Demetri Martin is a standup comedian, writer and actor. He’s just published his first book, “This Is A Book.” Like his comedy, the book reveals Martin’s interest in structure, order and disruptions of structure and order. He’s always been a fan of puzzles, and the book features, among other things, some extraordinarily long anagrams.
Demetri talks with Jesse Thorn about how standup comedy is like skateboarding, how his father, a priest, inspired him to be a performer, and more. Martin last appeared on The Sound of Young America about seven years ago.
JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program is the comedian Demetri Martin. He’s an accomplished standup comic, and he’s also had his own standup and sketch show, Important Things with Demetri Martin on Comedy Central. He’s been featured in a number of films, and starred in one recently, and now he’s the author of a brand new book called This is a Book.
Demetri, welcome back to The Sound of Young America.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Hey Jesse, thanks for having me.
JESSE THORN: I think we counted it up, it’s actually been seven years since the last time you were on The Sound of Young America. It’s a long time, thank you so much for coming back.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah, thanks for having me back.
JESSE THORN: I wanted to ask you about something I don’t think I asked you about seven years ago, although I have to admit my memories are vague, and that is skateboarding.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yes.
JESSE THORN: I know that skateboarding was an important thing for you as a kid. You grew up in New Jersey on the Jersey Shore.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah.
JESSE THORN: I’m from the city, and I think skateboarding has a very different meaning in those two places. Tell me what skateboarding meant to you.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Sure, that’s a good question as it pertains to geography, because that makes me think about the history of skateboarding as I understand it, from Dogtown and Z-Boys and certain movies that documents skateboarding in a way, put it in a historical context. I was part of, I think it was considered the second wave of skateboarding, maybe it was the third, I don’t even remember now, but when I saw it placed more into historical lineage, skateboarding in the 60s, late 50s, there were people with scooters and stuff, 60s there were these really small little boards with roller skate wheels or something like that.
Anyways, the point is by the time I got into skateboarding it was the 80s, and that was when the Bones Brigade was pretty big. We’re talking about a very young Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill, Tommy Guerrero, Steve Caballero.
JESSE THORN: Was Lance Mountain the name of a real skateboarding guy?
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah, that’s a real skater.
JESSE THORN: It sounds like a Los Angeles weather reporter.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Hahaha, that’s right. He was a really funny guy, too, he was the clown of that crew I think. The skateboarding culture that I really aspired to be part of was that. That was west coast, and that was, in a way, suburban. It was somewhat urban, but there weren’t real tough guy skateboarders in the way that I think skaters in the 90s became.
I was in Jersey, so I always wanted to be from the West Coast, but I remember it more as kind of a suburban California with empty swimming pools, that kind of a suburban existence, which later migrated into a much more urban, widespread street skating experience. I was a street skater, and I still skate, and I love skateboarding, but I realize now thinking about it more, skateboarding and standup, there’s a similarity between those for me that is kind of important, and it’s that each of those is incremental in its composition with respect to a body of work. By that I mean, you’re going to have a bunch of skating tricks, a bunch of jokes or tricks, and together, if a person makes a bunch of those things, then that’s their repertoire; their body of work in that.
JESSE THORN: That process of learning a trick has always fascinated me about dudes that are into skateboarding, because skateboarding is this culture that is built around being slightly dropped out. It’s like the classic slacker culture, possibly second to weed culture, but interrelated; and yet, when I think back to the people I knew when I was a teenager who were into skateboarding, what they did with their time was practice over and over, work so hard, fail so much, to learn to do something that at the end of it, outside of the context of skateboarder culture, wasn’t even that cool looking or anything.
DEMETRI MARTIN: It’s true, and for me that’s a big similarity to standup. It might be because I’m a joke teller, but there’s a diligence to it. All these comedians I look at from the outside might seem like slackers or guys who are kind of barnacles on the real world of work and stuff, but when you’re in there with them, you’re seeing guys and girls – – women, I’m not trying to be a sexist comic here…you’re seeing people who are working really hard at their craft, at what they do. It could be fart jokes, it could be very personal stories, it could be one liners that are kind of absurd. But by in large, you’re going to find people that are like these skaters.
