Learning to write with both hands
Doing battle with an eleven-year-old arch-nemesis
Bombing at London trade shows
Demetri Martin is onstage at Seattle’s Moore Theatre. The New York comedian is of slight build, 5’10” and sinewy, with a self-proclaimed “gay Beatle haircut,” but his boundless energy easily fills the cavernous proscenium. “I’m used to performing in a straitjacket, in elevators,” he says as he crosses the stage in his dork-chic New Balance sneakers, “so this is great.”
Martin’s humor is both erudite and goofy: “‘Sort of’ is a filler, but at the end of a sentence, it can mean everything,” he says, and pauses. “I love you. You’re going to live. It’s a boy.” We meet the next morning at a coffeehouse in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, near his hotel. While we’re in line, two college-age girls standing nearby recognize him and whisper, but he doesn’t notice. He orders orange juice instead of coffee and explains that he shuns caffeine. “I rarely eat sugar, either,” he continues. “I don’t like to need anything.”
The son of a Greek Orthodox priest (note: Orthodox priests can marry prior to ordination) and a nutritionist, Martin grew up with his brother and sister in Toms River, New Jersey. His parents co-owned a Greek diner with his grandparents and uncle. Martin, the prototypical “good Greek boy,” served as an altar boy at church and bused tables at the restaurant. He studied maniacally and, to his family’s delight, received a full scholarship to the New York University School of Law. After completing his second year, however, he said, “Fuck it. I’m going to be a stand-up comedian.”
In the past eight years, Martin has played hundreds of shows, many in New York with the lauded theater group Upright Citizens Brigade. He has appeared on David Letterman, written for Conan O’Brien, and received the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award. He is sweetly bemused that the same cousins who chided him when he made twenty bucks a show now tell him, “You’re lucky that all you have to do is write jokes all day.”
I. “A LOT OF WHAT I LIKE TO LEARN
CORRELATES WITH THE OPPOSITE
OF WHAT GETS YOU LAID.”
THE BELIEVER: Let’s start with the law school thing.
DEMETRI MARTIN: OK. Cool.
BLVR: It’s funny now, but at the time, did your family come after you with the long knives?
DM: Yeah. It’s weird to make a decision where everyone in your life disapproves, pretty vocally and directly. They said, “You’ve got one year left. Just do it.” I had a full scholarship so I didn’t have to pay for it. They asked, “Why don’t you just get the degree so you can have it?” And I said, “You don’t understand. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and now I know. I have the answer and it’s dumb to waste any more time.”
DM: People ask me, “You’re doing comedy. Do you have a Plan B?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t have a Plan B. I’m doing comedy. Besides, my plans are numbered. I have a Plan 2.” It’s so stupid and it’s kind of a lie because I don’t even have a Plan 2 anymore. But it is funny because you hear so much of that. “You should have a Plan B.” Most people who give you advice, it’s a complete derivative of their own fears. And it’s aimed at the fat part of the bat. You can hit a ball with the tip of the bat or even right by your fingertips. It will connect and you can hit it. But everyone’s like, “Let’s just aim right here. Let’s do the high-percentage thing.” And I’m not really interested in that.
BLVR: You’re making a living off comedy. It works for you. Have they eased up?
DM: Yeah, they’ve eased up. I took my mom and my grandmother to Central Park recently. We were just hanging out, and I was pitching to them. I asked them, “When I record my CD, would you guys mind being on microphone for five or ten minutes while I try new jokes? Just to get your reactions straightaway. Beforehand, I’ll tell the audience, ‘These are new. I hope you guys like them, but I really want to start with family here and see what they think.’” Just tell jokes and say, “Yiayia [Greek for grandmother], what’d you think of that?” So I did one of my jokes in the car, just to practice, to see what they would do. I said, “Yiayia, what did you think?” And she said [in a flawless Greek accent], “Very good observation.”
BLVR: That’s so great.
DM: And my mom was like, “That was clever.” And I thought, “Wow. This is going to be way funnier than I thought. This is awesome.”
BLVR: A couple of years ago, Jerry Seinfeld said something in an interview that I thought made a lot of sense. He pointed out that Greg Kinnear went from stand-up to film and got nominated for an Oscar for As Good As It Gets, but Jack Nicholson couldn’t jump to stand-up. He said that stand-up requires specific skills and a specific personality type, but it’s not like film. A lot of people come to film acting later in the game, but with stand-up, if you can’t do it, you can’t do it.
