New York-based comedian Demetri Martin is poised to record a new standup special this spring, release a book of illustrated short stories this summer and finish editing his directorial film debut — starring Kevin Kline — later this year.
In advance of his Feb. 6 performance at the Barrymore Theatre, Isthmus spoke with the ex-Daily Show contributor and palindrome enthusiast (he wrote a 224-long palindromic poem for his fractal geometry class at Yale, then went on to law school at NYU) about the shifting standup game and how he finds time to do it all.
You've been performing for nearly two decades now. How has your approach to writing and performing jokes changed?
Honestly, it hasn't changed much for me. I like to work in notebooks; sometimes I work on my computer. I usually carry a small notebook with me while I'm traveling and I'll jot down ideas, like a lot of comedians do.
On the other hand, the social media and technology that people have at shows has changed the performing and writing experience because people often film me with their phones — which most comedians don't like. Sometimes I tell my jokes for the first time, and they're on Twitter.
That seems to be a concern for a lot of comedians right now.
It's forced me to be more spontaneous. You've got to protect yourself with improvisation. The show's a little bit different every night, and no matter how much people film you or any of that stuff, at least you'll still be able to surprise people and have something new to say.
But the core of it is the same for me, because I really do like writing jokes and telling them. A lot of the fun of standup for me is before the show, when I'm just out and about during the day, daydreaming and thinking of jokes. By the time I come to the audience I've already had this kind of creative experience that precedes the show.
Going back to your jokes showing up on Twitter — your style certainly fits the 140-character mold.
Before Twitter, there weren't that many people doing one-liners — but I was one of them. And now a lot of people do them. It's what it is.
Who influenced you to begin writing jokes that way?
I truly love Steven Wright. I saw him on TV when I was pretty young; he spit out a different approach to standup, and it resonated with me. I always liked The Far Side. Gary Larson makes a single panel cartoon — some of them don't even have words. He writes jokes, but they're very short.
In addition to gearing up for your new special, what other projects are you working on?
When I'm on the road I like to focus on standup and jokes, but when I'm home I'm working on a book of short stories that'll come in June. That's something I have to work on. I like to draw.
I shot a film last summer — the first movie that I've directed — and I've been editing that. So a lot of my days have been spent trying to put the film together. When jokes come to me, of course, I'll write them down.
What is the film — tentatively titled Dean — about?
It's a comedy, but there's some kind of weight to it. It's about a guy who's lost his mom, and he and his dad are dealing with that. It's about people who are trying to find their way after a tragedy like that. They're both grieving, but it's a year after she died. You're catching up with these people.
I got Kevin Kline to be in the movie; he plays my father. It was so special and creative and cool. He's got a presence. I was surprised and delighted that I got to work with him.
What have you learned through the making of the film?
It's been a whole different thing for me, which I love. And it turns out I really like editing. In a way, it's not that different from standup because you're trying to build jokes with timing.
When I first started, that [film] wasn't really on my radar. But I started thinking more about trying to do acting. I'd get ideas, and I'd realize they weren't really jokes, but more like scenes or stories. And eventually I said, "Oh that could be a whole movie."
What are some of your favorite palindromes?
There's one that I really like: "nub no man, nice cinnamon bun." It's really stupid. Another good one that's really simple that I like to quote is "no music is um on." Either way, it's a good conversation killer.