Interview: Demetri Martin's ever-growing comedy portfolio
Delving into a stand-up comedian’s creative process is often a mixed bag at best. Creating, tweaking, and performing a joke is an incredibly subjective experience, so communicating what that experience is like usually leaves something to be desired. Sometimes, though, we get lucky, and we catch a vivid glimpse into how comedy is born.
Enter Demetri Martin. He’s worn many hats in the comedy world, from working as a correspondent on The Daily Show to performing stand-up comedy to writing for Late Night with Conan O’Brien. His latest project is a newly released book of short stories, drawings, essays, and quips called This Is a Book.
Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take a peek into Demetri’s world of comedy in talking to him about his book and writing process. We chatted about how he comes up with his ideas, how he decides what form a joke will take, and what he finds particularly funny.
So this was your first book. How was the process for you?
It was surprisingly enjoyable. I was excited to do a book. After I got the deal and I was facing the reality of writing a whole book, I was a little worried about how I would get through it. Once I started writing, I tried to just approach it incrementally, and it ended up being pretty fun. It came together pretty quickly, and I wrote a lot more pieces than ended up in the book.
I think that’s the nature of this kind of a book, because you kind of have different structures: there are some stories, some essays, drawings, you know, all different kinds of content. I tried to write as much as I could; I procrastinated for quite a while, so it pretty much came down to last summer and I really had to get it done. So I wrote most of it last summer.
You have quite a bit of writing experience under your belt in comedy and outside of it. Did you draw on any of that prior experience writing for Conan or on other projects?
The good thing about writing for Conan was that was the first time I had a job where I had to deliver written comedy for a specific deadline. They’d say, “Alright, we’re writing ‘The Year 2000’ today, everybody go to your office for the next 45 minutes and write as many as you can.” So that was different from stand-up; stand-up is kind of more open-ended and I was adding to my act, but it wasn’t like I needed so many jokes by tomorrow. So that was my first experience writing comedy with specific deadlines. In that sense, it helped, because once they gave me a deadline, you have to deliver, or they’d say, “we’ll have to restructure your book deal.”
And then writing longer pieces – I didn’t have much to pull from, so that took me back to college. It was, in a way, like writing a paper for college, where I had to be aware of the structure of each paragraph, and sentences, and what words I used or hadn’t used. Those don’t usually come into play when I write stand-up, because they’re shorter bits, so it was interesting. It took me back.
Your work has been called “cerebral comedy” and “nerd comedy” and there’s definitely a lot of that in the book too, which I guess makes sense if you’re drawing on a more collegiate writing philosophy. Was that a balance you were thinking about when writing this book? And how do you find the balance between more esoteric comedy and jokes that’ll reach more people?
That was my first attempt at putting my sensibility into the written word. I was thinking a lot about how somebody might move through the book, from when they pick it up, they’re flipping through it, looking at it, and then later when they take time to read it, hopefully. I thought about breaking it up so that there was some sort of alternation between shorter, simpler bits, and then the longer ones that are more about having a narrative. I hope I get, after this, to write different books, maybe a book of just short stories or a book of just drawings.
This first one, I wanted to see how each of those forms might work together. And in there, hopefully, there’s kind of a natural give and take with some of the more esoteric stuff and the shorter stuff.
It seems to parallel your live act, in a structural way. Was it at all difficult to translate any aspects of your comedy and your sensibility into the written word, especially since you do a lot of visual and multi-sensory comedy?
It was a funny process for me. The idea often dictates the medium or the form. If I get an idea that I think might be funny, I pay attention to what it would work best as. I might think I want it to be a stand-up joke, but it really might be better as just a drawing. So what I usually do is generate ideas and put them in my notebooks. When I walk around, I daydream, I go to a café. I try not to worry about form or the medium for it. I kind of think about a holder for the idea, and then later when I have an assignment or a job, I can go through my notebooks.
