"I like having a private life and a normal life. I've certainly never been famous enough that that's in jeopardy but it's also not something I'm chasing after. I like the limelight as much as it'll get me good crowds and I can work but I'm really happy with having access to things and getting to be a creative person and make a living without having to worry about recognition and all that kind of stuff. It's weird."
– Demetri Martin
Guy MacPherson: Demetri, how are you?
Demetri Martin: Hi. Good, how are you?
GM: I spoke to you in 2011.
DM: Promoting my book?
GM: No, you were coming to Vancouver. We did talk about your book but it was for a live show you were doing here. And I still think about, to this day, your "give a shit test" that you told me about – about comedians and their personal stories. So that's now how I look at things.
DM: I hope I didn't pollute anything for you but yeah, it's a real thing for me, for sure. It's hard not to think of that once I got it into my head. A lot of talking about oneself can be very challenging.
GM: Everybody is endlessly interesting to themselves but they may not be to others.
DM: Yeah, I think it's true.
GM: I don't think you polluted anything for me. Once you hear something like that, it just rings true.
DM: Yeah, I also still think of that, too. I'm kinda the same. I want to be interested in what's happening up there. Often if a crowd has come, they kind of have done their part. I think as a comic I like to feel like I gave the audience more than I took. So if I'm taking that amount of time from them, then I can give them something a little more in return for it.
GM: You've been out of the limelight recently, haven't you?
GM: What have you been doing?
DM: I've been writing a bunch. I wrote and directed my first movie this past summer and we're doing the first assembly of the movie now. It's an independent film. We'll see how it comes together and if I make it a festival or get distribution. I'm doing a guest role on a show called House of Lies on Showtime. That's been really fun and it's nice to be working and sleeping in my own bed, not being on the road. That's really cool. And I'm working on a book of short stories, short fiction.
GM: When you're out of the public eye for a period of time, do you feel a strong pressure to maintain a presence somehow or do you just know it'll come in time once everything comes out?
DM: I don't know. Being a comic and having a lot of friends who are comedians, some actors, it's interesting over the years to see what it is that motivates each person. All of us need attention for some reason to some degree, but I think there are nuances to it. I think some people maybe get more of a high out of making things then getting to present them. And for other people, I think the celebrity part of it is more attractive than to others. There is a feeling of being relevant or being out there and getting on as many shows as you can and being on TV and everything. But I don't know, I'm not as drawn to that. It's really nice to get attention and I think if you're lucky, people know you enough that they'll come to your show and you'll have a crowd that likes you and you start in a nice place already when you get on stage. It's a warmer room and you're not having to sell yourself to the audience necessarily or convince them about what you can do. But beyond that, I like having a private life and a normal life. I've certainly never been famous enough that that's in jeopardy but it's also not something I'm chasing after. I like the limelight as much as it'll get me good crowds and I can work but I'm really happy with having access to things and getting to be a creative person and make a living without having to worry about recognition and all that kind of stuff. It's weird. But I think if you do it long enough you kind of figure out what you're really after. And if you're after the fame stuff, there's ways to do that. But the more social media there is and the more content and camera phones and Twitter, it's like the more interested I am in privacy because it just seems so elusive, so hard to actually have privacy. Now, I could just not be in the business. I could just choose to do something else. So it's not that simple. It's not like, 'Hey everybody, leave me alone.' But there's some sort of a balance there where it's like it's nice to still be invisible. I like writing jokes out in public and walking around and looking at stuff. I imagine if you become genuinely famous, that does change. Your feedback would have been what you can write about and how you write about it and everything.
GM: Bob Newhart told me years ago about reaching a certain level and not being able to write material on taking the bus anymore because he wasn't doing that.
DM: Yeah. And what an interesting story Bob Newhart is. I'm a big Bob Newhart fan. It's just amazing how he did that album and then was just suddenly a headliner. Amazing.
GM: You're like an old soul.
DM: I think so. A lot of the stuff I like was made before I was born. I don't know, maybe a lot of people are like that but I got the Newhart DVDs and when I used to live in New York and instead of watching TV, I'd watch an episode of Newhart or Python on DVD. Older things that stand the test of time.
GM: And also because you're not crazy about social media like most young people.
DM: Yeah, I'm not. I feel like I do it kind of defensively. I was a late adopter. Then there were impersonators posing as me. I find it frustrating. It's kind of coercive because you kind of have to do it otherwise your public identity is up for grabs. Of course there are benefits and I can tell people about my shows and because of social media, I don't have to be in comedy clubs if I don't want to. So I gotta be realistic about it – there's plenty of good. But it's just weird the demand for free content and everything. You kind of just have to do it or someone else just poses as you and then that's your store front. Oh God, now I gotta go have an account and have enough followers so people think, okay, that's him.
GM: Some comics seem to be always on and love the hang with other comics, but you seem to like doing your own thing and while you like performing, you also like turning that off.