DM: That’s an interesting observation. I think there are so many little hurdles and impediments with stand-up that you’d need to have this insane desire to do it if you didn’t have something that clicked right away, you know? Most people would naturally select themselves out of that. For me, it really helped me redefine failure. When I was younger, I’d get very empirical with myself. “I have a hypothesis about myself. I’ll put myself in a situation, see what happens, then I’ll draw a conclusion based on the empirical evidence. Hypothesis: I can play basketball.” So I’d try. “Conclusion: I cannot play basketball.” [Laughs] But what you learn is, conclusions are based in time. We live in time. So any definition of success is bound up with time. With other things you can say, “Can I yo-yo? Can I juggle?” Usually you have a pretty small window in which to get your answer. Stand-up is different. You can’t do stand-up for one night and say, “Am I a funny stand-up comedian?” In two months or two years you’ll start to realize it. When I did it that first night, I was nervous because I was like, “Can I be a comedian or not?” And that’s missing the point. It’s more like, “Will I enjoy this?” Because by enjoying it enough, now I have a nice big window. You can suspend judgment and make that hole very big. If I make my window ten days for stand-up, the conclusion is that I failed and that I’m not good at stand-up. If I make it ten years—if I just wait—the conclusion might be something totally different. I think it’s so cool to do things in which you discover the malleability of your own mind.
BLVR: How old were you the first time you went onstage?
DM: Twenty-four. I’m thirty-two now. So I’m coming on eight years, but I love discovering and learning new things. I love motor learning because it’s very basic and primal. A lot of what I like to learn correlates with the opposite of what gets you laid. I can ride a unicycle and I can juggle. These are unimpressive things to know.
BLVR: [Laughs] They’re impressive, but to a more select audience.
DM: Yeah, to other dudes with skinny necks who are like, “Why are we all riding unicycles? Why don’t we just get a big bike that says Unfuckable?” Not that it’s all about getting laid. But I rode a unicycle around campus in college. A total asshole. I keep it more private now. I don’t always put it on display. I’ve been learning how to write with both hands at the same time, which is really hard. But it uses your mind in this weird way. It’s structured freedom. Once I know my limits, my little game, the rules I selected, then I feel free to move within them, you know? I’m obsessed with summations and increments. Imagine that when you die, you have access to these things. You walk into this place and you pass a room and you see all this stuff. And you go, “Excuse me. What is that?” And the guy goes, “That’s everything you ever ate.”
DM: Stacked by category. Like, what it looked like right before you ate it. Stacked in piles is what you ate in your entire life. There are twenty thousand hamburgers and all these French fries, salads, pizzas, and jars of jelly. I think the interesting things would be, “I only had one of those?”
BLVR: Something totally random.
DM: “What did I only have one of?” Of course, there’s the stuff you ate by mistake. “These are all the bug legs I ate? This is the fly I ate? Shit.” I love that idea. Because life is finite and, in the end, you can count it and it can all be calculated. In retrospect, everything is finite, but prospectively, there are infinite possibilities. I guess that’s what makes life hopeful.
BLVR: I think the people who age the most gracefully are the people who still look at possibilities as prospective. Some people live to be seventy and they’re already looking back. They might live another twenty years, so why are they giving up now?
DM: Absolutely. It’s such a bummer. I read a book called Aging Well. It was a really fascinating book. It was based on these studies, one of which involved several hundred undergrads in the 1940s who agreed to be followed their whole lives. They were interviewed by psychiatrists and doctors and they filled out surveys about what they were doing, their beliefs, their opinions, what they were happy about, what they were disappointed with. It’s just like what you’re saying. There were weird surprises, but some things made sense. The ones who made young friends, replacing their friends who died, seemed happier, younger, and they had more energy. Because it was still prospective. They were still building and creating. But the people who were reminiscing, it was just sad and kind of depressing. A forgiveness trait was correlated with those were still alive, too. It was like reading this really cool, secret thing that you’re not supposed to know yet.
II. “I ALSO HAVE A NEMESIS.
A GUY NAMED BRIAN.
HE’S A REAL PRICK,
AND HE’S ELEVEN.”
BLVR: Conan O’Brien is going to be producing your upcoming show, isn’t he?
