Demetri Martin took an unlikely road into comedy. The former Daily Show correspondent was in his final year of law school – he was on full scholarship to NYU Law – when he decided to throw it all away to pursue a career as a comedian. It turned out to be an intelligent decision.
Today, Martin is one of comedy’s hottest and funniest young stars, and his one-man variety series Important Things With Demetri Martin (executive produced by Jon Stewart) debuts on Comedy Central Wednesday at 10:30 pm. His observational humor is straight from the school of the masters, George Carlin and Steven Wright. Consider “I saw a guy at a party wearing a leather jacket and I thought, ‘That is cool.’ But then I saw another guy wearing a leather vest and I thought, ‘That is not cool’. Then I figured it out: ‘Cool’ is all about leather sleeves.”
I sat down with the New Jersey native in Los Angeles at the Television Critics Press Tour to discuss his favorite jokes, why he never really wanted a TV show, and what once possessed him to write a 224 word palindrome.
Do you think being from New Jersey has informed your ability to make fun of yourself?
Probably. Being from Jersey itself, and then where I’m from in New Jersey. Growing up it was kind of the heart of the Guido culture, in a sense. The Jersey shore, the boardwalk, a lot of tough guys. A lot of jocks, too. I was neither of those, so I was completely marginalized. I’ve actually played the Stress Factory, which is in New Brunswick. It was one of the worst shows I ever did. I don’t know how well I do in Jersey!
That’s one of the worst, where was the absolute worst?
I don’t know. That one was years ago, so maybe I would do better now. I didn’t quite have an audience yet. I remember it being one of the worst shows. London was kind of challenging. They’re kind of quieter, and they didn’t clap a lot, or something
Do you remember the first joke you ever told?
I don’t remember, it was during a stand up routine. I’d taped it, but then I lost it. I used to listen to it all the time. I did a joke that night about, well it was really bad, and it wasn’t the first one, but it was about being really bad at lying. It was like yeah I’m a bad liar. I’m not bad at lying, per se, it’s just the things I try to lie about I’m bad at selecting. It’d be like ‘what time is it?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Do you like ponies?’ ‘No.’ It was pretty stupid [laughing] I don’t think it got a laugh.
It seems like joke-telling in social settings seems to have dissipated, at least in our generation. Do you sit around with your friends and swap jokes?
Sometimes that comes up. There’s always a disappointing few I can think of. People used to have a repertoire, like oh yeah, how about this one? They’d have like 10 they could share with each other. I don’t have that many.
Do you have one you like to tell?
There’s one that I like that’s a variation on a Henny Youngman joke, which you might have heard. It’s kind of long, but it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – but a guy is down on his luck and he’s pretty much broke. He’s walking around in New York saying what am I going to do? He hears a voice say ‘go to Vegas. Go to Vegas,’ So he takes his money and he buys a plane ticket, and flies to Vegas. He gets out of the airplane and he hears the voice again: ‘go to the casino. Go to the casino.’ So he goes to the casino, and the voice goes ‘go to blackjack. Go to blackjack.’ So he goes to the blackjack table and the voice says ‘bet all of your money.’ And he’s like what? This is all my money! But the voice says ‘bet all of your money!’ So he puts all of his money down. And the voice is like ‘hit,’ and it’s a king. Then the voice says ‘hit,’ and it’s a 10. The voice goes ‘hit,’ and he goes what? And the voice says ‘hit!’ So he hits, and its an ace, and the voice goes ‘shit.’ [laughing] I love that joke! It’s just a good old joke.
You once ran around college in a gorilla suit. Is the ability to get away with a prank like that what led you to think you’d be good at comedy? Or was it something else?
I used to watch stand-up on TV growing up. There was a lot of stand-up on TV in the 80s, like Stand-Up Spotlight, and Live at the Strip. I would laugh sometimes, but not usually. I think I was more kind of fascinated by the moves they employed, and I’d kind of predict certain punchlines – maybe everybody can – but I would really study it. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was really stopping to watch it.
But you weren’t laughing it at…
Right, but then I remember seeing Steven Wright and I said that’s what I want to do. Just tell jokes like that. So by the time I got to college I don’t think I was intending to be a comedian, but when I’d hang out with people the idea of making jokes would just kind of happen. Yale had these dining halls with these long tables. If you lived on campus, you had to have a meal plan. So you’d be eating with a lot of people, and I’d just do bits without realizing I was doing bits. It was kind of like doing a set.
You’re kind of a quiet guy in person. Were you shy and introverted growing up?
When I was younger, I think I was somewhat introverted. But, no, I think I was actually extroverted. I have a lot of relatives, and people were always around, doing stuff with church, and I didn’t mind public speaking, or joking around with a bunch of friends. Then, when I got into college, I was very extroverted. I hung out with people all the time, which is probably what a lot of people do in college. I just hung out.
