just started to play in their room every night and they got really good at it. They did that for like 20 years. Then they emerge. No one would have ever heard of them and maybe they come out having a hundred amazing songs. I’m not saying it’s easy but it is possible. It’s not the same for a comedian. You can’t become an amazing comedian in your bedroom, well, not unless you jam a bunch of people in there and try out your stuff.
The fascinating paradox is that you need to be your own mind and your own voice and not care what people think, but essentially what you’re doing is caring what people think. It’s dependent upon that. It’s so weird to me. Sometimes I just want to go away and write tons of stuff but after writing for hours I have to try it out on an audience or I could be totally wrong.
How do you think writing for Conan helped your comedy?
That was a great experience for a couple reasons. First of all the culture of personalities there is excellent. Conan is a great boss. Mike Sweeney, the head writer, is one of my favorite people. The environment is really nurturing; they encourage collaboration and experimentation. It’s not competitive; it’s collaborative and supportive. Secondly, you have to hand in things everyday. Sometimes you might be called to the head writer’s office, and he’ll say, “We’re doing year 2000 so go to your desk and write as many jokes as you can think of and be back here in 40 minutes.” It immediately segments your thinking and writing, which you can’t do as well on your own.
You've been called a heartthrob and the world’s most handsome comedian. How do you feel about that?
Someone said that? That’s pretty funny.
Are you working on any other projects?
The other day I started a crazy thing that I know I can’t keep up, but it really made me laugh because it’s so absurd. I took out a dictionary and I began rewriting it. I started on the first page, and I just wrote A. And then I came up with a new definition for every word that I came to. I went through the first twenty. For abacus, I put a really slow computer. In a way it’s taking something impersonal and making it personal, because it’s one person’s view of what everything means. If I write twenty a day, 5 days a week, that’s like a hundred a week. After like hundred weeks I could have a 10,000-word dictionary, it would be Demetrionary.
I’m also working on a book of drawings that I’m going to self-publish. It will be out in a month. It’s 50 line drawings.
You’re notorious for your palindromes. Any you care to share in parting?
Son I’m odd, Domino's?
Photo credit: Andy Hollingsworth