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Friday, January 6, 2012

Demetri Martin interview

Demetri Martin is playing Vancouver Saturday. I spoke with him a few weeks ago. My story on him ran in the Straight last week. Below is the full transcript of our chat. I just want to explain my first substantial question, though. In the bio I was sent by the publicist – a bio clearly written by Martin – the last line reads, "Demetri has brown hair and he is allergic to peanuts." I hope that clears things up.

Demetri Martin
December 7, 2011

"I tend to gravitate to jokes. I like puzzles, I like the puzzle of writing a joke. I like trying to get an idea down to just a few words. And it’s fun to tell jokes. Sometimes I’m not that interested both in my own personal stuff and someone else’s. They have to be really good at it. I call it the who-gives-a-shit? test. Who gives a shit, you know?" – Demetri Martin

Guy MacPherson: How are you?

Demetri Martin: Good. I’m sorry. I was supposed to call you 2 o’clock my time. I messed up. Sorry about that.

GM: That’s alright. You in L.A?

DM: Yeah.

GM: I see in your bio that you have brown hair.

DM: Yes.

GM: How has that affected your comedy?

DM: Well, I present a little more ethnic probably than the average comedian. So I think I like to offset that with non-ethnic material so I wouldn’t get pigeon-holed. So far so good.

GM: That’s good. Yeah, I haven’t heard you talk about your brown hair in other interviews. So I thought maybe I’d get the scoop. I did hear you on WTF with Marc Maron. It’s no knock on you that I don’t remember it but I remember loving it. And the reason I don’t remember is because I’ve listened to all of them and they tend to blend in with each other. Were you happy with it? Do you feel you revealed too much?

DM: Nah, I thought it was fine. The only reactions I got were from other comedians who were friends: “Hey, I heard you on there. Good job.” You know, I’ve known Marc a long time. I wrote my first book so I thought, cool, I’ll go on there to promote my book and maybe he’ll plug my book. So when I went on it was when the book first came out. But then he didn’t release it until months later so that didn’t help me very much. But it was cool to be on his podcast. Plus I’m allergic to cats. I was just starting to get symptoms towards the end of the interview. But I was fine.

GM: You went to law school. I know there are some comics who’ve left lofty or noble professions to pursue comedy and everyone thinks they made the right choice. Do you think you’d do more good as a lawyer or a comic?

DM: Oh, I don’t know if I do any good. Neither. I discovered that focusing on how I spent each day helped me feel fulfilled. Helping people, working with kids, with juvenile rights, legal aid: these were options in law school to pursue. But the problem was when I doing the actual activities – going to law school, going to class. I wasn’t enjoying it. I didn’t want to have dread in my life. I thought I have to come up with something other than dread. For me that was one of those pivotal life moments. I remember literally asking myself, How do I want to spend my time here? What do I look forward to? And then which of those things could be a job? Comedy was a pretty good contender because I like joking around with my friends. And I was in New York. And there were comedy clubs. Two of them at the time – one of them across the street from my law school and the other half a block down. So I thought, alright, I’m going to try this. That was my way in. The idea of doing good or anything, that was already off the table when I was having the survival debate with myself.

GM: It could be argued, and it is argued, that comedians do do good. It’s cathartic to laugh, it makes people feel better.

DM: Yeah, I think so. I think whatever your career is, you figure out the point where your relationship with the larger community is: donating to foundations, doing charity shows, that kind of thing. There must be a way to leave at least a more positive influence.

GM: You’re touring Canada. Why Canada, why now?

DM: I haven’t been there in a while. The reason now is because I’m gonna do a stand-up special in February, filmed in New York. And I haven’t filmed one of those in six years by the time we shoot it. Five or six years. So I wanted to do a tour where I get ready for it. I have a bunch of new material and I haven’t been to Canada in a while. In fact, I haven’t been to Edmonton or Calgary. I’ve never been to those two places. I don’t think I’ve performed in Ottawa. I’ve performed in Vancouver, I’ve performed in Montreal and I’ve performed in Toronto.

GM: You still use your guitar, right?

DM: Yeah, I use the guitar. Sometimes I play the keyboard. I think on this tour I’m just going to play the guitar. You know, I have a lot of bits that don’t have any instruments or any drawings. When I started that’s mostly what I did: I told jokes. So it’s fun because I improvise more than I used to and I play around during the show more than I used to to keep it pretty loose and not have so many things on stage. Because what happens is if I have the keyboard there and the guitar and all this stuff and then I want to improvise and the show just goes in a different direction I still feel obligated to go do stuff on the keyboard, but then it makes the show kinda long. I mean, it’s not like it’s that much time but sometimes just knowing that it’s there it can be a speed bump.

"God, there are so many things that people get mad about in comedy. It’s so funny that people waste so much energy getting all mad." – Demetri Martin

GM: It amazes me that some comics, among certain other comics, still get flack for using an instrument. Do you ever get it?

