Demetri Martin had been to Yale and was studying law at NYU on a full scholarship when he realized he was making a huge mistake.
“The thoroughness it requires, it was very much about doing your research and preparation. I had the realization this is not the right fit for me. I’m not a thorough person,” he says in the lobby lounge of a hotel here.
What he is, is a funny person. He never discovered how funny until he attended a special month-long class on public issues for nerdy junior high students. When the class was over, people left notes in bags assigned to each student.
“And everybody there left notes saying, ‘You’re so funny.’ I thought, ‘Oh, I’m funny? OK.’ It is like a real tightrope - I never know. I liked speaking in front of people even as a child. I’m not so great at it, but I never get nervous talking in front of people. I think I like the idea of that kind of communication,” he says.
Martin’s humor is an amalgamation of who he is: part philosopher, artist, critic and cerebral goof-off. After a tenure as a writer for Conan O’Brien, Martin will host his own series, “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” premiering Wednesday on Comedy Central.
The son of a Greek Orthodox priest and an entrepreneurial mom who ran her own diner, Martin, 35, always was a little odd.
“My grades coupled with my inability at team sports would probably put me in the nerd category,” he nods. “I like skateboarding, surfing and I skied but there was never basketball or soccer. I grew up in suburban Toms River, N.J. ... Baseball and soccer were big in my town. If you weren’t good at those things, you kind of had to find another way to feel good about yourself.”
In high school he worked in his family’s diner, passing the down-times solving Mensa puzzles.
“When you do standup and you have jokes or material - they’re like puzzles in a way, so you’re trying to figure them out. The answer isn’t like a number or something, the answer is: ‘Is this funny to other people too?’ I might ruminate about something and then find a punch line and I’ll think I solved it, but the audience tells me if I did.
“So to me there’s an excitement in the uncertainty in that exchange, being up in front of people and paying attention to the room and being really present. Woody Allen says the audience teaches you how you’re funny. I think that’s such a smart idea. ‘Cause if you pay attention they really do, they guide you, it’s immediate feedback.”
Martin’s father died at 46 of kidney cancer. Martin was just 20. “I think it’s a great teacher when you lose somebody - whatever your age - but when you see somebody who’s gone pretty much at the prime of his life, it gives you a different sense of time and urgency,” he says. “I’d read that about certain people who are hard workers, they may have lost a parent pretty young because you see how finite life is.”
Losing his dad so young helped this egghead muster the courage to try standup. “I remember when I decided to go to law school in New York, I said to myself, ‘OK let me just try standup once because I’m going to regret it if I don’t. I just don’t want to regret not trying it. Even if it leads to nothing, I need to try it because I think I regret passive choices more than I regret actively doing something.’ I’d rather do something and fail than never do it and wonder ‘What if?’ That was what compelled me to just try it,” says Martin, who’s wearing a brown leather jacket, blue T-shirt with “Person” written on it and sporting a Beatle haircut.
“After my first time on stage I was pretty hot that night. I didn’t do that well, but the few jokes that worked I thought, ‘Oh, this feels right. If there’s such a thing as a “calling” this feels like that kind of thing.’ And then I just performed as much as possible, and that’s when I got my day jobs just so I could pay my rent.”
Martin worked as a secretarial temp, then as a proof reader on legal documents and later proofing ad copy.
“Once I got the day jobs I realized you can have a job, you don’t have to have a career if you’re headed for something. I think the key is to be passionate about the thing you’re doing, he says.
“My dad used to say, ‘Blossom where you’re planted.’ And you forget that things are so relative. Here we are at Universal City. It’s nice weather, people with their expense accounts, they drive me here in a car and everything, but you could be working in an electronic store, if you know how to use that and blossom in that situation.
“It’s like losing my dad where it was great, then something happened and it hurt, but finding standup was like finding where to plant myself. And once I was there, I forgot you have to remember to try to blossom wherever you’re planted.”
PBS will be dusting off Dickens for a series of Charles Dickens’ tales on “Masterpiece Classic” starting Feb. 15 with “Oliver Twist.” Andrew Davies, who adapted “Bleak House” and the upcoming “Little Dorrit,” thinks Dickens would’ve done quite well had he written for television today.
“He would have been great, of course. He was a master. He was a professional ... And he would probably, I would think, invent a new genre that we haven’t quite seen before. In fact, it would be quite inspiring to try to think what it would be and then to do it myself ... I’ve just got so much admiration for his spectacular creativity, the way he just kept pouring and pouring new characters out of himself. Yeah, he would be. It would be better than ‘The Sopranos.’”
ABC Family has OK’d three pilots in the works, all on board for 10 episodes. “Perfect 10” is about young gymnasts. Peri Gilpin (of “Frasier” fame) plays one of the moms. “10 Things I Hate About You,” is based on the movie and costars Ethan Peck (grandson of Gregory Peck) and “Ruby and the Rockits” reunites Shaun and David Cassidy. Shaun is the executive producer of the show and David is one of its stars ... They’re no fools over at TNT. The cable network has decided to re-up its thriller, “Leverage” for another season starting later this year ... DirectTV’s 101 Network is airing the first two seasons of “Sleeper Cell” on Wednesday nights. The show was a hit for Showtime and stars Michael Ealy and Oded Fehr.
It may have been the crime of the century when puckish Frenchman Phillippe Petit perched himself precariously 1,350 feet above the Earth on a wire strung between New York’s Twin Towers back in 1974. The award-winning DVD “Man on Wire” traces the intricate planning, clandestine construction and inhuman determination of the feat and is a breath-stopper all the way. Nominated for an Academy Award, “Man on Wire” is one of the most engrossing documentaries ever made. Featuring the narration of Petit himself, the disc is priced at $27 and worth twice the price.