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Demetri Martin doesn’t just tell a joke—he prefers to demonstrate it in whatever way best suits the material. For example, in his new half-hour series, Important Things With Demetri Martin, he shows a flip chart on which he’s scrawled a series of circles and the words “polka dots.” Then he moves to the next sheet, containing long cylinders titled “polka dots: side view.” Fittingly, the rest of this new Wednesday-night Comedy Central series is a mix of stand-up, short sketches, music, and PowerPoint presentations, all with Martin’s oddball comic voice front and center. The show feels like a culmination of Martin’s long, varied comedy career—he’s served an extended stint as a writer on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, as a bit-parter in films and TV (Flight Of The Conchords), and as the occasional “Senior Youth Correspondent” on The Daily Show. Aside from Important Things—which, a few weeks ago, scored Comedy Central its biggest debut audience since 2003’s Chappelle’s Show—Martin stars in Ang Lee’s upcoming Taking Woodstock, the true story of Woodstock mastermind Elliot Tiber. In the midst of a marathon editing session, Martin spoke with The A.V. Club about his many (many) thoughts on comedy, the revelations he’s found working on the show, and more on his palindrome-writing strategy—a prowess he showed off the last time we spoke.
The A.V. Club: The show mixes stand-up with sketches and visual gags. How did you decide on this format?
Demetri Martin: Well, after I did the special that I filmed in November of 2006, that aired in January of 2007… so that was called Demetri Martin. Person. I guess the number of views that the special attracted was greater than Comedy Central expected. So they brought me in for a meeting and said, “Hey, we are interested in developing a pilot with you.” And I said, “Oh, great.”
AVC: Good reaction.
DM: Yeah. And they said, “You know, if it has elements that your special has in it, we’d be interested in something like that. It doesn’t have to be part of your stand-up series or something, but it’s cool that you do different things in your stand-up, so maybe we can play with just whatever idea you come up with.” And I was like, “Okay.” And I thought about it, but it seemed to me that to do a show, it would be better to get away from stand-up a little bit and see if I couldn’t do some sketches, because I’m not an experienced sketch performer.
AVC: Where did that desire come from?
DM: Over the years, I’ve learned that I should let the idea dictate the form, and what might be its best medium. So I might set out to write stand-up jokes, which is what I started doing in ’97, I guess. I started doing stand-up. So I would just have my notebook and try to write jokes to tell onstage. But they don’t always lend themselves best to stand-up format. So you kind of accumulate certain ideas, and you go, “Well, this works better as a drawing. This could be a short story. This could be animation.” So even in the one stand-up special, I put some animation in there, because those ideas seemed like they could be better presented in color as animated pieces with a little voiceover and music under them. So by the time it came to get a show… [Pause.]
Sorry, I’m fried. I’m really having trouble even constructing sentences. We’re near the end of the edit process, where we’re like a day away from closing shop and being done with the show. It’s like exams. But long story short, I didn’t start doing stand-up because I wanted to have a TV show or be an actor or even wanted to write sketch comedy. I got into stand-up because I love stand-up. Specifically in stand-up, I love jokes. I love short, structured ideas and a punchline. But once I really started trying to generate as many ideas as I could, I noticed that a lot of them didn’t quite fit into the format I’d started with as a performer. And that made me think more about, “Gee, I wonder if I could do a scene. I wonder if I could act convincingly enough in this to convey this comedic idea. And maybe this could be a little more emotional and less rational, in this scene.” So by the time I got to pitch and develop a show, I tried to look at what I like doing normally, when I’m just brainstorming or drawing or trying to generate ideas.
And when I looked at the pile of stand-up I had created, I thought, “Well, I do seem to like objects and things.” I had a lot of material about just… [Chuckles.] Non-living things, I guess? They’re kind of like discrete, designated things. Well, I don’t know if they’re designated, but they’re discrete, like an umbrella. A table. It’s just an object that exists. It’s like still life or something. So I thought, “Well, if I’m going to try to have a series, I guess I should try to have something that’s refillable and would be a pretty normal fit for me.” The second thing was, I figured I wanted to do some sketches. I really didn’t know how much stand-up would be in the series, so there’s a fair amount in there.
AVC: It’s about a third.
