It makes sense that Demetri Martin would be drawn to the one-liner: The comedian exercises an almost mathematical approach to stand-up – a small club is a “laboratory,” testing material “scientific” – and within every fifteen-second joke lies a formula to be perfected.
There’s a simplicity to the format too, which must be solace when the rest of his life is swirling around him.
“I like to think that I can multitask, but I’m starting to realize that I really can’t,” the 41-year-old says, speaking from his home in L.A. “You want to feel like you’re getting a couple of things done at once, but it seems like I’m actually getting one thing done, and then the other thing is waiting, and then I go right to that, and then I come back to the first thing.”
Amongst the endeavors that he’s currently pinballing between are a new book of short fiction that’s due in June, and his directorial debut, Dean, which he’s editing in hopes of upcoming festival submissions. There’s also the prospect of a new collection of drawings , but the process of recreating them for a book – “making them crisp” – is an exercise in serenity. “I’m looking forward to that, because it’s really solitary,” he shares. “I don’t need an audience. I can do it at home. It’s meditative. Relaxing.”
Since the middle of November, however, Marin has been relying on audiences, touring and honing material for a new stand-up special, “The Persistence of Jokes”, which he’ll film this Saturday at DC’s Lincoln Theatre. Don’t expect any new political angles from the comedian, though.
“I’m still pretty generic with my topics.”
Demitri Martin performs at the Lincoln Theatre this Friday and Saturday.
You said in an interview recently, “I’m back where I started, which is just standing up there telling jokes.” What led you back there?
I realized at some point that most of what I’ve done over the years in stand-up has been telling one-liners, which I like. I write jokes and I tell them. But most of what I’ve done on TV is to do jokes and add other things to them. My initial intention in doing so was to take advantage of being on TV and experiment. I thought, “Can I do something different?” I found that involving drawings and diagram with the jokes gave me extra punchlines ,or a different angle to come at a joke.
But I guess to some viewers, it could just be seen as props, which I hadn’t really thought of, because I do such old-fashioned comedy, in a way. It’s just a joke. Sometime you’ll hear, “Oh, they’re crutches.” And I’m like, “Jeez, I hadn’t thought of that. Well, I can certainly do hours of material in a very traditional way or pure form or whatever.”
So, I said, “I have an opportunity here. I haven’t done this before on TV.” It’s mostly simple, straight-ahead stand-up. Hopefully, the material speaks for itself. I’m sure in two or three years, I’ll swing the pendulum back, and it will be drawings and smoke and bells.
Is it more difficult building an hour of comedy with one-liners? It would seem like so much goes into joke after joke after joke, in comparison to telling a 15-minute story.
It feels like that to me. I’ve done one man shows over the years – mostly at comedy festivals overseas– and I had success with them. I enjoyed it. I mixed sections of one liners with longer personal stories. I built shows that had narratives: This story led to this story led to this story. It was a real narrative stage show. It had a beginning, middle, and end.
But what I found is that I got tired quicker of doing that kind of a show than I do telling one-liners. I think it’s because I can swap out one-liners very easily, and I can change their order, and I can use some of the one-liners with music or drawings. They’re easier to move around and to mold. A story is a little more intractable, because it’s a bigger chunk, and it occupies a bigger place in the line-up of material that I’m going to tell on any given night.
Also, I get tired of talking about myself. The stories are about my life, and I start to hate the story, and then I start to hate myself. And I don’t like doing that. [Laughs] I have a lot of respect for good storytellers, but I have a lower tolerance for it over time. I have a lot of stories, and I write them down, and I think, “Hey, I could tell that onstage.” And I’ll tell it once or twice, and I’ll think, “Great. It got a laugh. It’s a funny story to people.” And then, after a while, I’m like, “I don’t feel like telling that story again.” That always leads me back to one liners.
Having said that, I’m hoping that as I get older, I’ll like telling stories more, because, yeah, I think that it’s a lot easier to fill an hour with stories. I’m not saying that it’s easier to have a funny hour with stories; I’m just saying that it’s easier to make time pass onstage when you’re telling one. When they work, the audience is rapt and engaged, and time is moving differently.
With one-liners, it’s like asking a girl on a date every time. Every joke is like asking somebody out in front of a group of strangers. It’s a real tightrope. That’s what I like about it, of course. I like the challenge of the one-liner. Aesthetically, I’ve been drawn to one-liners from day one.
Do you feel pressure when you’re shooting a special? Or are you a well-oiled machine at that point?