That’s what I mean almost with the repertoire, you see this guy trying to land this trick over and over again, and then he gets it, and you think oh cool, this guy can do a double kick flip. For two weeks every day he was sitting there kicking the board, picking it up, trying again. It could be just some random bit about dogs or something, but you see this guy one night, oh, he’s prepping this thing about a dog, then oh, he’s doing it again, there he goes. You either get it or you don’t. But there’s a similar diligence which to me is great, because I’m over 13 years in standup now and I’m not bored yet. I still like it.
JESSE THORN: That idea of swinging and missing as being part of both the practice of skateboarding and the practice of comedy is interesting to me. You were a high achiever in school who went to an Ivy League university.
DEMETRI MARTIN: I played the game.
JESSE THORN: Ended up getting a full scholarship to NYU Law School, a prestigious law school. As a kid and teenager, did you feel like you had to narrow your possibilities to make sure you could do everything right? Did you have room to do all that failing?
DEMETRI MARTIN: That’s an interesting question. When I look back on my childhood and I think about, okay, what did I want to do with my life? When people say, what do you want to be? Number one, I don’t remember having dreams. I don’t remember thinking, someday I’m gonna blank. I remember having plans, thinking around seventh grade, okay, I’m gonna be a lawyer. That’s my plan. Corporate lawyer. Again, this is the 80s, so I didn’t know what a corporate lawyer was or did but that sounded more impressive, so I was like, I want that. That’s even better.
JESSE THORN: All you knew was that they had convertible BMWs in movies.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Exactly, and they had LA Law and all these shows about them. I thought, corporate lawyer. That’s it.
JESSE THORN: What you should have remembered is that they always get into a car accident and then realize they have to change their ways because they were talking on their car phone.
DEMETRI MARTIN: That’s a starting point sort of job, but then there’s a revelation. They go to some weird kind of afterlife based on their negligence, paying attention to what really mattered in life. But I didn’t see any of that, so.
JESSE THORN: I guess what we’re saying is that you should have paid more attention to the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life.
DEMETRI MARTIN: I love Albert Brooks. So, yeah, I wasn’t even thinking, like I said, I like break dancing, I like skateboarding, and I wanted to dunk a basketball. I liked drawing, nobody cared. I went to this public school – – I’m from Jersey Shore; this is not a hotbed of art. It was not encouraged, it was considered a track two class. Art was valued less. If you got an A in art, that actually hurt your GPA compared to getting an A in physics. You were kind of penalized just for taking the class.
JESSE THORN: I went to an art school where you just got an A just for taking physics. If you’re in physics, hey.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Wow, nice reach.
JESSE THORN: Good work!
DEMETRI MARTIN: Where I’m from, and my family, it’s like, business. When I got into Yale, it was a big long shot, I was so excited. Then my family found out, there’s no business major? What? How does Yale not have a business major, what are you going to do? So I said, I don’t know. I ended up changing my major ten times, and I ended up in history. But there’s this hardwired immigrant work ethic practicality based value system that’s very hard to climb out of if you don’t know any better.
I didn’t play music, nobody in my family had an instrument or played music, we didn’t even have any books at my house. I think about it now and I’m like, I don’t know how I climbed out of there. It wasn’t a terrible place, my family was fine, it’s just a different way of going about life. Creativity was not something that was isolated and identified and valued. Hey, you are a creative person. You should think about using that. It was more like, okay, you got this test score, good. You got an A, good. You’re on the right track. What school are you going to go to? Good, that’s a good one. Nice sweatshirt, very impressive. What’s your major? Oh, no business? The perfect thing for them would’ve been, go to business, do business and law. People would say law’s good, take it, you can use it for this and that. It gets kind of mindless after awhile.
