As a graduate student, I love having conversations about the creative writing process for usually selfish reasons: I’ll have to write a dissertation in a few years, and want to compile as many potentially beneficial writing strategies as possible. So I was thrilled to once again speak with Demetri Martin about such things, whose disciplined productivity across comedic genres – books, TV, film, you name it – is a quality I covet. The two of us chatted about his second comedy special, Demetri Martin: Standup Comedian, which debuted on Comedy Central this past weekend.
The uncut, uncensored DVD as well as a new album (same name but totally different show recording) will be available tomorrow through DemetriMartin.com. During our chat, we discussed his re-acclimation to stand-up after writing a book, prime writing spots in the city, the merits of the typewriter in the 21st century and much more. Have at it!
I spoke with you about a year ago when your first book came out, so I’m curious about whether or not the book-writing process you engaged in shaped your new stand-up special in any measurable way.
Let me think about that. Well, I guess it indirectly shaped it because when I was writing the book and promoting the book, I took a bunch of time away from stand-up. I think it helped me take a breather from just writing jokes all the time and I think more about writing longer things and things that have more of a narrative to them than one liners. I spent a lot of time working on some short story ideas for an upcoming book and the screenplay that I’ve been writing, so that kind of opened the door for some longer stories too. I think about how I can make longer more narrative things.
But then when I was starting to do the special, I went back to, “Okay, I’m going to write a bunch of jokes.” So I think if anything it was just more of a breather. It put my stand-up in a context that makes me appreciate it a little bit more, because I still really do like telling jokes. It’s a nice turning point for me to go back to just thinking about little ideas and telling jokes and using as few words as possible, whereas with the book, it was more about making longer things. And now the special’s going to air, and the album and the DVD are coming out, it’s an interesting spot for me because I really want to finish this screenplay and get this movie going, I’m handing in this book of drawings next week – my second book – and I’m releasing all of it now. So I’m kind of torn in a few different directions.
Thinking about the difference between writing one-liners versus narratives, do you find one more personally fulfilling?
I have more experience with one-liners because I started really trying to write jokes in probably 1997, a few months before I first got onstage, and that’s always been a comfortable place for me, walking around, sitting around playing, wherever I am. Just jot down a joke or two. And then onstage, even improvising, there’s more of an immediate feedback loop there. Sometimes I do jokes and I think I should make something longer, I should make something that takes a little more patience and time to give the outcome.
The promise of making something longer and more substantial is really enticing. Hopefully I can be disciplined enough to do that. But they’re very different things.
I really liked writing the book, and the second book is mostly drawings, so that’s closer to doing stand-up and one-liners, the single panel stuff. Writing that and jokes go together fine, and writing short stories and the screenplay go together pretty well because they’re both more about character and plot.
I’d like to ask about the drawings in your second special – one of the parts of the special that resonated with me as a Ph.D. student who does a lot of work in coffee shops was the section where you make fun of all those ubiquitous flyers on bulletin boards.
You do actually work in coffee shops frequently, right?
Yeah, especially when I’m in New York. I do in California too a bit. I just go, I have eight or ten places I like to go, I like to switch it around.
Do you find that there are other places or environments that are particularly inspiring where coming up with jokes is concerned? Or is it more that you just spend your time in coffee shops, so that’s where the writing happens?
I like to roam around outside, I roam through Central Park, stop for a while, dictate some things into my phone. There’s an app that’s connected to Dropbox and I just say the words rather than write them down. I’m just pacing around saying random jokes into my phone. People kind of look at me like, “Are you in a business meeting? What’s going on?” It’s kind of funny.
I used to love going to the Met, just walk around in there, people-watching, hang out for a while. But usually it’s coffee shops or a diner. Oh, the New York Public Library! I like that too. I just find a corner and hide out.
That’s a beautiful building.
Yeah, even some of the branches. There was one in the West Village that I used to go to a lot. It’s smaller, more room there.
You mentioned a screenplay – are you referring to Will, or is this a new project?
