Demetri Martin's mind is constantly at work. Whether he's producing palindromes, doing drawings, making music, or crafting some of the most economic, elegant, and hilarious jokes, the man seems to be in an unwavering state of production that only sleep can interrupt. Martin has even admitted to often falling asleep while playing guitar or with a pen in his hand. This accelerated existence has led to a stint as a writer at "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," a "Comedy Centeral Presents" special, a Perrier prize in 2003 and celebrity status in the UK, and most recently a spot as "The Daily Show's" new trendspotter. For tour dates and more information, visit his website. To view his segments for "The Daily Show," click here. The following interview was conducted in January of 2006.
What was it like going from the structured environment of law school to comedy?
At some point I created a point system, like breaking my life down into categories, and then in each category trying to achieve certain things in a week's time. Every Sunday night I would tally up what I had achieved, for a total possible of 35 points. It was mind, body, career, personal management/relationship contribution. It was pretty funny. It was really ambitious in retrospect. The stuff I set out to do each week was pretty much impossible. I kept track of it for 27 weeks. I had a binder in which I actually was consistent for half a year. Every week I'd carry it around with me. I never got 35 points. I never even got close. Years later I found it, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is crazy.” four points was my lowest week, and I think 24 was my highest. When I made the system I figured I'd be topping out in the 30s, and once I'm close to my maximum, I'll just bump up each category, I'll just make the goals a little harder. And then that way I can develop a balanced set with the different things that I'm trying to learn how to do. I averaged 11 points out of my own system. So I failed kind of miserably. But the cool thing is that ever since then I haven't really ever been bored. I haven't watched TV since then, and I just never really feel like there isn't something to do. That changed my perspective. So it's like, draw a picture if you're sitting somewhere, or write something down, or write a palindrome. It's just about all the different opportunities in one moment. It changed my perspective on time and creating things.
I wanted to talk to you about time, because as a professional comedian you're accountable for the time in your set, but aside from that, your day is free.
The last couple years not having the pressure of having a day job, and having enough money to do standup as a job, enables me to just take in things, just think about things, observe, and figure out what my point is, if I have one. And then later you get to share that aloud with people to see if private thoughts are something that is publicly palatable to people. In that sense, the free time becomes work time, but it just becomes a very internalized, thought based work, at least for me. I feel that a lot of it is about shifting your focus, and learning how to hone your focus and loosen it, so that you can use your own mind to make stuff.
Were you surprised that comedy allowed you to do that?
When I started in the city, in New York, and even now, people don't really get anything from doing standup. The club owners just take everything. But you become accustomed to doing standup for nothing. In fact, in the beginning I had to pay to get on stage. A lot of the open mics you had to put three dollars in a pot to get your name thrown into a hat or whatever. I can't remember what the object was, but it held a piece of paper. They'd pull your name out of a hat, and that was the order you got to go up in. So we all just paid for the room, so that we can perform, for each other. And then years later to get to flown somewhere to do it and get paid, it's funny. It's a good thing to remember when I get too cranky about that stuff.
What did you think of the comedy community when you first started?
I interned at “The Daily Show” when Craig Kilborn was there. And that was the same time I started doing standup. So I can kind of see and remember now who in the clubs were kind of dick-y, or were jerks, and who was really cool without needing to be cool, if there is such a thing. They were just straight up in their interaction. You end up really appreciating that, and later on when you get a chance or opportunity to get a show and involve people, you go, “That guy was cool.” Like Lizz Winstead, she was the head writer of “The Daily Show” when I was there, she was really cool. She treated me, an intern, as she would a producer. It was just like being a real person. It went such a long way. Brian Unger [“Daily Show” correspondent] was a great guy that way. I mean, he was on the air and I was just a kid trying to figure out the business. And then there's a field producer or a PA, and they just shit on you. It's like, “What is this?” There's a comedian named DC Benny and he was such a classy guy. He would treat people like a person, like a comedian too. It would make me feel so validated. Little things like that go a long way to make a person feel ok, or they're not crazy for doing what they're doing.
A lot of comics, you do a set, and they're there and they see you, and they'll ignore you and treat you like a kid. And then you do a good set and you kill, and then now they'll accept you and talk to you. I think the funny thing is when you're friends with someone and then you see them perform, and you don't think they're funny. It's tricky because you never want to lie and say, “Hey, good set,” when you don't mean it, because then your word means nothing. The community I found are people who a. I think are good people and b. I actually think they're funny. So it's just such a bonus, and really cool.