Turns out, I like drawing, I like playing guitar, I like writing, I like telling jokes. These weren’t even things that I had to make time for or had to eliminate, because they didn’t exist. Only drawing, and that I stopped for whatever reason. There was no feedback loop that encouraged that so it just kind of went away. Years later when I was in law school I started painting out of the blue. I just bought paints and was like, I want to try and paint. Even years after that that I started trying to play music. If we talked less than 2004 I’d been playing music less than two years at that point, I had just started, but I remember I got a guitar and a harmonica, a keyboard, because I wanted to score a one man show. I like the idea of making my own music, which I didn’t know how to go about doing. When I bought the harmonica I remember I didn’t understand why there was a letter on it. I knew it was a note, but I didn’t know what a key was. I thought a harmonica was like a piano, like, all the notes were in there. But I didn’t know that, oh, this harmonica is just the white keys.
Now I understand. It’s interesting to be an adult and to have that level of ignorance about something, because the nice part about is you get that discovery. The learning curve is so rich and steep.
JESSE THORN: Have you ever read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin?
DEMETRI MARTIN: A long time ago.
JESSE THORN: One of my favorite books, just a great book. If you’re looking for an 18th century book that will give you a few good yuks, this is a really good one. There’s an amazing part in there – – it’s full of amazing parts. The man was remarkable and a madman in just absolutely charming ways, in amazing ways. One of the things is that he made this chart for his life. He made a list of the canonical virtues that he wanted to embody, like chastity and thoughtfulness, I don’t remember exactly what they were. Then each day he would check the boxes that he had had that virtue that day. IF he had been unchaste, which comes up pretty regularly in the chart that he reproduces in this book, he doesn’t check, and then he adds up the number of points.
It’s interesting to me because as you were describing your childhood as a planner, I thought of you describing your early adulthood trying to control your obsessiveness about pursuing various activities through a chart system.
DEMETRI MARTIN: I ended up putting that in that first one man show I did, the one that I tried to score. I sat there and I was like, I want to do a show that’s going to be not just one liners, I love one liners, and that’s where my head naturally goes, but how could I do something different, like a narrative. How could I just talk to the audience and tell a story, something personal. I looked through my notebooks and tried to find something to build on, and I came across a notebook that had my own point system in it. That ended up being really useful and I put that in the show, but it was weird to find it. It was like, oh yeah. I forgot I did this. I was 27 weeks I managed to do it, half a year I committed to this system that I made, and I put it in that show.
It was cool. It was almost therapeutic to be like, oh, I see, this is what I do.
JESSE THORN: So much of your humor is about puzzles, and lots of humor is about puzzles. Lots of humor is about the relationship between what’s supposed to happen or what’s expected to happen and what doesn’t happen or what does happen in an unexpected way. You more than almost anyone else have distilled it down to little puzzles, and hearing you describe that Benjamin Franklin-like system of building a curriculum for your life, what it sounds to me like is, as in a puzzle, essentially trying to find solution to a problem, which is to say you put forth this problem of, how do I write a really long? You have a palindrome in here that’s several hundred words.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah, it’s five hundred words.
JESSE THORN: Which is ridiculous. But you put forth this problem through yourself and then find a solution for it.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah.
JESSE THORN: And that kind of problem solving, and my brain is an obsessive problem solving brain, too, gives you a sense of control.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah.
JESSE THORN: Over what’s going on around you and in your life.
DEMETRI MARTIN: It’s true. I think it makes you feel like you have some control over your fate, or your destiny, or at least in the small slices of it you can steer how you’re going. You’re not just floating along, even if it’s in an illusion, it’s a pretty good illusion. It’s a pretty good way to trick yourself into feeling like you have some sort of handle on what happens to you.
JESSE THORN: Do you feel that way about doing that? Do you find that that genuinely settles you when it comes to existential crises?
DEMETRI MARTIN: I think so, I think what I’ve learned about my self over the years is that I’m pretty restless. If I multitask it’s probably because I have difficulty just focusing on one thing. I don’t know how much I want to be some renaissance man or do all these different things as much as in the moment I just want to feel engaged. I think if I pick the right thing to spend my time doing, then time moves differently, because I really can get fully immersed in things and feel very alive and challenged, but in a good way. I feel a sense of progress.
