Known for his detached, almost childlike observational humor and affinity for wordplay, Demetri Martin is part of a new breed of comics who deal in the sort of wry absurdity made famous by pioneers like Steven Wright. Martin has written several screenplays and released a book of his drawings, and he's known for creating palindromes. He's also a frequent contributor to Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Daily Show, where this year, he became the show's resident "trendspotter." Live, Martin often mixes traditional stand-up with slideshows of his crudely funny artwork, homemade videos, and music, a routine that earned him the top prize at the 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival; some of this was captured on his debut CD, These Are Jokes. He recently submitted to an email interview, in which he told The A.V. Club about ditching law school for open-mic nights, life after appearing on The Daily Show, and what it means to be a "hipster comedian."
The A.V. Club: Your comedy seems disconnected from the real world. Do you deliberately set out to avoid political humor or pop-culture references?
Demetri Martin: Usually, I walk around and think about things. When I come across a thought that makes me laugh, I write it down. Then, at night, I say the thought to people through a microphone. I don't think about politics or pop culture very much, so those thoughts don't often make it to the microphone. The most natural extension of who I am is my limbs. That's why I involve them in my comedy. I tend to avoid televisions, politics, and places with velvet ropes. That's why I do not involve them in my comedy. For me, it's all limb-based, thought-spoken comedy.
AVC: If you aren't bored to tears by this subject, what were your pre-comedy law-school days like?
DM: [Wiping tears of boredom from eyes.] I went to law school. I found it interesting for the first three weeks. By the fourth week, I found it tedious. I got bored and grew restless. [Recalling boredom and restlessness, eyes well up with more bored tears.] I had no other plan for a job, because from seventh grade on, I had planned on law. So I shifted my focus from classes to extracurricular activities. [Boredom-induced tear drops onto keyboard and coincidentally lands on "shift" key.]
Around that time, I took up painting, drawing, and complaining about how much law school sucked. I made progress in all three areas. I skipped classes and spent a lot of time skateboarding and playing basketball. I wasn't the class clown, but I was starting to become the "crazy guy" at law school, which is the guy who is not so much "crazy" as "annoying." [Tears stream down. A small globule of snot reaches critical mass and begins to drip from right nostril.] In the summer after my first year, I was a White House intern in Bill Clinton's domestic-policy office. [Now openly weeping and trying to thwart tear-induced snot drops.] When I returned for my second year, I decided to find something I liked more. So at the end of the school year, I dropped out to pursue a life of temp jobs and open-mics. [Tears dry up, snot begins to harden on shirtsleeve.] Those were the days. [Sigh.]
AVC: How did your parents react to you leaving law school for comedy?
DM: Nobody liked my decision to leave law school, except for me. I had a full scholarship, good grades, and only one year left—the easiest year. The only problem was that I had no passion for it. When I dropped out, everybody was disappointed. People said I should get the degree to have something to fall back on. That didn't make sense to me. Couches are good for falling back on, or fat people who are sunbathing, not degrees in things you don't like. But I found that disappointing people is a good thing, because disapproval is freedom. Before that, I never realized how much I sought other people's approval. Once I figured that out, I was free to move on and seek the approval of other people, in comedy clubs and showbiz meetings. (Shorter answer: They were sad.)
AVC: How has comedy changed since you first got involved?
DM: When I started, it was harder to get stage time. I performed late at night in very small rooms. I usually had to bark to get spots. ("Bark" is an industry term. It means to bother people on the street to get them to come to a comedy show. You might hear someone use the term in a sentence like "Barking sucks," or "When I bark it crushes my soul," or "Wait, aren't you the guy who just gave us a flyer out on the street? You're one of the performers on the show? Uh oh.") In the last few years, I haven't been around as much, so I don't know how much it's changed. It does, however, seem that now there are fewer guys with goatees doing stand-up. Also, some of the crappy comics from before are now crappy and bitter.