You skateboard right?
Me too. I used to do it all the time, and I noticed that in skateboarding you come across people that you would never meet otherwise. You're brought together because of your common interest in skateboarding. And it seems like the comedy scene is much the same way.
When I skated, inverts were a big deal; just street plants and hand plants and stuff. Ho-hos were a big deal. You get up on one hand and you put your other hand down, and you walk on your hands with the skateboard on your feet. I remember when I first did a ho-ho, my friend was like, “Demetri!” We were in a parking lot skating for three hours, and I just kept trying it over and over. I remember that moment when I finally got it. The sense of accomplishment was my own, but there was also this shared feeling because we both knew what ho-hos were.
It would be the same thing as seeing a friend get a new bit to work. It's like, “You did it man. You cracked it. That bit totally worked. You have that now.” You're happy for another person. It's theirs, but you still feel like you're involved in it. And also skating, it's annoying if you don't know skating, but even if you do, it gets annoying to hear kids not landing stuff over and over and over. It's like, “Alright man, just fucking land it.” But then you realize it's also what makes it awesome. There's such a persistence. It's all about trial and error, and hopefully you can skate smart and learn from what you're doing. And just learn the nuances of kicking your foot one way that way or another. Especially now skateboarding seems so technical. When I skated it seemed more about broad strokes.
I will say that for me, one of the biggest influences was Rodney Mullen. I think he is a genius. The man invented movements. He's like a choreographer or something. I had the Bones Brigade video, it's before Future Primitive, and he's doing impossibles, and all this amazing stuff in 1984 or something. I remember rewinding stuff as a kid, watching it, like, “How is this stuff possible?” And then years later—now I just cruise around on a big deck, I don't even ollie or anything—but years later I remember seeing Rodney vs. Daewon, and it was just amazing to see how he had evolved. It was really interesting. Sorry, I don't mean to talk about skating.
No, that's totally cool. I was just thinking about how driven Rodney Mullen was. I don't want to put you and Rodney Mullen on the same level, but I think there's something there.
One time I did a poem where I took a bottle of Rolling Rock beer and I rearranged the words from the bottle. I noticed that there weren't that many proper nouns on the bottle, so you could rearrange the whole thing and then use it as an anagram by word, rather than by letter. And it worked. It ended up being a poem, more or less. That was interesting to me. It was a good metaphor for how you could create, or look at creating; which is just that it's permutations and combinations of small elements. So that the idea is more to understand, identify, and isolate elements, rather than larger pieces. And then through combination, they become larger things. But they're also detachable and reshapable.
So often my standup set is just a combination of jokes. It's really just a collection of jokes. The set is one entity, of course it's broken down into smaller elements. The cool thing is that the jokes are of course just broken down into words, and the words are just letters, so it becomes this weird fractal where you're building from very simple things, but at certain stages meanings are attached to them.
I don't know, I just drew this thing the other day, because I like drawing a lot, and it was the alphabet. I just drew the alphabet 7 times next to itself. So it was like “aaaaaaa, bbbbbbb, etc.” I wanted to see which strings of letters have meaning. So all A's I put an arrow next to it and said, “What you would say at the dentist.” And all O's are what you would say when you're surprised, and all X's is like one week, because you put X's on a calendar. All Z's are sleeping, and S's are what a snake sounds like. It's kind of funny.
I wanted to ask about your world view. I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, but you strike me as having a child-like view of the world. More so that you have an interest in the world around you that I think a lot of adults don't have anymore, mainly because they're adults now.
I remember one time I saw an interview with Steven Wright, who is a total hero of mine, and it was a very similar question, about being like a child. I had never thought of it that way, but I was like, “Yeah!” He just doesn't take that much for granted, and what I love about Steven Wright is that he makes me feel more possibility, just in his approach to the world. It's almost like deconstruction with reconstruction. He's broken things down into something very simple, but then rebuilt them. It's more simple, but also more logical.
There's a great quote I heard by John Cleese, which was, “If you're telling a story or a movie, all of your characters can live in a garbage can, but everyone has to live in a garbage can.” I thought that was a really good point. To me, the point is you can create whatever world you want to, but just make sure it makes sense within that world. That's where you really have to understand logic and relationships.