Did you care about your grades?
I was paying attention to grades, but we had this thing called shopping period. You could go to any class you wanted for the first two weeks of the semester. Then you’d get the syllabus and you could see the calender for the year. So I’d be like let’s see, I can have two exams and three papers, or no papers and four exams. So you could really build your schedule. I just found the path of least resistance. I think there’s also a lot of grade inflation in those schools, or at least there was back then. It’s tough to get in, but you don’t have to do that much to get a B. But I did well, I got As. I think it was the game, it’s like playing a game. It’s just like stand-up, it’s like playing.
The interesting thing was that by the time I got to law school, that’s when I was becoming the funny guy at school, which was probably very annoying for people, in retrospect. I was always trying to make fun of everything. Then I dropped out and started doing stand-up. That’s when I totally flipped and started becoming really serious and quiet. Then I’d try to save it for the stage. It was like a great relief. I don’t think I was trying to prove that I could be funny, I was just trying to be a regular person.
So being a regular funny person has now led you to have your own variety show. Did you think TV was ripe right now for a variety show?
Well not really. I got the deal to do the pilot in Spring 2007. Its spent a while in its gestation. Its also morphed a bit along the way. Now there are more small bits in the show, between stand-up and sketch there are these kind of vignette-y kind of things. My intention was never to have a TV show, anyway. I just wanted to do stand-up, and touring, and then maybe do acting. The TV show is a nice thing to have, but I don’t know how long it would last.
You don’t see yourself moving on to something like Saturday Night Live, then?
No, I was actually called in for SNL at the same time I was called in for The Daily Show. I ended up choosing The Daily Show over SNL because you’re locked in there for like 7 years or something. I mean, they could fire you whenever they want, but it just seemed like well, I wouldn’t have as much control over my schedule if I did that. And as alluring as that is, and I have friends who work there who are really funny people, I was afraid that too many years would pass and I wouldn’t be able to just do my own thing. Plus, if you can sort of acquire the skills you need to operate different parts of a production, and you keep it really small, and are realistic about the time – both of which are really difficult to do – you can really kind of weave your voice through the whole thing. So doing a one man show where you can do music and put some art in it, and write it and perform it, it’s really nice. You can push different buttons.
And you’re also not forced to do something based on what someone else has written for you. Although, if you’re talking about acting, that’s what you’re doing.
Yeah. I remember starting and thinking I wanted to do stand-up, so I’d want to write my jokes and then I’d think yeah, that doesn’t really work as stand-up, I wish I could do it as a scene. But then who’s going to cast me? OK, so that means I’ve gotta write this stuff. OK, that means I gotta learn how to write, scene structure and stuff like that. So then that would take a while. Every time I wanted to do something I’d realize I had to go ten steps back to learn the rudiments. Like right now I’m trying to learn how to play drums and it’s really hard. I suck at it. It’s really frustrating. But I’m getting a little better slowly. But eventually, if I want to score something, I can.
You’ve said that you like the idea of constraints in the creative process. What do you mean by that?
A long time ago I used to be obsessed with palindromes.
Able was I, ere I saw Elba?
That’s a great one. There’s actually one I came up with – snub no man, nice cinnamon buns. I used to love them. I still do, but I don’t have as much time to daydream in that way. But the first one man show I did was called If I, and it wasn’t intended for television, it was just a theatre show. I did some poems in the show, and one of them was a palindrome. It was 224 words long. It was the same forward and backward, by letter. I put another poem in there that was all the words on a Rolling Rock bottle, rearranged. I was once looking at a Rolling Rock bottle and I realized there weren’t that many proper nouns printed on it, so if I took all the words off of it, I could probably rearrange them and they could have a different meaning. So both of those were in the show and they were both kind of reveals.
So people would email me and be like wow, you must like Georges Perec, who was a French writer and novelist who died in the 80s. And I didn’t know who he was, so I looked him up. He wrote a French palindrome that was 500 words long. So I started reading about constrained literature and I was like oh that’s what I enjoy. I like the constraints. I didn’t realize it, but a palindrome is a constraint. Rearrangement is a constraint. And stand-up is a constraint. There are just simple rules which you adhere to, and apply with a constraint, and then you’re still creating something. So in stand-up the rule is I have to say this out loud to people, and I have this amount of time, and hopefully there’ll be a laugh at the end of it which you can measure. So that’s why I like it, and I like applying it to a TV show. It’s like a puzzle: there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there’s a rule that’s applied that’s iterated. Just the scale gets larger.
Important Things With Demetri Martin premieres Wednesday, February 11th at 10 PM ET on Comedy Central.