DM: If it still exists, yeah. Right now, NBC picked up a bunch of scripts to become pilots. They didn’t choose mine but they didn’t kill it. They said, “Maybe we’ll do a presentation.”
BLVR: You’re supposed to be a participatory journalist on the show, right?
DM: Yes. A young George Plimpton. That’s the idea. I write for newspapers and magazines and journals. None of them exist in reality, but they exist in the show. One of them is Urban Sports Quarterly, for which I’m doing an article on street sledding. I made up the sport, where you have to get dragged by a car, on sleds. It’s definitely a good exercise in writing. In the show I have my friends and everything, but I also have a nemesis. A guy named Brian. He’s a real prick, and he’s eleven. He’s an eleven-year-old kid, a shitty kid. If I were little, he’d be bullying me. But I’m bigger, so I can take him. In the pilot, there’s a scene where I lunge at him. He calls me and my friends dorks and everyone laughs at us, and I just go for him and my friends hold me back. If I had my way, I would kick this kid’s ass. It just makes me laugh. I love uncute kids.
BLVR: Once they get to be around eleven, they can be obnoxious as hell. Children, I think, are the unfettered id. If you want to look at pure, undiluted evolutionary theory, watch kids interact. Because once they’re verbal and they can walk, it’s every man for himself.
DM: I agree. That’s true. It’s funny that you say that because I had this bit I tried out a couple of times. I have to reword it, I think, but the idea is that, in one split second, what if you experienced all of human evolution mentally, in the present day, in this superfast zoom? My example is when I’m in a restaurant and I have a meal that I like and a person says, “Can I have a bite?” The primordial me in my head just thinks, “No. My food. Mine. I want this. This tastes good. Fuck you.” But you evolve, and you flash forward. Need to be liked greater than need for pancakes. “Yeah, sure, man. You want the whole pancake? You want the whole thing?” You realize that you should share, because otherwise people will say you’re a dick.
BLVR: When you’re onstage, I think you’ve got the funniest vocal inflections with the word dick. You sound like a teenager, when calling someone a dick is the worst thing you can say. You’ve said before that performers have that inkling as little kids to be the center of attention, and that you wore a gorilla suit.
BLVR: Where, as a little kid, did you get a gorilla suit?
DM: No, no, no. I did that in law school.
BLVR: You need to explain that.
DM: Oh, I had it in college, too. I had the gorilla suit in college because when I was a little kid, I always thought it would be funny to ski in a gorilla suit. Because when you’re wearing an animal costume and something bad happens, your facial expression doesn’t change. The animal is deadpan the whole time. If you’re skiing in a gorilla suit and you fall, you just see a gorilla who has no emotion. It’s just a stoic gorilla, wildly falling down a hill, out of control. I was like, “That’s fucking hilarious.” I love Buster Keaton and I love physical comedy when it’s done in an emotionally understated way. I just like to play it, and I needed the attention. So I got the gorilla suit in college and I’d wear it when I went skiing.
BLVR: So this isn’t something you rented? You owned this.
DM: Yeah, I got it for Christmas. That was my ski suit. The head, the hands, everything. A full gorilla ski suit. You couldn’t see my face and I could barely see. There’s no peripheral vision because I’m looking through gorilla eyeholes. The best thing about it was when I was in the lift line with my friend and this guy said, “Hey, Willy! You want a banana? Ha, ha!” I got really irritated and I told my friend, “These people are assholes. They won’t leave me alone.” And he said, “You’re the asshole in the gorilla suit, man! You chose to wear a gorilla suit on a snowy mountain.”
BLVR: So you wore it to law school?
DM: Yeah, I was bored. It was probably nearing the end for me in law school. One day I was skipping class and I had my gorilla suit on and I was like, “Fuck it. I’ll go down to school.” So I started walking around campus and I went into classrooms. I didn’t jump in and go, “Hey!” I would just open the door in a subtle way. I’d walk in and be like, “Oh, this is the wrong room,” and then just leave. Once I looked at the professor and she stopped, like “What the fuck?” And I left. The door closed behind me and I could hear the laughter as I walked away. It was so fun.
BLVR: You’d have to know at that point that you’re not taking law school seriously.
DM: Yeah. “What am I doing? This is an actual career?” It was over.
III. “I LIKE THAT YOU HAVE A PIPE
BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE
PONDERING WHAT I’M SAYING
RATHER THAN JUST NOT
FINDING ME FUNNY.”