But you can create anything, there's total freedom. There's a lack of structure. The only structure is shared human experience, and understanding of basic interaction and things like that. So that in the same way once a child understands the rules, so do adults. There are certain baseline understandings and the trick is not to take too much for granted when you get beyond the baseline stuff. I don't now, I've never analyzed it that much, but I think that's the way to articulate that kind of stuff.
Do you feel that you have to work at that at all, or that's just how you see the world?
I like to do exercises with weird things just to get my mind going, like reading the dictionary, or writing things backward; just weird stuff that doesn't have a real point necessarily, like writing palindromes, but it yields something very useful and productive. And just the activity itself seems to be worthwhile.
Have you ever had any interest in teaching? It seems a lot of these activities would be fun to do with other people.
In a way it seems that you're constantly trying to figure out the world around you, and I'm curious if that's led you to other, larger questions, like religion?
I never really thought that much about the theory of it, or the doctrine behind it, you know? But the bigger questions, like the existence of God, are what I always wondered about in college. Like, where do you go? Is there an afterlife? It's so hard to understand that stuff. I do know that when I think about physics and design, and I guess coincidence, causation, all that, it leads me to believe; maybe just because I want to have some sort of hope. I don't know if it's a being, but it can be something, or some kind of intention behind things. I was just talking to someone the other day, and I had a moment where I felt like I understood how chaos, order, and I think hope, all related. I tend to dichotomize things, so it's always like if you can look at things on different scales it can help you find your place on it. So like chaos and order is one simple dichotomy. Some people say that life is essentially random, it's just chaos, and that we just put meaning onto things. We manufacture order to have meaning, which to me seems like an interesting idea. I don't know if things are random, but there's definitely a chaos to nature. It seems if you just accepted that everything was completely random and there was no order, then that would lead to despair, because without some order it seems that you wouldn't have meaning, or purpose.
The other day it was really succinct. It came to me in a way that I could understand things, and then it kind of left me. But for a second there I was like, “Oh, that's why people want structure, or have to have so many goals, or believe that things are a certain way. Or even when people oversimplify things just because they want certainty, to have comfort.” I think it relates to comfort because there's an unrest that comes with accepting too much chaos. But at the same time if you're trying to create things, it's almost that you have to respect and acknowledge a certain randomness and chaos, because that seems to be the very soup that you can pull really nice bits from. I don't really know.
I asked my mom probably a month ago if she believed in God. And she said, “I don't know, I don't think so, no.” I never thought to ask my mom that. She was like, “Isn't that funny? I was married to a priest.” I don't think that she secretly didn't believe in God the whole time, but it was a way of going about things, not really asking directly to one self.
I think belief is a fascinating area because I don't really understand how you acquire belief. Belief seems to be the thing that people kill each other over, and become so angry about, and it's so hard to change. I've always been so interested in belief acquisition. I feel like you can acquire what you think, because it becomes very empirical, or rational, or it's just logical, based on experience. Maybe that's how you come to believe things, but the unshakable belief in a certain doctrine—I just can't get a handle on that. I don't ever feel that. When I see people freaking out over a sports team, I never feel like I'm that excited about anything in life. I feel generally happy and excited about things, but I never feel like I'm going to go crazy for anything. There's nothing that I really want to paint my face for, or stand in the cold for. Like some guys running around with a ball. But maybe that's the same kernel that belief springs from. I don't want to say that I don't believe in things, I just don't know what I do believe in. I believe in certain principles I guess.
But don't you think that if you see the same results come up every time in relation to something, that that could lead to belief?
I find “intelligent design” to be an ironic phrase because I associate intelligence with science. But I guess for religious people, they associate it with God.
The basic idea I got from the book was, “The question is not whether there is a God. Let's not worry about that. The question is what does belief in a God yield?” It's almost like the end backwards. It's very applicable and immediate. It's just so readable. I read it a few times and remember feeling very comforted by it, and inspired.
Let's switch over to “The Daily Show.” Can you talk about how you got involved with that?
Years later I got a call last summer, and Jon Stewart and Ben Karlin wanted me to come in to talk to them. So I went in there and they said, “Hey, we want to see if you can do stuff for our show. We like your stuff and want to see if this would be a good fit.” And I just thought, “Yeah, great.” So they said, “Take a week and give us some ideas.” So I gave them six ideas a week later and they picked one, which was kind of a hybrid of two of them, and that became the trendspotter. After that they said that it was brand new, and it's something you can figure out the structure, and what kind of beats you want to put into it. “We're not trying to make you a correspondent, like a news guy, we want you to do your thing and see if it works with the show.”