It’s like having a library of resources and I can look at the ideas and say, “Oh, cool, here’s a good piece of dialogue” or something, or, “That’s a good character,” or maybe, “That’s a list piece.” That’s what I try to do. Those help me get things moving whether I’m trying to write a screenplay or a book or just a sketch or something. And then once I’m in it, and I’m committed to the form, I just try to come up with stuff specifically. I don’t usually have so much trouble translating stuff, it’s more sifting through stuff I’ve been trying to generate all along the way.
Are there particular criteria you look for in deciding, “This bit would work well for stand-up, but maybe not so much written down?” How do you decide?
I think a few ways, probably. One, is I like things to be economical in their structure – if they don’t require too many words or too many lines or too many colors to draw, it’s more pleasing to me if they’re simple. It’s probably why I like short jokes, because they don’t require that many words and it doesn’t require that long commitment from the listener or anybody. Set-up, few words, sentence, punch line. Then cool, you’re done, you move on to the next thing. You get another chance, it’s like a reset.
I guess similarly for something that would be written, I’m trying to find a similar kind of game where I don’t want to be too long-winded in a story. If something takes too long to explain, or it’s too clunky, it doesn’t have enough jokes within it, along the way, I probably scrap it, and it might be better as something I shoot or film. Stuff starts to present itself or lend itself to really sparse presentation. Some of them do seem to be more suited for one or the other, certain drawings – I want to get the joke to work without having to put any words or to say anything. I just want the person to look at it, and quietly in their brain, they can just put it together and say, “Cool, that one works,” as opposed to saying, “Yeah, there’s a guy, and he’s falling down a hill, and there’s a sign,” it seems like too much work to get to that punch line.
And then the other way I think I am learning to tell is just from experience, looking backward, saying, “Oh yeah, that audience responded to that, this audience didn’t like that.” I even put myself as an audience member or a consumer, and look at certain drawings or read stories that I remember liking, and I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I see, I see what I liked about this. It’s really visual, it’s very evocative, but it works well with the words, because I get to put it together in my head. I don’t have to rely on a specific drawing of a bit; it’s more the description of it.” Certain things just seem better that way.
|Demetri Martin – Findings|
You were mentioning the short punch line, the short stories, one-liners, and images too – I feel like that’s driving a lot of comics to use Twitter a lot more, too. Can you talk a bit about how that’s affected your act, or how you’ve used that medium to spread your comedy to new audiences and communicate with more people?
It seems that no matter how much of anything there is, the best things will hopefully find their place near the top or close to the top. So there are more one-liners out there, and I guess you see in the ecosystem if you have good ones that work or stand out. I think with Twitter, that’s a good example of certain things being better as jokes that are read, and others might be better as jokes that are told. If I put something on Twitter, it’s usually something that I don’t feel like telling to people, but maybe I’d want them to read it.
They’re usually things that are not going to be part of a larger work, they’re just asides. At the same time, I figured out a way to put drawings onto the internet in a way that’s pretty easy, so I post them through a service called WhoSay.com. I can do drawings and they get posted to Twitter and Facebook, it’ll send them to both. So, using Twitter as a place to showcase really simple line-drawing has been enjoyable for me.
But, I don’t know, generally I’d say YouTube, Twitter, camera phones, and whatever the other latest technologies are that allow people to record comedy at a very quick pace, those things for me dictate different rules for being a live performer. The clearest one is that I think you have to refill your material quickly. I don’t think you can do the same thing all the time, because people know your jokes. I do a joke for the first or second time, and then somebody records it with their phone, and suddenly they can put it on the Internet.
It’s definitely frustrating if you’re trying to build a new act or a new special, and you want to hone your stuff. You want to figure out the whole act. But, to me, what that does, it makes me improvise more. It makes me try to find ways to diversify my act, my presentation, so that I’m not relying on the same thing over and over again. I’m not fighting the technology, I’m learning how to work with it so that I can still be viable and do good shows and surprise people without fighting it so much. I improvise a lot more, and one-liners – I still love one-liners, and I do a lot of them, but I do bits and I tell stories. I mix it up. I think the one-liners are just the easiest to disseminate because they’re very short, and like you said, they fit into tweets. But I try to avoid putting my act on Twitter. That’s just a dumb thing.
