With his role on The Daily Show, his upcoming Comedy Central album, and a one-man stage act set to premiere, this Yale alumnus is poised to become the breakout comedy star of ’06
By John Delery
No thunderous explosion rattles the East Village of New York City at exactly 10:19 p.m., but Demetri Martin, “International Comedian,” recognizes the telltale evidence of bombing onstage.
Afterward at the bar, Martin unhesitatingly claims responsibility for detonating the comedic equivalent of a smart bomb during an uneasy, uneven but ambitious short set at Rififi, the alternative-comedy club on East 11th Street.
“That set was a good wake-up call,” he reflects a week later on the phone from New York City while unpacking from a trip to Chicago, where he spent Feb. 10 and Feb. 11 recording his upcoming Comedy Central CD, These Are Jokes, before audiences at the Lakeshore Theater.
“You know, you get spoiled,” he continues. “You get used to performing for people who know you and/or like you. Usually, you’re already kind of past the first step, and you can just get into trying some new stuff, figuring you’ll get the benefit of the doubt.”
On an unexpectedly spring-like night in late January, Martin did not anticipate having to thaw a civil but frosty audience. A nationally known comedian after nearly nine years in the business and many appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Last Call With Carson Daly, Late Show With David Letterman and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Martin nonetheless was ultimately like any other young comic searching for what works in the dim cave of Rififi, the back room of a bar used for exploratory comedy.
“In essence,” explains Martin, who wrote for Late Night for a year, beginning in 2003, “it’s gotten a lot easier. Nobody was mean that night, it’s just that there was no dialogue; they weren’t giving anything back, really. On a night like that, you’re always humbled and reminded of the fact that you have to deliver. You can’t get lazy, because a lot of people don’t like what you do.”
But how difficult can it be to like the equal parts wise and witty Demetri Martin? After all, he neither looks nor acts his age, 32. He dresses as if every day were casual Friday. He never screams and rarely curses onstage. Clever but not cloying, he seems harmless — even with an ax in his hands, because he uses that ax not to hack but to musically buttress his genial jokes.
“Someday I’m gonna own a place near Carnegie Hall,” he optimistically declares from the stage at Rififi, while strumming an incongruous bluesy chord on an electric guitar. “And when people ask me how to get there, I’m gonna say, “Practice, practice, practice. Make a left.”
The joke, his best of the set judging from the raucous reaction to it, briefly awakens the drowsy crowd.
Understanding Demetri Martin does not require an Ivy League education (like his) or passion for economical language (like his). It does require willingness to walk against the usual flow of comic traffic and enough intelligence to follow his maze-like mind from the starting line to the punch line.
“I had a great Christmas this year,” he cheerfully announces during another performance. “I set a personal record: I got my shopping done three weeks ahead of time. I had all the presents back in my apartment and I was halfway through wrapping them when I realized, Damn, I used the wrong wrapping paper. The paper I used said ‘Happy Birthday.’ I didn’t want to waste it, so I wrote ‘Jesus’ on it.”
Arranging random words until each fits snugly into the joke amuses Martin, even if he sounds more analytical than comical when describing his writing process.
“I’m the kind of guy who likes puzzles, likes the feeling of achievement when he figures something out or solves it,” he says. “I think jokes are a natural extension of that. I enjoy the idea of figuring out a premise, and then rather than a puzzle being solved, it’s a joke being solved, with the solution being that this idea is funny to other people as well, and hopefully in the fewest words possible.”
Funny, just when you think you know the ending, life rewrites the script. It’s hard now to picture Martin — the quintessential high school nerd grew up in Toms River, N.J., the son of a late Greek Orthodox priest and a nutritionist mom — fretting about getting into a good college and thinking about becoming a corporate attorney.
“When I was younger,” he says, “without realizing it, I was more concerned with how impressive the things I achieved were. I was concerned with becoming a ‘success.’ Now I look back and wonder, Why did I do that? Why did I have 15 Yale T-shirts when I graduated [magna cum laude in 1995]? I’d go to get dressed back then and I’d be like, I can’t wear this. I’d look like a douche bag!”
So rather than cash in his diploma from Yale and his full scholarship for a degree from NYU School of Law, on July 14, 1997 (“Bastille Day, whatever that means,” history major Martin interjects), he decided to become a jokester.
“I just realized I was skipping class a lot, and I was also feeling dread if I had to wake up in the morning and go to school,” says Martin, whose roundabout route to professional comedy included
a wonky stopover at the White House, where he spent the summer after his first year of law school interning in the Clinton administration’s Domestic Policy Council.
“One day,” he continues, “I thought, Well, this isn’t right: I’m in my early 20s and I’m feeling dread. This is clearly an indicator I’ve chosen poorly. I got exasperated, and in a thought experiment of sorts, I wondered, OK, what would I do if what people thought about me didn’t matter, if I didn’t have to worry about money? It was like, if my status didn’t matter, what would I spend my time doing? The answer was jerking around or maybe writing or something. So then I said, “I guess that’s what I have to do, and I’ll work backward from that. So I’ll do stand-up, and I’m in New York, so I guess I can make money doing other things.” And that’s when I quit law school and became a temp.”
