Demetri Martin: interview

Demetri Martin Demetri Martin
Posted: Thu Sep 22 2011

Experimental US comic Demetri Martin tells Time Out about his plans to transfer his multi-genre comedy to multi-platforms

Comedians are obsessed with jokes. Writing them, crafting them, telling them; arranging a group of words into an order that will summon the biggest laughs. Demetri Martin is no exception. Renowned for his tidy, almost mathematical one-liners, the American comic has incorporated a whole variety of forms into his joke telling - from adding line drawings and live music to creating one-man skits and writing palindromes.

'To me, comedy is a game,' he tells me over the phone from his LA home. 'There's an enjoyment to talking while playing an instrument. It's the challenge of it,' he says. 'Drawing was something I hadn't seen in comedy before and I'm always trying to think of different ways to deliver jokes or ideas. It makes the stage more of a large canvas to play around on.'

It's this creativity and versatility that's seen the 38 year old rise from US clubs to TV sets to movie screens (as leading man in Ang Lee's 'Taking Woodstock' in 2009). But before the Hollywood stardom, the floppy-haired comic's first major achievement was winning one of the biggest accolades in comedy - the 2003 Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe. The gong is a massive deal for British stand-ups, but fellow comedians back home in the States weren't that impressed. 'Most people didn't know what it was,' he says. 'Some people thought I'd won some sort of French prize.' And besides, he had bigger things to think about. The day before he received the award he was hired as a writer on Conan O'Brien's ill-fated NBC talk show, and the following morning was asked to audition for Woody Allen's next feature (he lost out to Will Ferrell).

Martin returned to Edinburgh for a brief run in 2006, but his London dates in October 2011 are his first shows in the capital for more than half a decade. Why has it been so long? 'I moved in the wrong direction,' he says. 'I went west instead of east.' He's referring to 'Important Things with Demetri Martin', his Comedy Central series (shown on E4 in the UK) which ran for two seasons - the first filmed in East Coast New York, the second in West Coast California. 'Doing the TV show was extremely time consuming. It kind of shut down everything,' he says. 'That's largely responsible for my disappearance. That, and I guess it's a little comfortable in California by the beach.'

The programme mixed segments of Martin's stand-up with short, snappy sketches and animated pieces. It was largely an experiment, he explains: 'I wanted to see if I could do “scene work” rather than traditional sketches. I tried to play characters who felt real things and weren't so ironically distant from their emotions. It was a test to see how I could translate my sensibilities into comedic scenes - with varying degrees of success and failure.' And what did it teach him? 'It was a good learning experience. Not only within the scenes themselves, but as a manager and a producer - in ways I didn't even want to learn things! Where can we park the trucks? Should we go into overtime today? How much money do we have left? It was pretty difficult, but in the end it gave me more confidence in filmmaking, which is what I hope to do in the future.'

The New York-born comic wrote and starred in '12:21' - a short film based on a minute in the life of a stand-up. But his big-screen plans don't stop there. 'I've written a small movie that I would direct and act in, to shoot, I hope, in the next year,' he says. 'I want to see if I can tell a story on film the way it develops in my head. And if that works, I'd then like to make another one.'

And film isn't the only medium he's dabbling with. He recently released a collection of drawings, jokes, stories and essays, entitled 'This is a Book', and he's experimenting with prose. 'I'm working on a book of stories. I'd like to see if my jokes can be funny as narrative pieces, with complex characters. I'm also working on a book of maybe 300-400 drawings; cartoons, some of them with words, some without.'

With all these projects on the go, is stand-up still a major focus for him? 'It is. But I'm learning to compartmentalise a bit more. Stand-up is like a row boat: it's fun and romantic when you're choosing to do it. But if you have no other choice than to be in a row boat it's not as enjoyable; that's survival. As long as stand-up is a row boat I've chosen to be in, then I'll be fine if I find myself in it. But if I'm just trying to stay afloat and not drown, then that's when it'll feel too serious.'