It’s a little bit of a mix. I find that if I’m too strict about how I’m going perform my show or if I’m too rote, then it feels a little less exciting. I really try to prepare, but if I think of a better ending on stage, I will try to change the joke. I treat it like any other night. I’m always trying to improve my sets, and I’m always paying attention to what’s happening in the room
At the same, it’s different from most other sets, because I’m recording it, and there’s something momentous about that. I think, “This is my chance to put these jokes out there, and after this, I probably won’t be telling these jokes many more times, so this is their last hurrah.”
There is some pressure, but my experiences with other stand-up performances that I’ve shot have all been pretty good. It’s like those jokes are graduating. It’s they’re big moment. It’s kind of fun.
Do you have a certain ritual in terms of honing your material? I know that it’s fairly common for a lot of comedians to test jokes in smaller clubs.
I do that a lot – between tours and specials, and even during tours. I have ten days off right now, so I’m going to try to do some of the smaller spots around L.A. where I can just show up and pop on stage.
In some ways, that’s the most fun for me. I started out doing short sets, because that was all the stage time that I could get, and I didn’t have much material. You start with these shorter performances, seeing how your jokes work and how a set comes together. When I’m developing a stand-up special or an hour to tour with, those rooms are so helpful.
And it’s low stakes, so they lend themselves to experimentation. I bring my notebook, and I try to take notes after I get off stage. I say, “OK, that ending works better” or “Oh, there’s a new joke” or “This one is definitely not working.” It’s a really god laboratory. Most comedians I know think it’s really important to use those rooms.
Do you ever bomb?
Sometimes I get impatient, and I tell mostly new jokes – things that I’ve just never said out loud before – and I expect to bomb, and I pretty much do. It’s probably happened in the last month or so. It’s not like I’m dying up there or I get booed or it’s silent; it’s more like a lot of the new jokes don’t work. But then I’ll do some other jokes that usually do work, so I can keep some momentum going. I don’t think anyone leaves the shows thinking, “Hey, that guy did really well.”
For me, they’re very important sets, because I say, “I have four bits that have potential, because I was really eating shit up there, and in the midst of this bad set, they laughed at these four things.” That gives me hope. When I put those jokes in a show that’s going well with an audience that likes me, I don’t think that people laugh at things that they don’t think are funny, but they might give you the benefit of a doubt. In a harsher ecosystem, where it’s not really your audience and the show’s not going well, if you get something to work, odds are you have something with potential. Often, there’s comfort in just knowing, “Hey does this work? Is this funny?”
But it’s such a moving target. It’s all so relative and subjective. It’s so much less scientific than what would probably give someone like me comfort, but that’s also what makes it fun and challenging.
How do you choose where you’re going to shoot a special?
I have the benefit of some years behind me now. I’ve been around the country a bunch of times. Over time, each comedian gets a sense of where his or her people are. I find enough good crowds around the country that I can go back to a lot of cities and feel like I have good shows. Certain places really stand out, like Boston, DC, San Francisco, Portland, certainly New York, especially since I basically come from there.
There are these pockets where you say, “I have pretty good experience when I go here.” Other places might be nice, but maybe they’re more mellow. Another place may have a lot of energy, but I get heckled almost every time, so you say, “Well, I don’t want to film where there’s going to be a heckler.” I don’t it to be mellow, but I’m not the most high energy act.
I’ve always ha good experiences in DC. I’ve been there a bunch over the years, but I’ve never shot a special there. It was on my list this time. Then we found the Lincoln Theatre, and I’d heard that it’s a really good room to shoot specials. I think that Bill Burr shot a special there. Bill’s a really great comic. It looks like he’s really hitting his stride, and his audience is really finding home. I don’t know if the theatre will necessarily do that for me, but it’s a good sign when a good comic shot a good special in a certain room.
It’s also a good size for me. The Warner is really big. The Lincoln is a little more intimate. I know that a lot of people shoot at the Warner, but for me it’s like, “Oh, the Lincoln, that’s more my type of room.”
What’s your general approach to hecklers?
It’s under a bigger umbrella, which is to really be present and to give the audience a good show and be authentic and be involved and make sure that every night is different, so you’re not just showing up, like, “Here’s my book report and I’ll read you all the words. Goodnight.”
I really try to make it something that’s worth seeing, and something that’s worth coming back to see, so if somebody sees me three or four times over the year, they’ll say, “It’s cool. Every show is different. He’s really there to perform.”
If someone heckles me, I want to rise to the occasion. I don’t have trouble dealing with hecklers. I’m seventeen years in. I can handle them. I can think on my feet. I improvise.
But when it comes time to prepare for a special and shoot it, I have pretty much zero tolerance. I got heckled in L.A. last week and I threw the guy out three minutes into the show. We just had him removed, because I was like, “I understand that you’re drunk or whatever. Normally, I play around, but tonight I’m preparing. I don’t have time.”
