May 11, 2005

Word Games

Funnyman Demetri Martin ditched law school to explore palindromes and pound a toy kickdrum onstage. The judiciary's loss is our gain.

Keith Huang

For the professional standup comic, words are a cheap commodity for sale—audiences are expected to buy them, and very often they don't.

But for New York-based comedian Demetri Martin, words are the objects of scrutiny; they are ever-evolving organisms to be studied, dissected, and reworked until they morph into something gut-wrenchingly funny.

Demetri Martin
Keith Huang
The comedy of Martin, who wears his hair like a member of The Ramones and hails from New Jersey, has been described, aptly, as "Lisa Simpson doing standup." A self-proclaimed "nerd with geek tendencies," Martin's onstage presence, even at 32, is that of an awkward teenager.

But what makes this tall and lanky comic of Greek heritage such a draw in the local comedy scene is his intelligence, augmented by his borderline autistic, somewhat obsessive fascination with words and numbers.

Martin is especially fond of palindromes, or words or sentences that read the same backwards as forward. In one typically multimedia bit, he displays a photo of a black man, a Hawaiian man, a South American woman, and a Hasidic Jew, all waiting at a bus stop. The title reads: "Yo, Aloha, Hola, Oy"; another photo shows a bicycle with a sombrero draped over the handlebars, which reads: "El Cycle."
Martin also wrote the celebrated palindromic poem, "Dammit, I'm Mad" (Slate), which was included in his one-man show "If, I ..." in 2003.

But the bulk of Martin's material comprises one-liners, delivered in a deadpan style reminiscent of comedy statesman Steven Wright, whom Martin cites as a key influence.

"I saw Steven Wright when I was in high school," Martin told Gelf after a recent show. "I think he's a big reason I do stand up at all. It was like a revelation."

Like Wright's comedy, Martin's one-liners are usually detonated with a time-delayed fuse. For instance: "I want to buy a bunch of hermit crabs and make them live together"; "Employee of the month is a good example of how somebody can be both a winner and a loser at the same time"; "Saying 'I apologize' is the same as saying 'I'm sorry'—but not at a funeral." These jokes, not unlike "Far Side" cartoons or Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts," often get laughs that keep growing long after Martin delivers the line.

In his act, Martin often uses visual aids—he narrates while flipping through a giant sketch pad ("Here's a stick man ... holding a stick"). And during his narration, he provides his own intermittent soundtrack, sometimes with an electric guitar and the sporadic thumping of a toy kickdrum.

Before a recent show, Martin held up his dinner-plate-sized drum, upon which he had painted a lightning bolt and the letters "D" and "M," and said, "Yeah, this is my drum. It's a professional drum, so I'm not sweating it—I feel pretty good about it."

When Martin speaks, there is little trace of sarcasm or smarminess in his voice, probably because he effects a genuine modesty. He has often said that what you see onstage is what he is like in real life, all the time.

In fact, his standup is less a lampooning of things and people than it is a very simple explanation of the thoughts and ideas that bounce around in his head. He says his jokes are "almost like little commercials for how [his] head works," according to an interview in the U.K. newspaper The Sunday Herald.

This summer will mark Martin's eighth year in comedy. "Soon after I started, I realized I didn't know any great comics who'd been doing it for less than 10 years," he says. "So I figured I won't worry until after 10 years to see if I'm doing great or anything. I'm kind of just figuring it out." But he quickly adds: "I need more material, and I think I want to be more 'myself' up there. It takes a while."

For Martin, being himself—or becoming himself—started when he quit law school at New York University (and a full scholarship) to pursue standup fulltime. That decision, and its subsequent fallout, provided much of the material for his one-man show "Spiral Bound," performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2004.

In that show, Martin poignantly describes how he got divorced before turning 30. Martin has said that after quitting law school, problems in his marriage emerged largely after his wife realized that she was no longer married to a future lawyer, but rather an open-mic comedian. But Martin is graceful and compassionate in his storytelling, and he doesn't take easy potshots at his ex-wife.

In August 2003, in the Evening Standard newspaper, Martin said: "When I was starting out [in comedy] and still married, my wife said, 'You just want to be famous. You are struggling with immortality like a lot of young people.' ... It kinda hurt, but was also a good thing because it made me ask myself if she was right. But I thought about it, and it was not about being famous at all. I wanted to be funny more than I wanted to be famous."

Martin, who graduated from Yale, abandoned the suburban life for standup comedy. He also seems to have abandoned any regret. In an interview on National Public Radio last year, he said: "When I was in law school, people were so not passionate about what they were doing. I think that was such a bummer. But then comedians...are completely immersed. They're obsessed. They love it. It's such a difference. It's all desire—desire and persistence. It has nothing to do with the other stuff."

So far, his hard work has been paying handsome dividends. Last month, Martin headlined at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival; in 2004, he had a Comedy Central special; he has appeared on "The Late Show With David Letterman," he has written for "Late Night With Conan O'Brien"; and in 2003 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Since the prize was first awarded in 1981, the only other American to win it has been comedy legend Rich Hall (IMDB).

"It's just nice to get audiences in another part of the world," Martin says. "I went back [to Edinburgh] in 2004 and did like a two-week run, and it was cool. I had nice crowds, like a 350-seater for 15 nights. It was great. I'm not going to do that in New York, that's for sure.

"It's also nice because you've got these little laboratories around the world where you can just go and try out your material, crowd work, things like that," he adds.

Whenever abroad, Martin spends time with comics such as New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords (profiled in Gelf last month), Daniel Kitson and David O'Doherty of Ireland ( "It's like summer camp," Martin says. "It's a reunion every four months or six months in a different place. It's so great and weird to see that sensibilities can be so similar from such different places."

Martin appears to be on the verge of mainstream popularity stateside. He's written two screenplays ("I have to rewrite both of them," he quips), is working on another one-man stage show, and has a development deal with NBC for a TV show.

"The network stuff is usually a long shot," he says. "It's nice if they give you money, but it doesn't usually come to fruition, so it doesn't really matter either way. But I'd like to do it. I think it helps you to get audiences when you do standup."

Related on the Web

•Demetri Martin's website.

•A 2003 New Yorker article about Martin.

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Article by Keith Huang

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