While it’s been almost five years since his Comedy Central series inexplicably ended, Demetri Martin has never stopped working on what matters to him most – the art of making people laugh. The 41-year old stand-up comic and actor is back on the road with his “The Persistence of Jokes” comedy tour and promoting his upcoming special that will be filmed at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington DC on March 7.
This year should be a big one for Martin, as he’s also wrapping up Dean, a film that he wrote, directed, starred in and produced, as well as a book of short stories that will hit shelves and Kindles sometime around June. How he even had time to discuss it all is beyond me, but I was grateful to catch up with the comic to talk about the life of a man who wears so many hats…
With your upcoming film, Dean, you serve as writer, director, producer and star. Are you all-in because this is a personal project, or was it a situation where you said, “Well, I wrote it, so I want to make it my way?”
It’s kind of both, but it’s certainly a personal project. I’ve been working on screenplays for two years and I’ve sold a couple into the studio system, and in that the writer doesn’t have any control. It’s cool, you get paid, but you have to wait and hope that the right things will happen and your script becomes a movie. In the independent world, there are other challenges, but you have a better shot of really making your movie. Whether or not anyone sees it is another issue, but in terms of executing it, you can really get in the driver’s seat. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.
I’m working on a couple of other scripts, so I’m hoping to make more movies. I really enjoy directing, I like acting, and I’ve been writing for a while, so to put them all together was a fun challenge. It’s really intense – I’m still editing the movie now – but it’s starting to come together, and I think it’s a good movie. I’ve learned so much, I know it’s cliché to say, but doing something like this, there are so many decisions that you have to make and so many things thrown at you. It’s very stimulating.
Is Dean a fictional story or something that draws from your own life?
It’s totally fictional, and it’s a comedy and kind of a coming-of-age story about this guy and his dad, and they’re grieving because the mom died a year before the movie takes place. It’s dramatic, but it’s supposed to be funny, too.
Kevin Kline plays your father in the film, and he’s probably one of the greatest actors of all-time. What was it like being able to work with him?
That was a huge, huge thing for me. Kevin responded, and I didn’t know him, but he read the script and liked it enough. We had a meeting and after that he agreed to do the movie, so in large part he’s the reason that I even got to make the movie. I owe Kevin a lot. It was awesome, too, because sometimes they say you don’t get to meet your heroes. Kevin was such a professional and really generous with his time and very patient. He’s such a class act. It’s cool when you meet a movie star and he lives up to being a movie star. I’m forever grateful to him.
You were influenced by Steven Wright as a child, and that’s something that is very evident in your standup style. How has your material and style evolved over the course of your career, and where do you find influence when you’re writing new material?
I’m about 17 years in now, so the very first time that I did standup, I started with just 12 jokes. Seventeen years later, I’m still writing jokes, but along the way I’ve done shows where I’ve told stories that are very personal and autobiographical, and I’ve incorporated drawings and played instruments. I had the TV series where I tried different things like shooting from overhead on a table and a chalkboard. They’re all just different ways to try to mix things up. But at the same time, fundamentally, all the different forms that I’ve tried on stage, the core has mostly been jokes.
At heart, I’m a joke writer for whatever reason, so if I’ve evolved, it’s in a weird way to come full circle. I’m back where I started, which is just standing up there telling jokes. On the other hand, I’m more present and I improvise more. If you tell jokes, you can’t help but be personal, because you’re really sharing your thought process with the audience. Artistically, I find jokes really satisfying aesthetically, because there’s something great about getting an idea down to a sentence or two. Someone like Steven Wright or Gary Larson of The Far Side, those are artists whose work I really admire because they were very economical with the words and images. It’s just something I can’t seem to get away from, and I really like that.
Should comics ever have to apologize for jokes that cross someone else’s definition of a “line”?
That seems to be a murky issue. I always feel bad when I see people apologizing. I haven’t been in a situation where I’ve had to do that, but maybe I will. For me and most of my friends who are comedians, if you’ve been doing comedy for a while, your tolerance for things actually moves. I find it very hard to be shocked at this point, and when other people aggressively take offense to something, I’m sometimes confused. I’m generally like, what is the issue? With the Internet, there are so many forms of media and content. It’s almost as if people are being disingenuous sometimes when they’re really offended.
I understand there are things that truly offend people, but as a comedian I sometimes watch from the sidelines, and I guess the next big thing is culture outrage. It seems like a list of “this guy’s in trouble for that and now she’s in trouble for this.” Personally, I find edgy or offensive comedy usually pretty boring, because often it’s not that funny. Some of it is, but a lot of it, my taste, I just don’t find funny.
When you look back on your first standup special, is there anything that you think has changed or something that you know now that you wish you knew back then?
I guess what has changed is that I’m older, obviously, and I think the world has changed with this online era of YouTube, social media, Twitter. When I started, TV was kind of the only game and even TV has changed. If I could change anything, I would have tried to do my specials somewhere else besides Comedy Central. They have a stranglehold on content and they prevent it from being shared. Even when I did my series, they wouldn’t allow clips on YouTube, because Viacom is fighting with YouTube. So I feel like I did a lot of work that you can only get from Comedy Central’s website, which I don’t think is a very good website.
It’s a little frustrating because I’ve put out a lot of material over the years, and I feel like a lot of it is kind of inaccessible to a lot of people. My first special I didn’t really have a problem with because it was a “Comedy Central Presents…” and there weren’t a lot of other places I could go. Now I’m grateful that I can do things at other places.