DM: I guess, I don’t know. A few years ago I stopped Googling myself and that was a good decision. I don’t hang out on the scene so much. I have a lot of friends in comedy… It’s funny. Being in the mix in New York you go to all the alternative rooms and hang out with all the comedians all the time. But I’m sure I get flack for a few different things.

GM: I’ve never heard flack about you using it. Just in general.

DM: Yeah, most comics don’t like song parodies, don’t like prop comics. God, there are so many things that people get mad about in comedy. It’s so funny that people waste so much energy getting all mad. I mean, when people steal material I think that’s a serious problem. That’s bad. But other than that…

GM: Now there’s a trend towards making comedy so personal. But you basically do jokes, one-liners.

DM: I do jokes, yeah. I’ve done a few one-man shows over the years that were personal. They were personal stories. Very personal. I tend to gravitate to jokes. I like puzzles, I like the puzzle of writing a joke. I like trying to get an idea down to just a few words. And it’s fun to tell jokes. I like personal stuff. I like comedians who do it, but I think sometimes I’m not that interested both in my own personal stuff and someone else’s. They have to be really good at it. I call it the who-gives-a-shit? test. Who gives a shit, you know? I mean, if you’re really good and you’re charismatic… Louis’s really good at it. I think Louis’s a good example. He’s very funny and literate, creative and honest. You know, someone like that. I think Bill Cosby’s always great at It. Richard Pryor. I think it’s just another form and you gotta figure out if that works for you. When I did the one-person shows, I enjoyed it. It was fun. It’s a different way of connecting with the audience. But I do still like jokes. It’s kind of what I started with.

GM: Is it true you did a 500-word palindrome?

DM: Yeah, in the book I just wrote in a chapter called Palindromes for Specific Occasions. The last of the palindromes in there was 500 words.

GM: Wow. How long did that take you?

DM: It took a while. That was something I wrote a bit of a while ago. I can’t remember why. Years ago I wrote this other one that was 224 words long so I remember at some point thinking it would be cool to write one that’s longer than that. I don’t really have a reason to do that; there’s no application. But I travel a lot so sitting on a plane I’ll just write a little bit here and there. And then when I got the book deal I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll put a palindrome in the book.’ So I wrote the book mostly the summer before last. I had a deadline so I sat down and started writing a lot of stuff for it. While I was writing over the summer I would go back to the palindrome and say, ‘If I can get this done in time, I’ll put it in the book.’ But maybe it totalled a couple of weeks.

GM: Are you good at anagrams, too?

DM: I used to be pretty good at anagrams. It’s funny. Before I did stand-up I was more interested in things like anagrams and puzzles. I would do puzzle books. But I think one of the reasons I did end up as more of a joke writer is because what I found in comedy was the same kind of satisfaction. Just playing with ideas like that. Perception. There’s a game to it that I really like. It kind of satiated a lot of that need for me. I don’t spend as much time doing puzzles and stuff. If I want to do that, I sit down and try to write a short story or write a joke or something.

GM: You don’t Google yourself so maybe you haven’t seen this, but on Wikipedia it says you do something called paraprosdokians. Do you know what that is?

DM: No.

GM: It’s apparently a type of statement where the ending makes you reinterpret the beginning.

DM: Hmm. Interesting. Probably a lot of jokes are like that.

GM: I asked my Facebook friends if they had any questions for you. So I have a few here.

DM: Cool.

GM: “I’d like to know how his parents felt about him dropping out of law school. And how they feel about his decision now” – although I know your father’s deceased – “And where the courage came for him to drop out of a secure career to pursue his dream of comedy (and we are thankful he did).”

DM: Oh, that’s nice. I think when I dropped out, when I decided to pursue comedy that was the first time in my life pretty much everybody who I was close to disapproved of my choice or was disappointed. And I never realized how much I had people’s approval until that point. That didn’t feel good at the time but it also was really liberating because I realized, Oh, I disappointed people and that wasn’t so bad. I feel free! I can be a poet, I can be a dancer or I can be a painter. They’re already disappointed so I’m in the clear. So that was pretty nice. So what started as kind of a negative became a legitimate, positive thing for me. And then over the years a kind of weird thing happened with my family where when I started a lot of aunts and uncles and those kinds of people were – I don’t know what the word is; I wouldn’t say judgmental as much as they thought it was funny, like ‘oh, ha-ha. Good luck.’ And then I did well enough where I make a living and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘oh, he thinks he’s a hot-shot.’ I never really had, like, ‘Hey, we’re proud of you.’ Or, ‘Wow, you did it. Good job.’ So it just went from making fun of me to some of them resenting me, like, ‘Oh, Mr. Hollywood. Excuse us.’ (laughs) What?! Okay. So again it was kind of like learning the same lesson, which was I guess I’m better off if I don’t care too much about what other people think is good for me and I’ll have to just follow my own way. And as far as any courage goes, I think I was more trying to avoid despair. I realized quickly that for me personally following through on a career in law might lead to a feeling of despair. Not because it’s such a terrible career, but for me it didn’t feel like a good use of what my mind naturally does, where it naturally goes each day. It was almost like fighting it to do something that was kind of more role-based and linear, and I like more meandering thinking.