Martin worked in an office during the day and onstage at night, initially at open-mic nights, the noisy laboratories where novice comedians test their courage and their acts and pros experiment with new material. His introduction to comedy heartened Martin, though for not much longer than the standard length of one of his one-liners – about 15 seconds.
Rewinding his memory some nine years, Martin recalls, “I remember my first two nights when I finally decided I was going to do this. My first night was at the old Boston Comedy Club in the Village; I did 12 jokes, and I got laughs from six of them. And I was shocked. I just wanted to get a laugh on one joke, one real laugh on a joke that I’d premeditated. Because up until then, if you joke around with people, you know, it’s essentially improv. Like you get a laugh in the moment, and you get good at maybe at finding those moments.
“But stand-up is this weird other thing. It’s preparing a thing and saying it. And when I got like six laughs instead of just one, I thought, Cool. I can do this. I’m a comedian. Oh my God, I got laughs from people who didn’t even know me.”
He pauses for an instant then hits his mouth’s play button again.
“And then I went up the next night, because I booked two in a row, figuring when I bombed the first night, I’d just have to go right back up the second night and do it again. And then the second night I went, and I was like more confident because my jokes worked, as far as I knew. And I went up and did like the same set, and I bombed. I just died because none of my jokes got laughs. And I was so confused.”
“Just last night, like 40 blocks from here, those jokes were funny. I don’t understand. I was like, Oh, OK; I guess this is going to be hard. You just have to keep doing it. I mean, it’s like quantum physics or something. You can make a probabilistic statement about it, but you can’t really definitely say, “This joke works. You can say, “This joke works 92 percent of the time or this joke works 40 percent of the time, or this joke works 20 percent of the time…I’m never doing that one again.”
TOO SMART FOR HIS OWN GOOD
Rhinos could receive skin grafts from comedians because comics have such tough hides, an occupational necessity given the amount of dejection and rejection prevalent in their profession. So Martin really sounds more incredulous than injured when digressing about his snub from a well-known NYC comedy club.
“For the longest time,” he says, “[this club] just wouldn’t even put me on there. In fact, not long ago, someone booked me for a benefit, and they were using [this club] to do their benefit show. They called me and took me off the show. So not only wouldn’t they book me, they would remove me from things that happened in that space.
“I was told I was too low-energy and cerebral for their room. I was like, “Wow, OK. People say that you’re part of this alternative-comedy community, and I have no alternative. What am I going to do? I’m just
a comedian, but if you’re going to tell me I’m too cerebral for your room, or I don’t have enough energy, yeah. Give me a break. But they want guys who dry-hump the stool, you know. There’s this very strange ecosystem [in comedy]. It’s very Darwinian. It’s just that sometimes it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the crowd-pleasiest!”
True, he’s neither antic nor frantic onstage, but Martin nevertheless has enough energy to work several jobs these days. Besides his stand-up at colleges and other venues, Martin is polishing a one-man show that he expects to premiere somewhere in New York City in March before performing it later this year in Australia and Scotland. He also stars in and helps create the “Trendspotting” segment that appears periodically on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
“Jon Stewart and [executive producer] Ben Karlin contacted my manager and me in, like, August of last year and said, ‘We want to do something with you, do you have any ideas? I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll come up with some, and then a week later, I gave them my ideas and they picked one of them. Then they go, ‘OK, let’s go shoot one [on the Xbox 360], sort of as a test to see how this thing goes.’ I said, ‘Great!’ So then we shot it, and it worked. So then they had me do a second one [on wine] and now a third one [broadcast in February].
“To fit into that paradigm is definitely a challenge for someone like me who does jokes about balloons, and, you know, pogo sticks, or whatever it is I talk about.”
Senior producer Rory Albanese, who also helps shape each segment, loves that Martin injects another 100 CCs of comic adrenaline into the show. He says, “We’re shooting the latest segment [about social networking], and at the end of the workday I go home to make dinner and Demetri’s calling me at midnight to say that he’d been up writing a rock song about MySpace.com. I say, ‘Cool, bring it in. We’ll make a video.’
“Besides possessing the comic sensibility that works for his segment, Demetri is the kind of person who thinks of an idea and helps carry it out,” Albanese continues. “We’d love to have him on every two or 2½ weeks, but with his schedule, that’s unrealistic.”
If Demetri Martin were an artist, he’d be an abstract minimalist. His canvas: an oversize pad that he frequently lugs onstage and places on an easel. His brush: a magic marker, with which he draws simple lines to illustrate the gallery of pictures in his head. His subjects: everyday life-forms that he molds into funny shapes.
He may never use his knowledge of the law, but Martin’s still working hard to convince a jury of sorts – an audience — that he made the correct career choice.
“A lot of my goal,” he says, “has been to get beyond being just this ‘Next Guy.’ I want people to be like, OK, I came to see him. And then it’s just easier, because then you can actually do the comedy rather than spend too much time convincing [the audience] of what you think is funny. Hopefully, they want to hear it.”
For more information, visit myspace.com/demetrimartin