Micro Frustrated, Macro Happy: An Interview with Demetri Martin

Demetri Martin
Standup Comedian
Comedy Central

Demetri Martin should be a happy guy. His new stand-up set, Standup Comedian is just a few days from release, and it’s already shaping up to be one of the biggest releases of his career.

Yet Martin sits in his Brooklyn apartment as the rain pours down outside, unable to celebrate. He’s under a deadline, with his publisher asking for a book of drawings by the end of the week.

While Martin isn’t exactly at risk of making celebrity gossip shows with a public meltdown, he’s certainly dipping his hands in more than a few pots these days. Important Things, his variety show on Comedy Central, may have been cancelled in 2010, yet that hasn’t stopped Martin from appearing in major motion pictures, including Saving Woodstock and Contagion and releasing his first book, This Is a Book in 2011.

Yet it’s stand-up comedy that Martin finds himself returning to again and again. He may have been able to branch out as of late, but it’s the craft that enticed Martin enough to drop out of a promising career in law school that he continues to return to.

“I can’t leave it for too long if I want to continue doing it,” says Martin, reached on the phone. “You can fall behind pretty quickly. I’m excited to make films and write books, but I never take the stand-up for granted, because it is its own full-time job. I have to be truthful to it; it’s very enchanting of me to think, ‘Oh, I can just go an do some films whenever I’d like!’ But the truth is, for me at least, I can’t take too much time off from it. I like touring, so I guess that helps.”

At the end of the day, what entices Martin most about performing stand-up is the control the craft allows him which films and television might not.

“Stand-up is unlike anything else — films, television – because you have so much creative control and so much freedom,” he notes. “And you also have a direct connection with the audience. It’s unlike anything else, especially with Twitter and all these digital formats have emerged, it’s not the same as going into a room and talking to people. How you realise what works and what doesn’t work, it’s very cool.”

What works for Martin is his own unique and uniquely intelligent brand of observations about the normally mundane rolled into jokes that he claims must “Have a shelf life.”

“I’m less interested in topical jokes,” he adds.

In a style that resembles the affability of Mitch Hedburg and the clever wordplay of Steven Wright, Martin combines the obvious and the inane in a manner all his own. They’re quick jokes that don’t require a lot of build up. They strike early and strike often.

“Someone who commits a murder-suicide is probably somebody who isn’t thinking through the afterlife. Bam! You’re dead. Bam! I’m dead. Oh shit … this is going to be awkward forever,” he says to a wash of applause from the crowd on Standup Comedian.

While it might not be on the forefront of many comedians’ priorities, Martin is quick to admit how important his comedic influences have been on his career.

“[Mitch Hedburg] came along a little later in my life development. Unlike a lot of comedians, I definitely admit what I’m influenced by. When people started saying that, ‘You’re like Mitch Hedburg!’ I saw the similarities and I took that as a compliment because Mitch was a great comic. But if I’m being honest my biggest influence was Steven Wright. Still though, Mitch was great. Some of his jokes, they were like poetry.”

With Standup Comedian being Martin’s third standup special, it’s becoming possible to chart his evolution as a comedian. While he doesn’t maintain the natural swagger of certain performers, Martin has become more in tune with audiences and understands that performing stand-up isn’t just about forming connections with the audience. It can be the best place to simply become a better comedian.

“When I started, it seemed like everything was wide open. And there’s still a million different angles to consider when I write jokes, but for me, it’s become a matter of looking at the same thing from a different angle. If I can find something new about something that I’ve seen a thousand times before, I’m happy.”

“I still have issues in front of audiences,” he continues. “It’s necessary for me to gauge an audience through my jokes. The answer of whether something works or doesn’t work is pretty immediate.”

The effect of Standup Comedian will likely be equally as immediate. With Martin quickly on the rise throughout the stand-up ranks, you’d think he’d be feeling on top of the world.

Yet it’s Martin’s ability to view the world through a different lens that will not only aid his career in stand-up, but is also an irremovable part of his persona. It’s been many years since Martin dropped out from law school, and one would assume anyone in his position would be on top of the world. For Demetri Martin however, things aren’t always as they seem.

“If I look big picture I realise that I’m able to make a living of it, then I’m happy. But when I look closer, I can get pretty frustrated. I think about not having finished larger projects, like this screenplay that I’ve been working on, or having this book of drawings being pushed to the wire. I hope it all turns out well, but mostly my frustration stems from my own process. So macro, sure I’m happy, but micro, I can get frustrated. But that’s normal for me.”