That was such an exciting opportunity. I went home and started drawing, and then I did research. The first one I did was based on the marketing of wine to young people, how lately there's a trend to market wine to a younger demographic that usually drinks beer. Then we went and found people to interview, and I got to do my little drawings with it, and then I got to score it, and play music underneath things. I wrote it, so it was great. I worked with this guy Rory Albanese, who is a field producer, and we've become a team. I really enjoy working with him. It's really fun. They let me do what I want.
The coolest thing is that Jon and Ben are very hands-on. They're very involved with everything on the show. They really care about the quality of every word that's going into every episode. They give us a lot of autonomy in the field. We shoot it and edit it, then we screen it for them and they say, “Ok, we like this, maybe move this around, take this out.” It's really cool. I remember when I had to hand in my script and it felt like I was handing in a college paper, like my professor is Jon Stewart. I remember him reading it, “You'll get a laugh there, good, good, ok, this is good.” I think it's going to be a once a month thing, as long as I can keep coming up with trends to talk about.
In your comedy set there aren't really any political jokes. How do you feel about being involved with a show that's so political?
It seems to me that most of our culture is based on missing out on something, like the fear of missing out on something is a great commodity that's plied to get people to watch things, do things, and buy things. Once you actually start missing out and realize that you're fine, and even better off, it's so liberating. Like the Super Bowl, I don't care about the Super Bowl. I want to miss the Super Bowl. It's like “Season finale,” and I'm like, “Well fuck the season. Just leave me alone. I want to read a book or draw.” I told them when I first went in, “I don't know if I'm going to be right because I don't really focus on the news. I don't really watch TV.” But it's great because I can just pick and choose, and find stuff to talk about.
I've noticed your segments are probably the most idiosyncratic. You do the music, the graphics, you even composed your own theme song.
It seems a lot of the humor in a typical "Daily Show" segment comes from interviews where the interviewee doesn't quite know what's going on. In your two segments you don't really do that.
I remember somebody asking me once, “Do you get nervous before you go onstage?” And I was like, “No. Think of how terrible my job would be if I got nervous every time I had to do it. That's a place I like to be.” It's the same with the show. I'm doing segments that I feel comfortable doing; finding the bits in the interview that aren't necessarily about taking people down. Granted, I'm not doing investigative reporting. I'm usually not involved with stories that have two sides, so there's a certain degree of conflict that's immediately removed. It makes it easier for me to be less confrontational, or less snarky than in other segments. In that way it's a nice fit.
The real key to me is that those guys seem to understand the way I do my comedy, and wanted to see if it would fit. It's such a golden opportunity. I'm forever grateful, even if those are the only two segments I do. It was really fun to get to make something that exists, because completion is hard. Finishing things is a big problem I have.
You did do some events for Kerry prior to the election, and I was wondering if you ever feel the need to combine politics and comedy?
I saw Chris Rock and thought, “Oh, that's so brilliant, this guy is saying something.” But I think for me to spend my time trying to make something because of the ends it achieves is too result-oriented for me. I'm going back to what I did when I was younger, which is focusing on making stuff in general, and then seeing how it comes out. It's even part of why I left law school.
I went to law school to be a public interest lawyer. I was like, “I want to do community development, or juvenile rights, help poor people.” But what I found was that after a certain point, I really wasn't enjoying it that much. I loved the idea of being a person who does those things, but the honest truth was that I'd rather be writing jokes. It's probably more selfish.
That leads back to your question about why not do jokes that affect the system? Maybe at some point I would if I think the jokes are good enough. But the root of all it for me is that I like writing things that are as timeless as possible. And doing something too topical seems like a waste of energy. I like creating something and letting it exist. And then if I feel like talking about it in three years, I can still talk about it. Like chairs should probably not change too much, or balloons. I don't like doing jokes that you have to know something beyond basic knowledge in order to get the joke. I don't want to do a joke where you have to know a artist I mentioned, or something about some guy's politics. It's like, “I don't really care about that other guy, and now a prerequisite for my comedy is that you have to know about who Caspar Weinberger is?”
Lastly, could you talk about what it was like to meet Steven Wright?
To me he's a true original. When I saw him when I was young I was like, “Wow. This is completely different.” Every joke seemed so well crafted, and poetic. And often very visual in what it conjured in my head as a listener. I feel that Steven Wright is a really important branch on the tree of standup comedy.