For me, possibility, progress, growth, those things are very – – they feel very good. It doesn’t usually come with negativity. I don’t really mind sucking at something as long as I’m getting a little bit better at it along the way. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a master at anything, but I think that’s a mistake for me personally. I don’t know how much it’s about the journey, but it’s more about the process. I like short jokes, I like puzzles, there’s an incrementalism, I say, to that stuff. You get into one little problem, and then you get your way out of it, you find a solution, or maybe you don’t, but you can move on to the next one. Over time, maybe the goals, the results, are just the by products of approaching things with a certain process, a certain approach.
You can apply it to anything I think. You can apply it to drawing, you can apply it to dancing, you can apply it to painting; it’s kind of limitless. You learn these ways of approaching problems, and then out of that I think you find your style; your voice; your body of work. For me it’s great, each day I wake up and think, cool, I could write one of my best jokes today, or I could get better at painting today. I’ll think of a color combination that I didn’t know worked together and I’ll think, oh, that looks great, I love that. Or, I make crap, but because I’m not that worried about each specific thing, it’s like playing a little trick on your own mind. It’s different than taking tests where you have to get the right answer, and you have to be worried about today’s test, I have to get an A. It’s not like that anymore, it’s more about process.
JESSE THORN: I read an interview somewhere where you described meeting Steven Wright, who’s a standup comedian, has been a guest on this program, and is, I think, the archetypal one liner comedian.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Absolutely.
JESSE THORN: Or at leas the archetypal one liner comedian with a real specific perspective in forming those one liners. I thought it was interesting that the thing that you really connected to was him saying, man, it’s hard to build an act from little tiny pieces.
DEMETRI MARTIN: That’s right, that time I got to meet him at Conan, it was, when I was a writer at Conan he was a guest. He was really cool. Number one what was great was, and if you’ve met him you can attest to this, the guy is very down to earth, warm, humble.
JESSE THORN: I was scared to interview him because his stage persona could literally be a mask for 100% halfway between Asperger’s and autism, he could be.
DEMETRI MARTIN: He could be a sociopath, which is kind of interesting about his stage presence, and totally unique; especially in the 80s. I often mention Steven Wright because I remember watching a lot of standup on television as a kid, and so much of it blended together. So much of it seemed like the other bits I’d seen. You’re sitting there predicting punchlines and watching people go through these tropes, and then somebody like Steven Wright comes up and you’re like, oh, wait a minute.
JESSE THORN: This isn’t a B-minus Seinfeld or Leno at all.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Exactly, that was great, I loved him. It was nice that time I got to talk to him. I did a show with him not too long ago, and he was just – – that guy is great, he’s such a gentleman, such a nice guy. Before that I ended up on some benefit show in Toronto, and he was booked on it, just coincidentally they said about a month later, oh, by the way, Steven Wright is going to be on the show.
The last time I had seen before that was on the street in Santa Monica, randomly. I was going to The Coffee Bean in my neighborhood. I walked down the hill, and as I was walking to the door, also approaching the door from another angle was Steven Wright, just opening the door. He just opened the door, and I grabbed it behind him and he looked at me and was like, hey, I know you. And we waited in line together to get tea or whatever. Immediately I’m thinking like, I don’t want him to feel trapped, I kind of felt bad like I should leave him alone, but he was totally nice, we talked for a little while. I remember I told him, I was like, yeah, I’m, you’re not out here are you? He said no, no, I’m visiting some friends, I got some friends out here, I say oh, cool. He said, you? I said yeah, I live out here now. I said that I rented an art studio, just a few blocks that way, south. He said oh yeah? I said yeah, I paint and draw and stuff. He said cool. I said it’s weird though because it’s a windowless room, the place I rent, it has no windows, it’s in a weird building. He’s like, I don’t know if I could do that, I’d have to go outside. I said oh, like, just to make sure the world is still there? Thinking like, what’s Steven Wright thinking? And he says, no, I’m claustrophobic. It’s like, oh, alright. That’s cool. He’s a regular person, right.
JESSE THORN: Every comedian’s problem that they’re trying to solve is making the most laughter out of a silent audience. Lots of different comedians do it in lots of different ways. There are comedians like Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld who take small things that everyone recognizes and the play on that recognition and also an enhanced importance for those things. I think George Carlin is a comedian that likes to play with logic, in the context of words, especially. I think often the most esteemed comedians are comedians whose stage performance is – – and not necessarily the most successful, but the most esteemed comedians are ones whose stage performances feel like an exploration of self. I wonder if you ever worry that if you’re only trying to solve problems that have answers that you are limiting yourself as an artist?