DM: Is that right? Yeah, it probably comes in around a third. A lot of this has been trial-and-error. What’s interesting in terms of development of the show is that much of it has happened in the last 10 yards of this race. The edits have been a place where a lot of the show has emerged. When we were shooting the sketches, we had the scripts that were approved and budgeted, and locations that were scouted, and a pre-production process that was executed. Then I realized, “Wow. We’re shooting some pretty long sketches.” Or they at least require a pretty long production time, and I don’t know how much screen time I’m actually going to get out of each one. Especially as a guy who hasn’t done this before, I’m thinking, “I don’t know how funny this one’s going to be. I hope that one’s funny for at least two minutes. And this one, gee, it seems pretty long.” What happened was, I started to realize when we were on location that there was a certain amount of downtime, so I looked at every location with a different lens to see if I could get extra bits out of it and create less scripted, more interstitial-feeling video pieces that are just 30 seconds long.
It’s interesting, though. They say that structure is freedom, and in a sense it is. When you’re dealing with multiple constraints, you have to figure out what you can get out of that. I couldn’t have that many principals in each episode. It’s just the show that I had budgeted for. I couldn’t just go cast everybody. I couldn’t do a lot of scenes with a lot of people who had a lot of lines, because we couldn’t afford it. So there’s a lot of bits of just me talking, because it’s like, “I can talk as much as I want in the show, and we can still afford it.” So that’s what we did a lot of it.
AVC: That must be a shift—having something come together in editing, rather than simply writing and performing what you wrote. How did this affect your process?
DM: What I realized along the way is that different creative properties have different feedback loops. The shortest feedback loop I can think of is doing improvisation in front of an audience. As you’re thinking about an idea, you’re saying it, and then your focus group and testing and everything happens in a split second. And you hear from the audience right away, “Yes, that was funny.” Or “No, that was not funny.” And the longest one I can think of is, maybe you have a trilogy in mind, like three novels that go together. By the time you get to the third novel and it’s finally published, that’s a pretty long feedback loop. A TV show is in the middle somewhere. It’s less than a movie, but definitely greater than stand-up. Stand-up is a pretty good, nice feedback loop, where you can walk around during the day, think of some stuff, write it down, think it over, and then get onstage and say it. Then you find out that night if somebody liked it. So with this, it was kind of a longer process. And with stand-up, I think I’ve been spoiled, because I don’t have to get notes. You’re free to shift gears at the last minute. You can be unprepared. There’s a lot of things you can do that don’t affect budgets and timetables and procedure as much. Whereas with a television show, you’re not only trying to figure stuff out as you go, but there are people working for you who are like, “Hey, man, we just scouted all those locations, and we just got a deal on that restaurant. You guys changed the script, and now it takes place at a dock, but we’ll use the restaurant.” I think those are some of the particular challenges that you don’t anticipate as much when you go into a show.
AVC: You don’t have the freedom to just shift things willy-nilly, is that what you’re saying?
DM: Yes. As the production gets larger, it seems like that freedom tends to decrease. If you want it to look a certain way, and you want to have a certain composition, and the sound is good enough, and you can see a person clearly enough, and all that sort of stuff… I think the less you care about some of those things, the more your freedom increases again.
AVC: Given all that, do you think the stand-up on Important Things is an accurate representation of your sense of humor?
DM: Umm, mostly. I mean, it’s my material. I think if anything, I was pretty exhausted by the time we shot the studio stuff. It was a long week. And the audience had to wait quite awhile before they got to be in there. Pretty much mostly all my fault for not being as organized as I could be. And figuring out bits on the fly, and improvising a fair bit in front of my studio audience. So all those things considered, yeah, sure. If I could do it again, I think I could do a better job. I don’t think it’s terrible. I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s pretty accurate. I think accurate’s the best word for it, because it’s accurate when you consider: Wow. I was in the edit, and I was producing, and I was trying to do all this stuff. And now it’s like, “Okay, cool, I’ve got to go out and perform. I hope this is okay.” I hope you can’t quite see how tired I am, but you can a little bit, and I guess that’s part of the accuracy. That’s what comes with being accurate.
