If I ever saw an amputee getting hanged, I'd probably just start calling out letters.
Before he grappled with Important Things on Comedy Central, even before he took The Daily Show Trendspotting, Demetri Martin was an NYU Law dropout working off a hunch that he'd rather spend time writing quick one-liners and delivering them onstage than burying his head in legal briefs.
Thirteen years, almost to the day, since his first standup set, he's developed into a five-tool comedy player, writing screenplays, starring in Taking Woodstock -- and nearly Moneyball, till Jonah Hill squeezed past him for the Paul DePodesta role -- and, classic lawyer move, an honest-to-god book he's still working on, which he's pitched as "the Gödel, Escher, Bach of humor books."
So expect plenty of gags about BP and Jersey Shore when he drops by the House of Blues tonight, getting back to his standup roots with, he says, lots of new material. In anticipation of his first stop in Dallas since 2006, he was good enough to chat with Unfair Park on Wednesday about the upcoming show, and how his comedy writing's changed since he first took the plunge.
So today, Bastille Day, happens to be a pretty big career anniversary for you, doesn't it?
Yeah, it's my thirteenth anniversary today. I was freeing myself from my old life, undergoing a personal revolution. You know, I had gone to law school for two years, and I decided I was going to leave and do standup. I decided [to drop out] in the spring -- originally I was going to do this new talent night, a Monday night at the club. I was going to try to go in the spring, but I chickened out or couldn't get enough friends to come, so I had to reschedule it. I finally was able to get it together for the summer, that July. I was just going for it without any indication that I should be. Just saying, "Alright, I wanna do this."
So there was a while after you'd dropped out when you still hadn't even performed once. What was it like during those months in limbo?
I was writing. I was finally sitting down to write down ideas and discovering how different it was to joke around with your friends, the difference between just trying to be funny continuously in a conversation, and premeditating or writing a joke. To me, writing jokes was about the fewest words possible to get to the joke.
Thirteen years since, then, what do you notice is different about how you write, or how your routine's changed?
I have different notebooks all over the place. I'll have a joke, a drawing, an idea for a book, the theme for a movie or character or a concept for a movie. Or maybe I get an idea for a shot -- because I do want to direct stuff. I'm trying to learn how to think of a cool shot. It might have no relevance right now. But I've learned over the years to not discard something just because it's irrelevant, because later its relevance might emerge.
Just a couple of months ago, I went through the notebooks that I had and I decided to label all of them different categories. I've numbered all the pages. Pocket notebook five, page 22. So I can go back and say, "What was this original joke, this original idea?" It's really nice. After doing standup for a while, I can look back and say, "Ah, this is good" or let's go back to that idea. I never quite cracked it. Or, "Oh, okay good. I used that."
How has working on your TV show changed that writing style now? It's got to be different without a new crowd to bounce ideas off of every night.
The audience is really helpful, but since moving to California especially, it's a lot harder to get out live. I never get to perform. I'm working on the show like 80 hours a week, and all of the sudden I've got to tape this studio stuff and I haven't practiced. So those audiences that come to the tapings, they hear me do a lot of stuff for the first time. I don't go try new jokes in my [writers'] room -- I really just wait for the audience. The writers, I think, might encourage me, or they'd be mad at me already and they'd not laugh at the joke, and I'd think it's not funny.
How do you think your time writing for Conan helped inform those relationships now that you're the boss?
Conan's head writer created a really good work environment. Other shows can be based more on competition, fear for losing your job. Not at Conan. He taught me that I just want to reward and encourage people to come up with anything, and not feel like they have to get a certain quota on or they're gonna lose their job. The greatest compliment is to have people work together after they've worked on your show.
I liked working on Conan because it was almost like doing a decathlon of comedy writing. For my show, I was figuring like the first season we'd have different kinds of segments, almost like writing for a late night show. I was just trying to find people who had a certain breadth of what they did, who weren't afraid to pitch new forms. I like stuff that's kind of inventive. And not so snarky. I'm just not into the snarky stuff. Making fun of celebrities and all that shit. I don't know. I think it's kind of boring. I just like stuff that's a little less expected.
Since you started out with that simple, stripped-down standup act, you've jumped into a whole load of other projects. How have you figured out how much of your energy each new thing needs?
I had a stretch there where I was doing too many things at once. It wasn't that fun and I was afraid I wasn't doing my best at each thing. I got pretty restless, I think I went kind of crazy.
My website has really suffered. I have a shitty website. It's been like six years or so, but I'm going to finally launch it in the next month or so. It's going to be like this grid that I can upload content to, so if you go to it, there's always new stuff on there. I'm trying to put up music, drawings, photographs, weird word games and all that kind of stuff. Stuff that's in my notebook anyway, but now I can just share it with people.
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I did this If I show, this one-man show, and it was kind of a nice experience because it was the first time I tired to branch out from one-liners into something that was a little more autobiographical. And when it worked, I felt like it was magic, because I felt more connected to the audience that was there. If they liked the show I felt like I was really revealing something personal, even if it was just puzzles and stuff.
A few years ago you mentioned you'd been trying to work more improv into your live shows. Think you'll be doing much of that in Dallas this time around?
I have a bunch of new jokes. I'll probably be trying a bunch of jokes for the first time. When I get to the room it's kind of fun just to see what I can joke around about in there, and just see how the crowd is.
I just did a show at the Toronto Just for Laughs Festival, and then I figured on the way back I figured it'd be nice to go somewhere between here and California. I picked Dallas because I haven't performed in Dallas much -- I performed at the Lakewood Theater in 2006 I think. It's not a place I've performed much, so I have a lot of new jokes. I feel lucky if I can get people - I don't know how big the crowd's gonna be there, but last time the crowd was really nice.