DM: Yeah. I think before when I was a comedian years ago, I was trying to be funny all the time. And in my group of friends, I was the funny guy or something. And I love comedy and I love jokes and I love joking around, but I don't know if maybe being on stage just balanced me out enough so it's like, great, I can go do that there, I get attention and feel validated, and then I don't have to worry about it. Then I can just be kind of quiet and just do my thing when I'm offstage. But yeah, I'm definitely not on all the time. I mean, I might not even be on enough of the time for the job that I'm doing, I don't know. But usually I can do my thing up there. I was never a very loud person anyway. It's a softer sell, I think, with me.
GM: Are you on the set of a movie now?
DM: No. I shot my thing over the summer and we wrapped. We're just editing. I'm between gigs on the House of Lies stuff. They just tell me, like, this week you're going to work Tuesday Wednesday and then next week we need you for these two days or whatever.
GM: Is the movie you shot and wrote a comedy?
DM: Yeah, it's a comedy but it's also kind of dramatic. I'm excited. I got Kevin Klein to be in my film, who I'm a fan of and was wonderful to work with, and Mary Steenburgen, who was also in the film and she was just an absolute delight. It's a big favour actors like that will do for a young filmmaker – they'll go be in your first film and it's an independent film and there's no money and you don't have a lot of time, you don't get to do a lot of takes. It's like they're really doing you a favour more than anything else. I walked away from shooting feeling very grateful that I got to work with people like that.
GM: Are you the lead?
DM: Yeah, I'm the lead. There's a lot of hubris involved in what I did there but I figured it was worth a shot. I play an illustrator. I like drawing a lot so I thought of it as an opportunity to put some drawings in a film and just play this illustrator/cartoonist guy. My character lives in Brooklyn, where I used to live. It's very loosely autobiographical. I'm sure close to 100 percent of filmmakers' first films are autobiographical. No surprise. I think making a film is such a great opportunity to tell a story and to achieve a certain level of intimacy but also to hopefully translate your experiences into fiction so that it's not some sort of report. It's all made up. It's a totally fictional story but I get to take some of the emotional realities of my experiences and put them into a story, which is really fun. Different than what I do in standup. My standup is autobiographical to a degree, but you know, I like jokes and they're about things. Whereas the movie can be about characters and relationships.
GM: And it passes the "give a shit" test.
GM: Did you say you directed it?
GM: First time directing, right? Was it intimidating?
DM: Yeah. Yeah, it was hard. It was really challenging. I found a lot of the logistics challenging, just worrying about did we secure that location and do we have enough background people working on that day and can we afford this and that? When we were actually in it just doing the scenes, I felt comfortable and I was really happy with what I was getting to do. It was fun. I never felt lost, like, 'I don't know where I want the camera' or 'I don't know what size I want to shoot this.' It was interesting how much the answers did seem to present themselves because hopefully things are motivated so it's like, 'I think the camera should move here and the reason is this.' It's fun to think about the mechanics of telling your story. I love that. And as far as the acting went, I don't have a lot of experience but I enjoy it. The hard part, again when you don't have a lot of time or money, and maybe that's on every film no matter how big it is you never feel like you have enough time or money, but the hard thing is we have this amount of time to shoot this scene and I've chosen to be on camera so I made my bed so I have to sleep in it. I can do another take or I can watch playback. If I watch playback, we're going to lose that shooting time and I'll have one fewer takes but I'll get to check what I've done. Or I can kind of trust or ask someone else do you think that worked? Alright, well let me just try another one. So now I get to the edit and I see, Oh, damn, I wish I did another one of those, or Okay, cool, that was good. So that's the learning process now.
GM: Have you studied acting?
DM: No. I got lucky. I got to be in an Ang Lee movie years ago and I learned a lot from him. And I'm still learning and I'm certainly not an actor who has a gigantic range. I can hopefully show up and you believe what I'm doing. Hopefully it seems real, that the guy I'm playing is really feeling those things. When I see actors who are trained actors who can transform and become these other people, I'm dazzled by it. I think it's a very rare talent. I would consider myself more of a personality actor or something. To do an accent or be this person or that, I don't think that's what I have to offer. But there are so many Woody Allen films that I love and he's Woody Allen. He becomes different characters but essentially you're getting that guy. That's probably more the realm I can aim for. I'm a huge fan of Albert Brooks. I love Albert Brooks' films and I think he's a really great actor. His films seem to be his voice telling you a story and he's the guy who's delivering it, which is cool.
GM: I thought he should have been nominated for something for Lost In America. He was fantastic.
DM: I loved him in that. Modern Romance, I loved Defending Your Life, it's one of my favourite movies. To me, that's such a great thing to aspire to is a guy like Albert who did some really inventive standup comedy and then made his way into film and got his sensibility to work in a film. It's really cool.
GM: You were playing arenas on the Oddball tour, weren't you?