But I think I like your question, because accurate is the word I’ve come to value the most. In this whole process, I’ve learned a lot about how to be a producer, and how to be someone who works with the staff and has to do publicity and has to be cognizant of a budget, and all those things I never really had to do as a comedian. And I’ve been in stand-up for over a decade. So you get a decade of just worrying about your material and getting gigs, and then you get this other opportunity, and it’s got a whole other set of skills that you need to learn. But the accuracy thing in the end is probably the thing I hoped for the most. Because I, of course, can’t control how many people would watch a show that I made, or like it, or anything like that. But hopefully I can have some control over how accurate it is to what I was thinking of putting into the world. So I can go to bed at night thinking, “Well, that is what I wanted to put out there.” Whether people like it or not, I don’t know how to really control any of that, but at least to say, “This is my idea for part of the show, and this is how it looks. Well, that’s pretty close to the idea.” That’s the best I can hope for.
AVC: The press for your show seems to hit on a recurring theme: “Brain comedy,” or “cerebral comedy.” How do you feel about those labels?
DM: Yeah, it’s a strange thing to me. It’s not strange to be categorized because someone thinks that we can be sold, or that we’re consumable. To be categorized is to say, “Yeah okay, this fits with the kind of thing I like,” or “This is different than what I like.” I’ll say a couple things: One, as a stand-up coming up in New York, I was told very quickly that I was too cerebral and too low-energy. And I remember hearing the word cerebral and thinking “Cerebral? Is this a category of comedy? Cerebral? I don’t understand.” I think that when people think I’m smart, or that my comedy is smart, then I’m probably not doing it quite so well. If they just think that it’s funny, then I’m probably doing it a little bit better. I guess I thought The Far Side was smart… I just thought it was funny. But other people might see The Far Side as a more cerebral cartoon compared to the other things you’d see in a newspaper. But I don’t know if that’s really an indictment of the other cartoons. It might just be the quickest shorthand for that thing. I do know that I’m not naturally a very loud person, and I’m not naturally that animated. And so again in the landscape of other performers, you might look at me and say, “Well, that guy’s a little quieter.” And then maybe quietness often goes with something that’s more cerebral. I think genuinely that if you looked at my material, I don’t know how much of it would actually stand out as quote-unquote smart material. I hope that it’s just more like simple material. That there’s a simplicity to it in its construction, you know.
AVC: It seems what they mean is “highbrow.”
DM: Well, yeah, and I think most of the time I’ve seen anything about my material being cerebral, it’s not pejorative, it like seems pretty positive. But I’m used to coming up in stand-up and that being somehow like a liability. So it’s weird. It’s like being called an “alternative” comedian—that somehow is disparaging to say. And you’re thinking “Okay, yeah, sure, alternative, whatever. I’ll take whatever the label is.” I think in the end—I’ve said this before in some other interview, and I’ve kind of lost track of the press stuff now—I can’t respond to it, it’s too weird. If I read stuff, there’s no response, I can’t do anything, so I guess I shouldn’t engage. But I will say—and I don’t know if this is printed anywhere—I think comedy is very subjective. I think from person to person, it varies a great deal, and even within a person, your tastes can change. So it’s a really kind of moving, malleable, subjective thing. At the same time, when you do comedy, that night, in that moment, it’s very objective as to whether it’s funny or not to that group of people. So you have objective moments born out of subjective little pieces, kind of piled together, to give you an objective feeling. Do you know what I’m saying? I’m having trouble articulating it today, but that’s what I realized is one of the very interesting things about it for me. Tastes vary so much, yet when a person thinks something is funny, it’s like…
AVC: It’s a binary response.
DM: Yeah. It’s on or off. They’re objectively, “That’s funny. That’s not funny.” But that doesn’t make it the objective final word on whether something is funny or not. The best you can do, I guess, is just keep generating and pay attention to things that work. Because my best material—the best I can say about it is that it’s kind of like a probabilistic statement. “Yeah, so far, that joke has worked. I don’t really know if it’s going to work tonight, but you know, I did it a hundred times and it worked 90 times, so that one works pretty well. This joke worked 20 times out of a hundred, but it should work tonight. But it’s less likely to.” You know what I mean? It’s so not definite, yet that moment that I tell a joke, it is so clearly definite, “That was funny right now,” or “That was not.” So the cerebral thing, or like the smart comedy, or brain comedy, I guess it’s just nice to get any press, and to get noticed. I do come across people who don’t like me, don’t like my comedy, don’t think it’s funny, it’s too cutesy, or whatever they hate. And it’s like “Okay. That’s your opinion. Somebody liked it, so that’s good.” Hopefully it balances out.
