With his trademark bowl cut, it’s easy to mistake 42-year-old stand-up comic Demetri Martin for a much younger guy. But he’s an adult, and he thinks about the sorts of things adults think about: doing something meaningful with your life, leaving a legacy, making a lasting personal statement. This was the mindset that led to Dean, Martin’s directorial debut, which premiered this past weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Martin portrays a lightly fictionalized version of himself in the film, a shy cartoonist who decides to cope with his mother’s death by fleeing New York for Los Angeles and developing a crush on indie comedy’s new first lady, Gillian Jacobs. The alternately hilarious and moving Dean marries Martin’s deadpan onstage persona, centered around jokes delivered via drily funny doodles and illustrations, with weightier themes, chief among them grief. It’s uncommon to find a film this obsessed with death (Martin’s character can’t stop sketching a cutesy Grim Reaper) that’s also game for a good joke about cat ownership, but then, Martin knows one small line can turn comedy into tragedy.
As he unveiled his first film as writer and director, Martin sat down with us to discuss life in New York, being a slave to Apple updates, that one time he ran into Ang Lee at an airport, and why comedians all seem so sad.
Hey, how have you been enjoying the festival so far?
Oh, it’s been great. I like going to film festivals a lot. It’s like… I got to go to Cannes years ago, with Taking Woodstock, this Ang Lee movie. And it was so cool, and so exciting, probably a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.
Taking Woodstock, that was a leading role in a major wide-release film. How does this compare to that, both in terms of being at the fore creatively as director, and in terms of the size of the production?
That was a coup. I was genuinely lucky to get that. I still have very little acting experience, but I had a lot less then. I’m not a trained actor, but they thought I might be right for it. I was their first choice, so it was my part to lose. I went in and did four scenes for Ang and I did the part. I was so excited! It was challenging, I got to do rehearsals for a while, which was wise on Ang’s part. It was mostly to see if I would appear onscreen next to actors like Liev Schreiber and Imelda Staunton. It was one of his lighter movies, so it was a pretty fun thing, it wasn’t heavy lifting for him. But for me, I was like, “Am I getting it? Am I giving him usable stuff? Is this okay?” And when you see the movie, it’s not like I have the heaviest work to do anyway. But still, I’m with those people, so you’re like, “Jeez, I hope it doesn’t look like a home video on one half of the screen and a feature film on the other.” It’s too bad it wasn’t some big success, I mean, he did Life of Pi.
You could’ve been a CGI tiger.
You never know! But, of course, what a great thing to have done. I actually ran into Ang at the airport about six months ago. You have to take your laptop out [at security], and I hear [whispers] “Demetri.” And I look over, and oh my God, it’s him. I told him, “I’m editing my movie! I shot a movie!” and he said, “Aw, that’s great.” I love him.
So with this, your own show, and other TV work, have you been able to pick up the tricks of the trade for directing?
Yeah, actually, on Ang’s movie I really paid attention to the process. Back then, I remember thinking I wanted to direct when I had a story that felt right. I wanted to see if I could get my sensibility to work in this narrative form of movies. So I paid a lot of attention to how he was putting together shots and making decisions, which lens to use, do we do this coverage first or that. Though I realize every situation’s different, I did get to learn a little bit of the language. Comparing [Dean] to that, in a funny way, I think they’re both coming-of-age stories. When it came to telling a story about grief, while I was dealing with very different things than [Taking Woodstock] was dealing with, I think there was something similarly interesting in the parent-child relationships. As a way into talking about grief, I like that idea of having two people at a very similar time in their lives, even when they’re separate.
This is weightier material than in your stand-up. Do you think that helming your own feature was the only way to get at this heavier subject matter?
That’s exactly the idea, yeah. I really respect comics onstage who can do that and pull it off. I’ve done one-man shows over the years, and luckily… Eh, I think maybe one of them is on YouTube somewhere, like, 12 years old. But the other ones, I did overseas at festivals. And I never really toured them around here. I love one-liners, but it was a great experiment to see if I could tell really personal, nonfiction stories on the stage, though I love jokes. This movie was a great opportunity to try something more personal and take advantage of the intimacy you can have with an audience in a dark room.
The illustrations, they’re jokes you don’t have to tell. Do you feel like a nervous performer? Was it difficult not having a net, when you’re acting and the person who’d be telling you what kind of job you’re doing is you?
It was hard. That was a real challenge. I err on the side of self-loathing rather than, I don’t know, self-celebration or something. I don’t know if there are any comedians who would say different.
Why do you think that’s such a recurrent thing in the comedy set?
That’s a good question. I remember being at the Comedy Cellar one night, at the table with Patrice O’Neal, Greg Giraldo, Rich Vos. A bunch of comics, you know. You look around the table, and people are really different. Me and Patrice, we’re different people. But there’s a commonality there, where I think we all feel marginalized as a part of the human condition. Hey, I’m a straight, white, middle-class male. We’ve got the most paved road there is. But even on that road, you feel every little bump. Other people are off-roading, or out in a ditch, going uphill. Even then, there’s a feeling of “I’m alone, nobody likes me, why can’t I figure this out, why am I not better at being a person,” and those of us who end up on stage think the answer to this is to get in front of people. If they like you for ten minutes, then that’s a good ten minutes. There’s some connection there. In the greatest success, like Richard Pryor did, like Louie [C.K.]’s doing, when it works and you connect with the audience, there’s such validation.