DM: Yeah, those were big venues.
GM: What was the biggest one you played?
DM: I did it last year and this year. Tinley Park in Chicago last year was one of the stops I was on and that was like 22,000. And this year we were in northern California somewhere near San Jose, near Palo Alto, and I think that was about 22-23,000. So that's the biggest I've ever played. I didn't have to do a lot of time. I'm not headlining those shows or anything. And you get to hang out with other comedians so it was pretty fun. I did 15 or 20 minutes. It's weird.
GM: You have a lot of subtlety and you've got to listen to the word play and turns of phrases. Can a big crowd like that appreciate it as much?
DM: Yeah, I think so. They have these large screens. I think what's good and bad about that is they can see your face, but the bad thing is they're watching a screen. And even when you're up close, it's hard not to look at the screen to kind of check in. When I've sat in the crowd, it's hard to just look at the person. There's these big screens on the side so it's just a different viewing experience. It's a different live experience. But I guess for the money, those are pretty good shows because you're seeing Louis and Gaffigan and four or five other comics. Sarah Silverman. So it's pretty cool for one ticket.
GM: And slightly lesser, but still pretty great, is this JFL tour you're on. Four solid comics.
DM: Yeah, I like that combination. I think everybody's different enough from each other. I think they're complementary sensibilities. I think the shows should have a nice vibe to them. I'm friends with Levi and we tour a bunch together. I love doing shows with Levi. And I think Jon Dore's really funny. I like Jon Dore a lot. I think it's cool that we have a couple Canadian folks on the tour. And a couple Americans. Todd Glass is really funny. I've known him a long time. So it should be really fun.
GM: And Levi was one of your writers on your TV show.
DM: Yeah, that's how we met.
GM: Yeah, you scouring him on the internet.
DM: That's right. I saw his standup online and I was like, 'I like this guy.' I think he's really surprising and inventive. And he's a good guy. It's nice when you find comics you just get along with. There's just a mellowness and you can hang out and it's not like being on all the time or anything.
GM: And Jon's a great guy. And I've only met Todd once, but he seems like a great guy.
DM: He is. It's nice when people are sincere, too. In comedy, sometimes it's hard to find real friends that'll let down their guard and just talk. Everybody can be a smartass and can be fun but you get a little older and sometimes you just want to have a real conversation about life or something.
GM: There's no one more sincere than Todd Glass! And earnest.
GM: You haven't started the tour yet.
DM: No. We're like a month out.
GM: Have you done one of the JFL tours before?
DM: No. I don't think I have. I did some dates in Australia when they were doing JFL down there. But not the proper Canadian tour. This is the first opportunity for me.
GM: You mentioned Newhart and Monty Python. Do you also like the one-liner comics?
DM: Yeah, I mean Steven Wright's got to be my all-time favourite. A big influence on me and probably a big part of the reason I'm a standup. When I first saw him on TV in the '80s in high school or middle school, to me it just seemed like art. To me, there's something very artistic about it that I love. When I discovered Woody Allen's standup, he had really great one-liners in those little stories that he would tell. The absurdism. What a great writer. I love that.
GM: Emo Philips is another great one-liner comic.
DM: Great. I feel like he's one of those really original voices. You come across an Emo Philips jokes and I'm like, God, only Emo. They're such surprising turns in his jokes. They're so good.
GM: Stewart Francis is another one. Do you know him?
DM: A little bit. I don't know his stuff too well, but yeah.
GM: But your favourite of all time is Steven Wright.
DM: I think so. And then later I discovered Woody Allen and Albert Brooks and Steve Martin. And when I started to learn about Andy Kaufman, I was completely into Andy Kaufman. And after I was a comic for a little while, I could just really appreciate how awesome Richard Pryor was. That level of just putting his guts on the stage, pretty amazing.
GM: There are so many comics now. Do you find there are more than when you started out? It seems every other person's a comic.
DM: That's how I feel. I was just saying that in one of my other interviews. They said, 'How have things changed?' I said there are many more comedians than when I started. And social media and I guess digital technology, it's hilarious that they've hardly ever done even live shows and they film themselves. Their standup is just out there. The gate is wide open and people are doing standup. It can be great. I find it a little overwhelming. It seems like a lot of comedians. And after shows I've noticed that over the years have changed, more people are coming up to me and saying, 'I'm a comedian, too.' Wow. There are a lot of comedians. I don't know how much of a demand there is for it, but we certainly have people doing it.
GM: I was talking to a friend who was a comic in the '80s and '90s and he said it used to be he would tell people he was a comic and they'd go, 'Oh, that's cool.' Then it got to be they'd say, 'Oh yeah, my mom does that, too.' Or sister.
GM: I dont' know where it goes from here but you're grandfathered in.
DM: Right. I think I'm lucky. I did start in the '90s in New York when a lot of the clubs were empty so I got in there when people were like, 'Really? You're doing that?'