We had a chance to have a quick chat with Demetri Martin on Friday, just a day before his second one-hour special, Demetri Martin. Standup Comedian, premiered on Comedy Central. The special that aired Saturday, is being released today as a DVD and download, it was recorded at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York, a fairly large theater. Also released today is a CD/download that was recorded at the ACME Comedy Club, an intimate comedy club in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While the order of some of the material is the same, the differences are remarkable enough that you will want to experience them both. Most notably the video package comes with additional materials that didn't make it into the stage performance as well as a more "visual" set jokes that differ from some of the riffing and crowd repartee in the audio package. Luckily for people who are interested, Martin is offering a discounted and limited edition bundle that includes the video and audio recordings as well as a t-shirt and a signed art bundle - pretty cool. In the interview below Martin tells us how he put together his special, how he builds his jokes, and his upcoming book project.
It seems that a favorite theme of yours seems to be the exploration of language, both written and verbal.
Demetri Martin: I think there's a connection between puzzles and comedy, and there's a lot of satisfaction to be derived from solving these puzzles. There's a connection between that and doing standup as a career and working on jokes. I look at the joke, the premise, and try to figure out how to get there. I look at language, and these units of communication, specific words, and find that it's fun to play around with them and the jokes seem to emerge from that.
This release is 2 different recordings at 2 different locations, one on the DVD/video and the other is the audio album, how did you put these together?
Demetri Martin: It was fun, I worked with an editor on both. For the [audio] album I had access to the raw recordings and did the rough edit myself in Garage Band. I did the audio at the ACME Comedy Club in Minneapolis and that was easier to do. I could improv there and go off a bit and not worry about hemorrhaging money every second. The video had to be more visually oriented and I had to stay truer to the planned set, but basically, it's a set of jokes, and I wanted to have fun with it.
There's a cool opportunity when you're trying to create something and put it out there in this day and age, whether it's television or DVD, audio as in album, radio or podcast, or a book. It's fun to think about each of those forms and how to play to the strengths of each of form and work with the constraints. One of the things that I like about radio and when I listen to podcasts is how much the visual part of my mind gets to work as I imagine or envision things that I'm hearing. When people add a little sound texture or work with their voice, it can send you into different directions. It's fun to watch things on TV but I do like working with the constraints these other forms present.
For a long time you've been augmenting your live shows doing things with the Large Pad and other things, so that you are not just "another guy with a microphone."
Demetri Martin: I've realized that I'm mostly a joke teller, I mostly like little short jokes and I put a bunch of them together to make a show. I don't tell long stories, there's no long narrative to put them all together. But I realize that if I'm doing a 60 minute or 90 minute show, there are fun ways to create a flow of a show and provide breaks and breathers, using things like the Large Pad, so that I get an extra laugh just by making some shapes next to each other on the paper. Or I break out the guitar and score some of the jokes which changes the pace, so it ends up being a fun composition even though they are the same little building blocks.
What is the process when you put together an hour? Do you have jokes that graduate from "guitar joke" status? Do they migrate from one spot to another?
Demetri Martin: [Laughs] Kind of! I like playing the guitar, even offstage, when I'm in my hotel room and watching crappy TV, like right now I watch a lot of prison TV [laughs], watching people getting beaten up by prison guards, I think "I could be doing something with my brain," so I'll pick up the guitar and put some things together and those jokes really move along. I'm a daydreamer, and standup is a pretty good job if you're inclined to do that. It's a short distance from going for a walk and daydreaming and then going on stage to tell the best random thoughts you had. I just go for a lot of walks whether I'm in New York or Santa Monica and I'll always have a little notebook with me or I'll dictate into my phone. If somebody was tracking me they would think I was a pretty stupid detective, just wandering around, taking notes, "Stopped on the corner, took a look around, saw a fat guy riding a bike, there could be something interesting here. There's a couple dogs fighting, maybe I'll write that down." I'm just collecting random little jokes.
Standup teaches you a lot of things if you do it long enough. You learn a lot about yourself and audiences teach you a lot along the way. You can really admire another comedian, you can aspire to be like them, but over time, you can't really escape yourself. I really love Steven Wright, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin, Woody Allen, but I can't be any of those guys even though I really like them. Richard Pryor is revered among comedians, but the stuff he went through and what he's sharing, that's his life! I'm some white dude from central New Jersey, I make jokes about [the phrase] "Okey Dokey" and stuff like that. I've come to terms that I'm just trying to be authentic and dig into my experiences but if it ends up being weird one-liners, then I'm OK with that.
You can still be incredibly unique with what you do have. For example, you have figured out how to pace and deliver your jokes for maximum impact. You have a joke about middle names in this new special, and what makes it a huge laugh is how you deliver the joke.
