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Demetri Martin: The Man, The Myth, the “Standup Comedian”

Demetri Martin is a funny, funny man; Whether he’s strumming his guitar, doodling on an oversized sketch pad or telling jokes into a microphone, the 39-year-old comic is a multitalented wordsmith with an uncanny ability to take a one-liner and turn it on its head. After a grueling winter stand-up tour, Martin is back tonight with a brand-new Comedy Central special (his first in 6 years) and a full-length album, Standup Comedian, which drops on October 2nd. I had the chance to catch up with Martin while he is in New York putting the finishing touches on his second book (slow down already!) to talk to him about his ever-increasing workload, his approach to comedy and why Santa Monica gets less work done on average.

Nerdist: You have a new stand-up album, Standup Comedian, coming out on October 2nd and your first stand-up special on Comedy Central in 6 years this weekend. What can you tell us about them?

Demetri Martin: Well, I toured quite a bit to get ready for the special. I did 30 cities around the U.S. and Canada this past winter, then I filmed the special. A few months after filming the special, I went to Minneapolis and recorded the album. It’s got some of the same material, some different material. I was sitting on the material I was touring with, ready to put it to bed and record it, but then I did quite a bit of new stuff. It was cool to focus pretty much exclusively on stand-up for that stretch of time. Now, having something to show for it – the DVD and the CD – it’s really nice.

N: How do you think your material has evolved over time?

DM: I don’t know. I’m pretty consistent inasmuch as my first night doing standup ever, July of ’97, I did fine. I wrote jokes and told them, and they were all one-liners. It’s changed over the years; I’ve tried different ways to present the one-liners, whether it’s with drawings or playing guitar or putting them in a short story. When I did the last special, I had more of those things than the jokes; I had friends coming out on stage in costume. There was more of a theatrical element to it. I don’t know how theatrical I am anyway, but… there you go. I still have drawings to help me out when I’m in the club. Basically, though, it’s an hour of one-liners.

N: What is it about one-liners that attracts you as a comedy writer?

DM: I like the game of writing a joke and telling it. You see what’s possible and communicate a pretty large idea with just a few words. It’s kind of fun to build a longer set when you have so many little elements. I like storytellers and I like a good story; I’ve done longer shows and one-man shows, but I just really like the game, the puzzle of each joke.

N: Exactly! I’m glad you phrased it like that because my writing partner and I refer to one-liners as “puzzles waiting to be solved,” too.

DM: Yeah! There are multiple solutions for each one, but it’s cool just to find one of them.

N: I understand you’re also finishing up your second book. What can you tell us about that?

DM: It’s due next Friday, actually. I’m in New York right now. I dropped off 60 of my drawings yesterday and I have to drop off whatever’s left next week. It’s comprised entirely of my drawings. They’re not cartoon strips; they’re captioned line drawings. The book will include some short stories, but it’s mainly line drawings. I draw all the time, so I thought it would be cool to put together a collection of some of my favorite ones. So, that comes out in March and it’s called Point Your Face At This.

N: Well, I can’t wait to point my face justly. Which do you find more challenging? Writing for a live audience or writing a book? 

DM: If I could do only one… I don’t think I could. I’m too listless. It’s nice to be able to do one for a while, then switch it up. I love stand-up, and if I could just do it in my town – come home, have dinner, then go out and do a show – that would be great. But it’s the travel that gets you. It’s really necessary and really exhausting. I never thought I’d be traveling as much as I do now. But with drawing, I’m hunched over a lightbox. When I’m doodling, I can just carry around a notebook and draw in that, but when I’m preparing something for publication in a book, the limits of my artistic endurance really start to show. I’m not a professional graphic designer. Having a career where I can go back and forth, I feel like I’m living the dream.

N: What’s something you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting as a comic? Or what’s a piece of advice you’d give to someone beginning down that path?

DM: When I started – this is minor, but over time I think it’s becomes more important to me – I used to not write down thoughts unless they were “good ones.” Or if I had a good idea, I wouldn’t write it down because I thought, “That’s such a good idea – I’ll probably remember it.” I would inevitably forget it, so I always need to write things down. I’ve learned over time that it’s really valuable to write down anything you think could have any value. You develop a kind of library of ideas; you don’t know where your career or your creative interests might take you, so just because it was a crappy joke in 1999 doesn’t mean it won’t be useful later as the genesis of a short story or a character’s backstory or any number of things. If I had known a little bit earlier that I shouldn’t assume I’ll remember stuff so much, I might have a little bit more to pull from now when I’m trying to make things as good as they can be. Don’t edit too much, but don’t compartmentalize. Just make stuff – that way you’ll have more to edit from and you’ll have a better chance of being prolific. It’s kind of a long, meandering answer, but I think it’s mostly true.

N: Apart from the new album, what projects do you have coming up that you can share with us?

DM: The book will come out in March, I’m writing a movie on spec that I’m going to direct, and I did a part in a movie that Lake Bell wrote, directed and starred in. I’m also writing an animated pilot for Fox that I’ll be handing in this November.

N: Well, it certainly sounds like you’re keeping busy.

DM: It’s weird; I am busy, but I don’t feel busy. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Santa Monica, which is different from New York in so many ways that even when I’m this busy, I feel disconnected or something like I’m not doing enough. In New York, there’s such a pace – you’re fighting to get a cab or to get to the subway before the doors close that you feel a sense of accomplishment just for getting through the day. They’re little victories…and also headaches. In Santa Monica a lot of those small inconveniences are gone, so I don’t feel as productive as I do in New York. I’m trying to find a way to adjust.

N: One last question – who are some of your favorite working comics today?

DM: Ooh, this is a good question because I watch a lot less comedy than I used to. I don’t get out to watch as many rooms. I like Louis C.K. Lots of people like Louis now, but I’ve always found him to be a pretty great comic. I haven’t seen Hannibal [Buress] in a while, but he’s really funny. I’ve been doing shows in Brooklyn with John Oliver and Eugene Mirman, so I’ve seen a lot of terrific guys there too.

Catch Demetri Martin’s new stand-up special tonight (Saturday, September 29th) on Comedy Central at 10pm ET and be sure to snag his latest album, Standup Comedian, when it drops on Tuesday, Oct. 2nd.

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