AVC: A lot of pieces on you describe you as a "hipster comedian." How accurate is that?
DM: Extremely accurate. I'm very hip-oriented. I focus on hips in my comedy—probably more than any other hipster comic who is out there hipping today. My hips, other hips. I work with my hips a great deal. That is what I do. But not in a gay way. Did I mention the importance of hipster hips as they pertain to hip comedy hipping? I would like a ship for the hips, please. Ships and hips. Hipsters to stir with their hips on the hip ships. And, of course, hips. Yeah, hip. That's me. (I also like sips. I'm a slow drinker. A sipster. I'm a sipster hipster comedian. Yeah, sips. But more hips.) Hip, hipster, hip star, hiptard. Definitely. (Back-up answer: Hips.)
AVC: You were an intern at The Daily Show under the Craig Kilborn regime. What was that like?
DM: That was like a learning experience. I learned several things: 1. A lot of people want to write, but very few do. 2. Comedy Central pays shit. 3. Nobody likes a go-getter. 4. You should avoid regimes whenever you can. 5. You can cook a sweet potato in a microwave if you poke holes in it with a fork and then flip it over halfway through the cooking process. You'll have a healthy, tasty snack that takes less than eight minutes to cook. It may be a little hard in the middle, but that doesn't mean it isn't good. Kind of like life.
AVC: What allowed you to transition from intern to correspondent?
DM: It was a pretty simple process. All I had to do was leave the show, work at temp jobs, then become a full-time proofreader, do hundreds of stand-up shows, some comedy festivals, a couple of writing jobs, some screenplays, two pilot scripts, and about 20 minutes of Pilates. Then, a mere eight years later, I returned to the show to become the nation's least relevant fake reporter.
AVC: Have you noticed your public profile increase since you started appearing on the show?
DM: I received more friend requests after the MySpace piece aired. It was very rewarding. Before that, I never could have imagined that I would someday have 60,000 14-year-old, make-believe friends. The best part about it is when they ask me to comment on their pages. Man, that's fun. It's tied with waiting for a page to load on the Internet. Awesome.
AVC: What's happening with your pilot for NBC? Any chance it will turn up somewhere?
DM: My pilot turned up recently in a file cabinet next to my couch. The file cabinet is currently in development. It's developing into a table. I don't think it will actually become a table, though, because at the table-read, there were a lot of notes—mostly from things that have never even tried being tables themselves.
AVC: But seriously?
DM: I wrote two pilots for NBC. Both failed to make it to production. It seems they were too "weird" or "alternative" or "awesome." I think it's safe to say that they will grow old in oblivion. (Sad music begins to play. We hear strings, piano, a bassoon. Lights dim. An old man ambles by wistfully. Silence. Then, softly, he farts.)
AVC: You're about to film a stand-up special for Comedy Central. What can we expect from that? If possible, can you put your answer in the form of a palindrome?
DM: Wow. O.K.
A still animal sits afoot. Tones I ring.
I sing (i.e. ride it, nuts open). On or off, I riff.
Uh I, to lasses, say, "Oh aha, hah, all!"
It's tops. It is a Tao, bro, to my baby demo.
Can one poet arise so rosy?
As "D" I star. Comedy, baby. My my, a show.
Oh say "my my," baby.
Democrats? I'd say so. (Roses irate.)
Open, on a comedy baby motorboat. As "it"
I spot still a "ha hah!" ahoy. Assess a lot.
I huff, I riff, or on one post untied, I reign.
I sign. I rise, not too fast.
I slam. In all, it's a K.O. wow.
(Second answer: I will tape an hourlong live stand-up special for Comedy Central at the Paramount Theater in Austin. It will be very important and interesting. The poem above presents some of the details of that show in verse form. It highlights some of the elements and emotions of the live comedy experience, and employs the imagery of a boat to represent something.)
(Third answer: Poop.)
(Note: The first and third answers to this question are palindromes ladies?)