I think it’s inconsiderate, anyway. I think it’s lame. But when I’m preparing, it’s like, “These are important shows as rehearsals for what I’m going to film. I can’t waste fifteen minutes. That’s fifteen minutes of one-liners that I want to tell. I have new endings on this one. I have a joke going here. I don’t want to deal with you.”
My policy is usually, sure, let’s play, until I get sick of it, and then I throw them out. Or, I just throw them out.
Given all the new avenues for comedy – podcasts and YouTube – do you think the significance of the hour-long special has changed? Or will it always maintain a certain cache for a comedian?
I’m old enough to say that I can really remember seeing comedy specials as a kid, and it did seem like there were fewer. The idea of a special seemed more special. Now it does seem like there are a lot of them, because there are so many different avenues. It’s a different beast now.
I don’t know if there are that many more people who are doing great hours of stand-up comedy on TV, though – certainly not by proportion. It’s not as if because it’s suddenly easier to shoot an hour, everybody has a great hour. In any era, only a few are really going to stand out. Even when I did my first hour, there were only a few hours on Comedy Central. Now there are so many. They have so much content. It kind of gets lost in the pile.
But I guess that the hope in any creative domain or subset of pop culture is that everything is judged against everything else that’s happening at the same time, so there can’t be that much that’s great. Which ones are “special?” I mean, they’re all specials, but there are so many of them. I don’t know how special it is anymore.
What are your favorite specials?
I’ve certainly watched less standup the further that I’ve gotten into comedy. When I was younger – before I even thought that I would be a comedian – is when I probably watched it the most, just out of curiosity. There was a lot of stand-up on TV back in the ’80s.
I’ve mentioned many times that Steven Wright is one of my favorites. I love his style and imagination and creativity, and also the economy of words in his writing. There’s something very artistically satisfying about someone who does that.
I discovered and was able to appreciate Richard Pryor a lot later. Richard Pryor has to be on anyone’s list. Steve Martin. I love Woody Allen’s stand-up. I don’t think he ever did an hour-long television special – it was a different time – but his albums, man, they hold up for me. Those are really excellent comedy albums.
And then of course, you have guys like Louis [CK] and Bill Burr. I think that Jim [Gaffigan] is a great comic. There are a lot of great ones. I know a lot of people’s names, and I know a lot people personally, but I honestly haven’t sat down and watched a lot of hours of stand-up, because, of course, as you can imagine, when I want to relax, that’s not one of the first places that I go. I’ll want to watch something else or do something else.
What else do you seek out?
I like drawing. A lot of the time, it’s while I’m en route to comedy – you know, I’m on an airplane or sitting in an airport. Drawing is an easy, accessible escape for me. I always have notebooks with me. Sitting there and doing line drawings is always relaxing.
When I go on the road, if there’s a museum in the city, I check to see what the current exhibitions are, and a lot of times, I like going there. They’re these weird, controlled environments where you can escape and just totally daydream and look at art.
I love watching movies like a lot of people, but I haven’t had as much time for that lately. I’ve been trying to educate myself on much older movies – what I would consider “great” movies – because I want to make movies. I still find that enjoyable and relaxing.
And I enjoy reading. I’m working on a book of short stories, so I’ve been reading more short fiction. I’ve read more nonfiction in my life, but I’m learning to find which writers that I like in fiction, and trying to understand how people tell stories on the page. Of course, there are book stores in so many cities, so I end up buying so many books. I’ll have to live a very long time read all of the books I’ve purchased.
You’re not especially active on Twitter, which is a dominant outlet for many comics. Why?
I don’t ever feel good after using Twitter. It never makes me feel better. Facebook doesn’t either. Before, during, and after social media, I’m always in a worse place. It doesn’t seem like it’s a game for me. I do it because I have to. I want people to come to my shows.
And I have to protect my storefront or my identity online. With Facebook and Twitter, I was a late and reluctant adopter. There were impersonators in both services. People were hijacking my public identity. What I really resent about those kinds of things is that they’re coercive. If you’re a public person, you have to join, or you suffer the consequences. They can take your name or create a supposed parody account. I had somebody tweeting as me, and Twitter took months to take the page down. They said that the account was parody. The person was just looking at my tour schedule and tweeting things like, “Hey, I just got to Nashville!” and then doing terrible jokes about Nashville. Of course, people thought that was me.
How much am I going to like Twitter if that’s the way that I have to come into it? I know that people are like, “Well, so and so got famous on Twitter!” Well, God bless them. It’s not a good use of my time.
Additional contributions by Matt Mansfield and Jose Lopez-Sanchez.