AVC: How often do you have these weighty comedy discussions outside of interviews?
DM: When I was earlier in stand-up, my friends and I would talk a lot about things around comedy, and I felt like I was more in the comedy scene. And I was doing open mics several times a week. But now, I get swept up in so much work that I literally have not seen most of the people I used to hang out with, because I’m at work… I wake up, and I go to work, and then I work until we have to go to sleep and leave the edit. Two nights this week, I left at 3 in the morning. The machine crashed, we have to boot up, that’s an extra hour. The only breaks that I get lately is if I have an interview and I get to talk to someone, and we get to think about different issues and theories of comedy. But I used to do that in diners with my friends, and we’d talk about, “Well, I think this is funny because…” or, “I like that tag on that guy’s joke.” But a lot of that’s kind of disappeared from me, and now, when this is done, I feel a little comedied out. I’m kind of happy to not even think or talk about comedy at all. I really want to learn how to play drums. I’m probably gonna just do something that requires a lot of attention, but maybe not much conscious thought.
AVC: You’ve got that Ang Lee movie next. How did you get hooked up?
DM: Yeah, that was just a lucky thing. I had a meeting with James Shamus, who’s the head of Focus Features. He’s also Ang’s producing partner and a screenwriter, and he wrote the movie I got to be in. They were developing a script and were thinking about casting, and James Shamus later called me at home. He has two daughters—they have a table in their home, I guess, where he can work on his computer and his daughters can do their homework. And he was working on the movie, and his daughter ended up showing him a clip of me on YouTube. And I guess he thought, “Oh, that guy looks like he might work.” So I got called in for a meeting, and that led to an audition. Suddenly I was cast in the movie, and I think I was the first person they looked at. It’s crazy. Suddenly, I found myself in upstate New York on the set of this movie, wearing clothes from the ’50s, playing this character, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is a once-in-a-lifetime situation.” I mean, I’ve been in maybe three movies, and I had about two scenes in each of those, tops. More like one scene. Yeah, I think I average a scene and a half per movie. And now I’m in this one and I’m in like, just about every scene.
AVC: Hell of a 2009 so far.
DM: [Laughs.] I think now it’s time to go for some more walks and get back into my notebook.
AVC: What are your palindrome-writing strategies?
DM: I haven’t been as busy with the palindromes lately because of all this other stuff. But years ago, when I was really kind of obsessed with that, I remember noticing—as anybody would, I guess, when they’re trying to write stuff like that—words backward a lot more. When I looked at signs anywhere I’d be, I needed to read something backward, and then after that, try to just quickly add some letters and words to see if I could get the kernel of something. It’s almost like having a crystalline structure or something, when you have just this little thing, and then all of a sudden it branches out in different directions.
AVC: Are there any specific words you found yourself coming back to?
DM: No, but one thing I was gonna say was, what I noticed when I tried to make crossword puzzles years ago, it’s a similar thing. Certain words just seem to alternate pretty nicely between consonants and vowels, and they often lend themselves to a little more manageability. If you have an “sch” in a word, or a “th,” then you’re going to have trouble going backward, unless you split the word at those two consonants and make one of them the end of a word going in the other direction. But certain words, like “open,” O-P-E-N… That ended up in a couple of my things, because when you go backward, you have N-E-P-O. Well “NE” can be the end of one word, and “PO” could be the beginning of something else. You know, that’s better than, say, “those.” Now you have T-H-O-S-E. You could do, like, something that ends with “ES,” like that’s definitely common enough, and then you have “OH,” okay fine, now you have a T beginning another word. You can do it, but that’s why a lot of palindromes have an “Oh!” or “Ah!” and that kind of stuff in them. These, weird exclamations, because people are trying to manage parts of words that go backward. Often you build from the middle, and anything you write, you’re basically writing twice. Every letter, every choice is duplicated. It’s kind of interesting. So it might be a working indiscretion, but every way you look, there’s a dead end. But someone definitely thought about how much attention making a palindrome requires.