GM: Another question comes from a Canadian comic. He says, “Levi MacDougall is one of his go-to guys both as a show writer and opening act. Is it true he found him on the internet? Does he still search the same way?”

DM: Yes, Levi’s going to be touring with me on this tour. And yeah, when I was staffing my show for the second season I went and tried to do research and find comedians I hadn’t heard of, find sketch actors online. I don’t spend a lot of time looking for comedy online. I’ve seen a lot of comedy since 1997, when I started. And while I love comedy, I like to do other things. I like to read books and go see music shows and watch movies and whatever else people do. So I don’t go home each night and go, ‘Oh geez, I want to watch comedy.’ But when I was casting the show I was really curious to see who’s out there and who have I not heard of. I know a lot of the folks coming out of New York and I know a bunch of people in L.A. but where are there other people? And without realizing it, I found a good number of comics from Canada. You know, I just click on a video and think it was funny. There were two guys I hired from Canada: Nate Fielder and Levi MacDougall. And both I discovered for myself through the internet. But I haven’t done that in a while. At this point I’m not staffing anything so I’m not really looking around for stuff. But I imagine if I get another show or something, I’d probably do the same. It was cool getting to know Levi and Nathan, talking to those guys about comedy and Canada specifically. They were saying that there just aren’t as many comedy development opportunities where they were in Toronto as there are, say, in Los Angeles, outside of stand-up. For, like, getting a television series. I said to them I really liked a lot of the videos I saw, and people seemed like they were making content where they weren’t so worried about selling to a wide audience. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be enjoyed by a wider audience, but it didn’t seem like some of the stuff I see in the States where people are trying to get a million hits on the internet and they want to get famous or something. And they said, “No, that’s probably true. We were making stuff for the crowd that comes to, say, the Rivoli,” where they performed a lot in Toronto. You know, for each other. “Because we’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to get discovered and I’ll have my own series on the Comedy Network.” And it’s cool because, as frustrating as that is for a lot of the talent in Canada, when you’re an outsider looking at it, what you see is just stuff that is original and funny and seems unconcerned with broad tastes or something. Which is a lot of the stuff I love.

GM: Another one: “My question to Demetri is about when he talked about MySpace on the Daily Show and he mentioned he was friends with Sparkle Bunny. Did he mean my Sparkle Bunny character? Because she sent him a message and he never responded. At that time I was the only Sparkle Bunny on MySpace and I wonder if he just made up that name.”

DM: Wow! Good question. (chuckles) I’m wracking my brain as you were reading it! Um, okay, there are two answers that are possible. One, I made up the name because it sounded like it would work in the bit. Sparkle Bunny sounds like an interesting name. And two, I thought I made it up but I had maybe looked through, just from looking at friends’ names it was in my subconscious or something. But I don’t remember picking out Sparkle Bunny and being like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll put this in.’ And then as far as the message, the follow-up, I tried pretty quickly not to look at messages on MySpace or respond to people because I don’t know who people are. It’s just too weird, I think. If someone friends you and they know who you are and what you look like, you’re this person, and you don’t know anything about them. It’s really asymmetrical. It’s really kind of weird. You actually have a lot less power, I think, as a human being in that relationship.

GM: These days, though, celebrities and athletes are interacting with these strangers through Twitter and through Facebook.

DM: Yeah, I haven’t figured out how to do that. I like putting content out there but I don’t want to get ensnared.

GM: Next one: “Ask him if he’s upset that Zach got the career that Demetri was supposed to have.”

DM: Uh, no. I guess if Zach and I looked a lot alike or something. I don’t picture myself in a lot of those roles that Zach does. I think he’s well-cast. It’s his thing. It’s funny, I’ve never wanted anyone else’s career. I’m friends with Zach. I think he’s really funny. He does really well at what he does. But I want to make my own films. I want to write and direct my own movies. Whoever else writes and directs their own movies, I don’t see movies and think ‘I wanted to make that.’ It’s such a specific, subjective business. So I think I can honestly say there’s nobody who has the career that I want. I love the kind of career let’s say Woody Allen has had. But I mean he’s Woody Allen. What’s interesting there is it’s about being prolific than about being in this movie or that movie. So I’m still trying to learn how to do that.

GM: Did you watch that documentary on Woody Allen?

DM: Yeah, I did. I enjoyed it.

GM: Have you ever met Steven Wright?

DM: Yeah, I met him a few times. He was really cool. Friendly and gracious and surprisingly warm. I see him on stage and think maybe he’s going to be floating out there but it was really cool. He was real friendly and he knew me. He was like, ‘You’re the guy with the drawings, right?’ I said, ‘Right.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, those are great.’ So I was thrilled.

GM: Last one from Facebook: “Can you ask him where the emergency stop key to my treadmill is. My kid hid it and now can’t find it and I’m getting more and more out of shape by the second. Thanks.”

DM: Yes. It’s in the kitchen. It’s in one of the cabinets; one of the lower cabinets.

GM: Okay, great. I’ll pass that along.

DM: Thanks for taking time.

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