DEMETRI MARTIN: Not really. I’ve done three one-man shows that were almost entirely autobiographical, and in there, the first being the one where I talked about the point system, I had an opportunity to figure out what my connection to an audience could be, or how I could get laughs without just, as you say, solving problems, or doing these little jokes. The shows did pretty well. It was pretty fun. After doing those, I thought, I want to do more of this other stuff for awhile. I hope I get to grow in to some of that more easily accessible self oriented material, or more opinion based material, but in a weird way the most honest thing I can do is what I do. The jokes that I tell, I can’t help but be myself, and the drawings, you know, people pejoratively will call me a prop comic because I have drawings, or a guitar comic because there’s a guitar for part of the show.
JESSE THORN: Palindrome comic.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah, I don’t really care.
JESSE THORN: Another palindrome comic?
DEMETRI MARTIN: Yeah, it’s like, whatever. What I do now is, I do theaters, and I get to do 90 minutes and sometimes more. I don’t think it’s wise to do more than 90, but sometimes the crowds into it so I come back out and we talk and stuff. I love writing jokes, but I don’t just do jokes for 90 minutes. I mix it up and I really try to talk to the audience, and I always tell my friends, I think there’s a difference between making comedy and reporting comedy. When you’re a joke teller you can easily fall into the second, you can show up and just say the jokes. Here are my jokes. These are the ones that I think work, other crowds have told me that these works, so here you go. These are the jokes.
Or, you can make comedy, where I can do the jokes but I can be more present, and look at the audience, talk to the audience, do crowd work, look at the room that I’m in. Find connections between jokes that I didn’t realize were there, tag a joke; just improvise more, it’s more making comedy. I think that ends up being very personal, and very honest, and in that show what you get are personal stories, you get much more of a person giving himself to an audience because I feel like the audience deserves that. Especially if they come into the theater and they bought a ticket, and they’re going to sit there in this day and age and pay attention for 90 minutes.
When I’m on television, you only get four minutes if you’re on Conan. If you’re on some Comedy Central special, and stuff is getting spliced up and passed around the internet, it’s different. The medium is different. I like what I do for that medium. Eventually maybe I’ll get to do things that are somewhere in between the two, or closer to this more personal revelatory comedy, but I haven’t figured out how to do it in a way that I’m comfortable with, as it is sliced up and devoured and moved around and digested and regurgitated on the internet. I like drawings, I put those out there. A lot of that stuff is very personal.
I think if most people thought about writing a joke, and having to tell that joke, a joke that has a definite end point, in a weird way that’s much more revealing and personal than just telling some story from your life that just can smear and wash through the punchline. It’s not funny in the third sentence, well, yeah, I’m just telling a story, I’ll keep going. But for me, it’s like, here are 12 words, when I get to the 12th I expect you to laugh, and if you don’t then we know exactly what just happened. I thought that was funny, I prepared that, and I said it to you. I put myself out there, and I got silence.
It’s a funny thing, again, when you see Steven Wright, who I do think is archetype for a one liner comic, Steven is a – – he’s a brilliant comedian, and a brilliant writer, and his stage presence is very specific. There’s a distance between him and his audience, and it really works for his material. Over the years I’ve realized that I just have to be myself, and so I am. I tell my jokes, but I think it’s really clear that I’m me just telling the jokes, which made the TV series really hard, because I was just playing myself on TV, which is weird. It’s like, even there I’m just doing sketches, but I’m just trying to be myself, so, you’re giving a lot over when you do that.
JESSE THORN: Demetri, thank you so much for taking this time to be on The Sound of Young America again.
DEMETRI MARTIN: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it. Thanks for letting me promote my book.
JESSE THORN: Demetri Martin is a standup comedian, writer, and actor, his new book is called simply, This is a Book.
Our transcripts are provided by Sean Sampson. If you’re interested in contacting him for transcription work, email him here.
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