This is a new project that I’m doing. After writing many drafts of Will, and I may write more, I think the director of The Artist is officially or unofficially attached now. He’s interested in directing it. Which is cool. If things go well I’ll be rewriting it yet again. But in the meantime, I’m just going back on some pitches from years ago. I’m not going to sell the idea to anybody, or try to get paid to write it, I’m just doing it for myself. Finance it, cast it, direct it. I want to do the whole thing, just put it all on the table. That’s my next move.
Sounds like quite an undertaking.
Yeah, for me, it’s always about the feedback loop, and focus, and patience, and delaying gratification. Stand-up has a very short one, and I’m sure we talked about this when we spoke about the book, because that a very different experience, because it was like, “Geez, I’m all alone writing this book and I don’t really know how it’s going to come out. I’m spoiled, I’m so used to having an audience tell me along the way, ‘Yes, yes, no, no. That’s good, not that, keep that, keep that.’” And then with a screenplay, it’s much closer to a book than stand-up because I just have to be patient and disciplined, and sit there and work on a scene and rewrite scenes and figure out my characters. It’s cool though, there’s a lot I really like about it. But I’m learning how to change my habits. I write a lot, but it’s different.
If you’re coming up with a lengthy narrative, it seems like it’d be harder to get started on a longer term task like that.
You have to stay in it, not check email or go to some random websites or news sites or whatever. You have to turn it off and just not do it. I got a typewriter and it’s fantastic. It helps me a lot because if I have to write five pages, I put in one page, and as I’m typing, I can see the page going through. And when I’m done, I have a page in my hand. It’s a tangible accomplishment. I can’t check my email on a typewriter. I’m sure it’s coming, but I don’t have that yet. It’s great. When I’m done, I have five actual physical pages. It’s just a draft, but still. When I was working on my special, I just tried a couple typewriters for the hell of it. It’s like a game for me, just mixing up the process. Writing long hand, typing on a computer, typewriter – it’s kind of fun.
I think one of my friends wrote part of his thesis on a typewriter for exactly the reasons you said – no distractions and it does create a tangible record of your progress.
It’s cool. If you can type well enough, it isn’t such a crazy thing to do, because unlike long hand, it’s faster. You don’t have to worry about your printer being out of toner or some USB connection failing or anything like that. You’re suddenly liberated. As much as technology affords us, sometimes I like to leave computers.
With typewriters, I don’t have to punch a thing that I don’t understand, you know? I’m sure there’s some magical thing happening in there, but if it doesn’t work, there’s nothing you can do. I’ll try pressing this button, I’ll push that one, and I’ll press them at the same time. Those are my three moves. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know what to do. I just have to leave it.
Man, maybe I should get a typewriter for my dissertation. That sounds really great.
Yeah, it’s cool. Get one of the old mechanical ones. It’s actually very simple.
Shifting gears, I was glancing through your Twitter feed a little earlier, and I noticed you were asking folks to watch your special because “it has nothing to do with politics.” I’d just like to talk a little bit about the lack of politics in your comedy or at least in the special. Comedy and politics is in the general ether right now, especially since it’s an election year, and because it’s been kind of a laughable election so far. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
For me, I find politics overwhelming, and disillusioning. I don’t usually feel bitter about the world or our country, but I watch political discourse, talking heads, people argue, the proliferation of all that stuff on television and on the internet – I find it exhausting. I care about the issues, as they say, but I’m saturated. I feel like the election’s been going on for a long time, it’s been a long campaign.
With the Republican primary and everything, I’m so sick of all these people. I’m sick of Congress, I’m sick of candidates. I think I have a low tolerance for it. I don’t find humor in it in terms of politics inspiring me to make jokes, but clearly a lot of people do and they make really good jokes. The Daily Show is the consistent shining example of that, but it’s just not my bag. It’s just not inspiring to me. I like spending my time and my energy on other things. My comedy, I’m just not attracted to politics.
You know, I was a White House intern when I was in law school, which was a long time ago. I thought I’d do public policy and work in that world, but I find it really overwhelming and get disillusioned so fast. I just can’t hang. But I’m not against political comedy, I think people are really good at it and a lot of it’s funny, but I’m not good at it, and I’m not drawn to it.
For more info and/or to purchase Demetri’s new special Standup Comedian (there are three special edition bundles!) you should head over to DemetriMartin.com.