Demetri Martin: It's funny what you discover about your own timing. I once had an audition for a comedy festival and it was one of the only times I performed drunk in my life. I had been at a party in Manhattan where there was an open bar and I realized that I was a little drunk when I left to go to the audition. I thought, "Hey, I'll have a piece of pizza and I'll be fine" as if eating after the fact would sober me up. So I get to the club to check in and they said, "Oh good, you're here, you're first!" And I get on the stage, doing the best jokes I had at this point and I do my 7 minutes and I'm just dying on stage. I talked to my manager and asked them what happened and they said, "You told your jokes so…. slowly…." Which is funny because I thought that I wouldn't appear drunk if I slowed my jokes down for them to sink in. So that was a huge lesson about my timing, since then I don't drink or get high before I go on stage, I'm kind of a straight-edge kind of nerd, I feel like I need to show up like I'm going to class.
That's really funny because I'm sure there's a good size segment of your fan base composed of stoners!
Demetri Martin: [Laughs] Yeah! After shows I get a lot of offers and gifts which is tough for me because I have a lot of food and other allergies and I can't really take anything into my body that I have no control over. It would suck to die from a reaction to pot! It would be terrible, a really trivial way to die. But I guess, if you die, it's never really trivial, but it seems like there are more monumental ways to go as compared to doing something heroic, like going into a burning building saving somebody. Food allergies are very low on my list of ways I'd want to go. But going back to that example of my pace, I was once told by a booker at one of the New York clubs that I couldn't perform there any more because I was too "low energy," at that time in the city, my type of delivery was considered a liability, they wanted more "crowd pleasers."
That's really silly because a good booker is going to want to have a good mix of comedians, people with different styles.
Demetri Martin: Sure, and it's true, I would be put on those types of shows, later in the lineup, after the guy who climbed up and stood on a chair, the girl who went on a rant, and the guy who would scream at the crowd. But if you stick with it, over time, you catch some breaks, you get some TV spots, you release an album, and you can build an audience. It's a treat to go to a state or some theater you've never been to, and all these people show up, and your energy is just fine for them, and you are just cerebral enough, you find your people.
Since you're primarily based in Los Angeles, how are you able to build up a show that's an hour or more? LA is notorious for being a difficult place to get large chunk of stage time.
Demetri Martin: You're right, so what I do is, when I'm touring what I do is open up strong but then the middle is when I try the new stuff, the dicey stuff, and incrementally build up my act. I'm also not in a hurry, since these are short jokes, I don't try to build a new hour every year. I write jokes, I write other things, a book, I write a movie. I'm very happy to be doing what I'm doing, I don't want to drive myself into the ground. When I get a deadline I do kick it into high gear. I'll sit down sometimes and say to myself, "OK, write 3 pages of new jokes." About 100% of the time those joke suck, but I still write them. Sometimes I will get a good joke out of that. I do sometimes write on stage, you can improvise and you can get good jokes from there.
For people who do listen to the CD of "Standup Comdian" you do some improvisation - there's a fellow that you find with 2 middle names and you are able to do something with that.
Demetri Martin: Yes! That was fun. That's what I like about doing an album in a club, because there is that intimacy. There is something very different about both of those releases. That was my intention, so I'm very curious to see if people get both and realize that.
What other upcoming projects do you have that you can tell us about?
Demetri Martin: Yeah, I'm in New York right now finishing up this book that's due. My first book came out a year and a half ago, this new book is called Point Your Face At This and this book will mostly be single panel line drawings, about 200 drawings, and then some short bits, like poems, some dialogue, and one-page stories. It's such a different assignment. I'm just sitting quietly and listening to some jazz and very carefully doing the final drawings from my notebooks. It's a different kind of precision and stress that comes out of it for me. With standup, I get to tell a joke a certain way and if I stutter or cough, I can ruin it, and that moment in time is gone. But with these drawings, which are very simple, if there's a little blip in the line, it can cause a problem because they're not elaborate, they need to be precise, so these can take a lot longer than I would think. The book comes out in March, and it is exciting, it is delightful to have an actual finished, physical project, something that you can hold. With standup, once it's out of your mouth, once the show's over, it's gone. It's nice to have a tactile product. If you care enough about what you're doing, you can take something as frivolous as telling fart jokes as something so serious: "I gotta get the wording right on this joke, but I don't have a closer, what am I going to do?!!" The stakes go up! It's good to be passionate about something.
May I ask what jazz you've been listening to?
Demetri Martin: I was listening to Oscar Peterson, I also just
got an album by Max Roach, I like a lot of the bebop stuff but I've really been into it a lot over the last year, or say. It's fun to walk around and listen to, to write jokes to, and to draw to. Max Roach has these really long pieces that are just drums that seem composed, almost symphonic!
Find out more about Demetri Martin and his new special, "Demetri Martin. Standup Comedian" check out his website where he is offering a special bundle that includes both the CD and DVD as well as a print and t-shirt. Demetri also has a hilarious Twitter feed that you should follow.