BLVR: What’s the strangest story that you have from the road?
DM: I’ll tell you one that’s kind of strange. I got a corporate gig. I do very few corporate gigs. But I won that Perrier Prize and I got this corporate gig and it was in London. I got an email from somebody while I was still working at Conan. In the email he said, “Hi, I work at this mutual fund company and we’re having our annual dinner and we always have a guest speaker. We’re interested in booking you. Are you available on this date? We can offer you fifteen thousand pounds.”
BLVR: That sounds like a good sum.
DM: That’s twenty-two thousand dollars for half an hour. That’s crazy. I thought it was a joke. I wrote back, “Sure. What are the details?” And he writes back and it’s true, so now I have my manager on it. The head writer at Conan lets me take two days off to fly to London, do the show, and come back. He’s a former comic and he says, “That’s ridiculous money. Go do it.” So I fly over there and it’s at this superswank hotel in London. It’s absurd. And they give me this amazing room and I realize it’s a black tie event, so it’s all tuxedos. People aren’t even bringing their wives. It’s mostly guys and they’re English and fifty and over. I’m sensing danger. The guy who runs the event comes to my room and he’s really sweet and he says, “Great to have you. Let me tell you about our company. We’re a mutual fund company and we do this once a year. I am responsible every year for organizing this event. All that I hope for is that when we go back to work, people come up to me and say, ‘You’ve done it again.’” So now, I’m sensing more danger. He goes, “Last year we had a fellow named Joe and there was a movie called Touching the Void based on his story.” Did you ever see that movie?
BLVR: The climbing one?
DM: Yeah. The guy who fell into the crevasse and crawled with a broken leg—
BLVR: and who came down with post-traumatic stress disorder.
DM: Before the movie came out, he was their speaker.
BLVR: He’d be fascinating, but I don’t think of him as a black tie–type speaker.
DM: Yeah, but apparently he had people crying and it was amazing. If you think, “Who would be hard to follow?” high on my list would be someone who fell into a crevasse and survived. So that was last year’s speaker. The guy who booked me tells me that this year he wants to lighten it up and have some fun. So I go in the room, and people were so fancily dressed that they were wearing red socks with tuxedos. So fancy they looked clownish, like they were about to meet the Queen. One of them was wearing a bunch of medals.
BLVR: It was old-school.
DM: It was super-old-school, and I was just some kid from America. The guy hits this gavel and says, “Gentlemen! I suggest you turn your chairs around to enjoy the entertainment!” I go out there with my little guitar and I tell my jokes and I am dying. I am dying. A couple guys are laughing, though, and it does feel good to see a white-haired man from another culture laughing at what you’re doing. A guy was smoking a pipe and I said, “I like that you have a pipe because it looks like you’re pondering what I’m saying rather than just not finding me funny.” And I’m just bombing. The worst part of the gig was they had wide-screen, flat-panel televisions. There was a camera in the back of this big ballroom, simultaneously broadcasting around the room. I never knew until that night what my face looked like when I told jokes that didn’t work.
BLVR: It’s as if you could see yourself onscreen asking someone out on a date and getting shot down.
DM: And the person you were asking out was an old man in a tuxedo. It was so horrible and immediately hilarious at the same time. I did my thirty-five minutes and ran back upstairs to my palatial hotel room. My English manager was there and she said, “You did what you had to do. Don’t worry about it. But you have to go back downstairs and thank them.” So I went downstairs and I found the guy and I said, “Thanks again for having me. It was really fun. I’m sorry if it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.” And he goes—and this is the best horrible euphemism ever—“Ninety percent of the people I talked to really enjoyed it.”
BLVR: I love that. It’s so British and polite.
DM: It’s like he panicked. “OK, I can’t be honest. We both know this guy died. I’m not going to lie and say everybody liked him. So I’ll pick some people who liked him. What percentage? Ninety! Very positive!” So basically he’s telling me he’s talked to enough people—
BLVR: And done a mathematical breakdown.
DM: Yeah. He spoke to at least ten people and it broke down nicely. Nine of every ten enjoyed it, but there was one out of every ten who said, “I didn’t like it.” So it’s like, “How was the show?” “Great! Ninety percent of the people in the audience liked me!” To me, that’s a funny story because it’s an absurd amount of money for someone like me to fly over the ocean, be rejected, and then fly home.
Illustration by Charles Burns
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