The fact that stand-up comedy is pretty much the same everywhere — comedian, microphone, jokes, audience — is both its greatest blessing and its greatest curse. It’s universally translatable and takes very little infrastructure to put on a show. The corollary is that because it’s always the same in a general sense, it can be hard for the individual comedian to stand out.
When I was first thinking of trying stand up, Demetri Martin was one of the few comedians who truly stood out. His mix of sketchbook cartoons, visual aids, and mostly clean one-liners was miles away from the dumb dick jokes me and most of my friends (and most of comedy) was doing at the time. A favorite old Demetri Martin joke I remember was “here’s a graph of my ability to draw mountains over time.”
This was, of course, at least partly structural. It would’ve been hard to cart a giant sketchbook to a crappy open mic at a bar, and using a projector was mostly out. How did he hone a style that was prohibitive to pull off?
As Martin tells it, he was two years into comedy before he even started including drawings. The old adage that art thrives on limitations was true in Martin’s case, in a weird way. Being marginalized as an “alternative” comic led to stage time in more mixed venues, where changing up the traditional stand-up format was more feasible.
And looking back on it now, the fact that he isn’t content to stay within the bounds of one medium has seemed to define his career. My first reaction to the news that I was going to get to interview him was “I wonder what he’s been doing these past few years.”
But if it seems like he’s been idle, it’s really the opposite. Martin went from stand-up to TV writing (Conan, 2003-2004) to starring in his own TV show (Important Things, 2009-2010) to playing a dramatic lead in an Ang Lee movie (Taking Woodstock, 2009). Now he’s promoting Dean, about a cartoonist dealing with the death of his mother, opening this weekend, which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. If you haven’t seen him on TV every night, that’s at least partly because he’s still pushing the boundaries of what he was previously known for.
I spoke to Martin this week, who’ll be 44 this month but looks half that (it helps when your mop of thick hair covers everything above your eyebrows), about the challenges of directing and producing, ditching law school for comedy, and people thinking his career has fizzled out.