Twitter and YouTube and those things you mentioned seem like the go-to place for comics to make a new name for themselves beyond where they would traditionally be seen on TV or in clubs.
But it seems like the default now, rather than a more traditional comedy book. That’s not to say that books are passé, because they’re still really popular, but is there something in particular that made you want to do a project like this maybe instead of one of those other forms?
I like books. I like having something that I can flip through and dog-ear pages and look back at something, jump around in it, more than I think I’d be able to do even with a Kindle or an e-Reader. Maybe I’ll get one of those eventually. But right now, I still like having an actual physical book. And I like reading stories and things like that. That’s different than a lot of social media. It’s nice, when you read a book, you don’t have to worry about pop-ups. I don’t have to have the book suggesting to me other things I might like, or trying to sell me shit in the middle of a paragraph.
When I go on an airplane, I don’t have to turn the book off because we’re taxiing. I still get to keep reading. Those kind of things, you know, I enjoy especially because I travel around a lot to do my work. I think it’s cool to get to make one of those things. I hope I get to make a bunch more. And social media, YouTube, all that stuff, that’s cool too. But they’re not mutually exclusive, they’re just different ways to think about comedy. I don’t know how much doing a book is going to help me make a name for myself. I just wanted to see if I could work in that form.
|Important Things with Demetri Martin|
|Nature – The Naturalist|
I read it all this week – I enjoyed it a lot, it’s great! Do any of these stories draw on real life experiences or conflicts or values?
I don’t think so directly. But I’m often not as in touch with my own emotions as I think I am. Then later, I realize, “Oh, that’s what that was about.” It’s like a weird feeling. But when I’m writing stories, even if they tend to have more absurd situations in them, or scenarios, and this goes for screenwriting too, I try to write things that are at least emotionally real.
So I had a long-distance relationship once, so maybe one of those stories, the Sheila story, that’s not really directly autobiographical, but I certainly know what it feels like being in a long-distance relationship where one person feels like they’re compromising more than the other person, and the resentment and difficulty of that. I’m trying to learn how to tap into real things and turn it into more fantastic situations that are emotionally resonant, but still can be surprising and absurd.
There was an underlying common thread of insecurity or a need to apologize in the longer pieces, like with the awkward and lonely hotline, the better-than-sex email apology, the inadequate Spanish student.
Is that something that was intentional, or was that one of those moments where you’re sharing something that was beyond the joke?
I don’t think that’s intentional. I think lately that’s just something I’m finding funny. At the same time, I’ve talked to a lot of friends about this – when I look at some of my favorite performances, when I look at actors, comedians, musicians, there’s a certain interesting mix of vulnerability and confidence, or porousness and toughness. I don’t know if you know what I mean.
But really good performances are in control, they command the stage, but at the same time, they’re not completely invulnerable or emotionless. It’s not just about being tough. I think there’s something more interesting, more honest, and easier to connect with when there’s a little bit of that admission of loneliness sometimes, or insecurity, or self-doubt, or any of that kind of stuff. I think sometimes that relates to feeling alienated. So I think some of that trickled through in the book, even though I wasn’t really conscious of that.
With all the different activities you do and props you use on stage, is there a mode of performance that you’d like to do or try that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?
I try to mix it up. When I’m on the road, I often end up doing about ninety minutes, so most of it is just me talking, because that’s how I started in stand-up. It’s the simplest and most direct way to communicate. Along the way, I like to try different things. There might be drawings for seven or ten minutes, I might play guitar for the last ten minutes of the show. It’s in those pockets that I try new stuff. So I don’t know, there might be more stuff. I haven’t figured that out.
I’m always open to new forms, new ways to present ideas. Maybe someday I’ll write a play or something. Right now I’m starting to work on my next book and I’m writing a movie that I’m going to direct, I hope. I haven’t figured out what the movie is yet. But once I do, I’ll be that much closer to directing it.
For more info, check out demetrimartin.com. To snag yourself a copy of the book, just click the image below. Do it. You won’t be sorry.