"I'm in kind of a weird spot because I've been around a while so in certain places I'm known enough in the comedy world and at the same time I'm not like a huge act. There are people I came up with who are legitimately famous. They play giant venues. You could say they've crossed over into larger popular culture. I still feel like I'm kind of hovering just above anonymity."
– Demetri Martin
Guy MacPherson: Demetri, how are you?
Demetri Martin: I'm good. Thanks for taking time to interview me.
GM: No problem. It's my third time interviewing you.
DM: Oh. Very cool. Maybe we’ll have something interesting to talk about.
GM: It seems like it's every three years. 2011 was the first time I spoke with you, then 2014, and then now here we are in 2017.
DM: Oh, that's funny.
GM: Do you tend to tour at a certain interval like that or is it just whenever?
DM: Usually there's a plan. My agent's pretty smart about keeping me away from markets for enough time. But it wouldn't be three years, usually; it'd be 18 months or something like that. Just so I have time to refill my material and people hopefully don't get sick of me. I'm trying to write... They're doing some work in my house, I'm sorry; there's some noise in the background... I have a book that's long overdue that I'm working on and stuff like that. I do try to take breaks and stay home when I can, too.
GM: Where is home? Where are you right now?
DM: Los Angeles.
GM: It's been neat seeing you grow from an unknown. I remember seeing you here in Vancouver at Tom Lee Music Hall, which is quite a small venue. Just seeing you wandering the halls with your backpack. And now you're playing these big theatres. I forget when that would have been when you first came here.
DM: My first time there might have been the Vancouver Comedy Festival. I don't know if that's going still.
GM: It is. Now it's affiliated with Just For Laughs.
DM: Oh, I see, that's what happened. So yes, but when it was kind of an independent thing, I think I went the first two years, but I know I was there the first year. One of my sharpest memories from that – I talk about it sometimes with friends – was, there was a Trailer Park Boys show. I think that was the first year. Maybe it was the second year. But there was a show in a theatre [advertising] "The Trailer Park Boys," and in smaller letters under that: "and Friends." So people bought tickets and those guys came out and did, like, five minutes up top and were like, 'Okay, we'll be back later.' And the crowd did not like that. They went ape-shit and they were angry. We were all backstage, all those comedians. The crowd didn't know who we were. They wanted to see the Trailer Park Boys, not the lineup of comedians, including me. And each of us went out and just died one after the next. I've never been on a show like that before where it was just kind of an angry mob. They were just furious. (laughs) It was one of the weirdest shows.
GM: I went to both of those shows. There was an early one and a later one.
DM: Okay, so you know who I'm talking about.
GM: I'm not sure which one you were on. You see this kind of thing in movies, where a comedian is booed off the stage. But that's the first time, and the last time, I've ever seen it in person. Andy Kindler was literally booed off the stage.
DM: (laughs) It's a funny thing because when we were backstage, the first comedian went out, and we could all hear it and see what was happening. All the comics backstage were in one room, all saying, 'You know what? I'm not doing this. I'm not going out there. This is ridiculous.' And then somebody – one of the comics – was like, 'All right, I'll do it.' And it was like a jury, like this turning from guilty to not guilty. Just like, 'All right, I'll do it, too. If you're going to do it, I'll do it.' And then we all did it. Of course, whatever, it wasn't high stakes or anything but it is funny as a comedian when you get in those situations where you're backstage and it's just like waiting to get punched in the face or something. There's nothing you can do about it. Here comes the punch! You're just going to take it. But when it's that bad, it does then become interesting. It's kind of better than just a mediocre [show] where you just do poorly.
GM: It's something to talk about years after.
DM: Shows like that are very helpful in your career as a comedian. It reminds you just how subjecting and delicate it all is. One night, you can do great in this room and people hate you in that room. It's all so subjective.
GM: Do you miss being unknown or playing smaller venues?
DM: Sometimes. I'm in kind of a weird spot because I've been around a while so in certain places I'm known enough in the comedy world and at the same time I'm not like a huge act. There are people I came up with who are legitimately famous. They play giant venues. You could say they've crossed over into larger popular culture. I still feel like I'm kind of hovering just above anonymity so it's not too bad for me. And when I tour, sometimes I throw comedy clubs into my routing and those are fun to work out material in a smaller room. It's a different feel. The pacing's different. It's luxury and a privilege to get to perform in theatres but there's a little bit of distance. Time does move a little differently for comedy in theatres. It seems like it's a little less forgiving when it comes to working out new stuff. You've got to bring a more polished... or at least material that you've worked out well enough because it seems like it gets quiet faster when jokes don't work. In a comedy club, there's a little more leeway or something. To that degree, I miss it a little bit. But it's nice being in theatres.
GM: When you say hovering just above anonymity, it reminds me of Brian Regan, who sells out theatres all over the place, says he can go a block away to a coffee shop and not a single person in there knows him.
DM: That's hilarious. He's such an interesting example because he's so funny and he's been great for so long. He's before me generationally because I remember seeing him on MTV Half-Hour Comedy Hour. It must have been the late-eighties. So he was famous back then. But yeah, out of the comedy bubble... And right, he's selling out. He's a big act. But it's not like Chappelle, of course. These guys are famous famous people.
GM: You've been at it since the late-nineties, right?
DM: Yeah, '97. Twenty years.
GM: Twenty years!
DM: Yeah, it was just my twenty-year anniversary.
GM: Wow. And today's my birthday.
DM: Oh, happy birthday!
GM: Thank you. You were last here on the JFL Tour. Was that a good experience?
DM: That was an okay experience. I was thinking about that when I was looking at my calls today. I had fun because I was with other comics. Sometimes I have an opener but I usually don't tour with other comics. But that was Jon Dore and Todd Glass and Levi MacDougall. So it was fun hanging out with everybody. But I remember in Vancouver it was pretty rowdy. I got heckled pretty badly. It was there, maybe Kelowna or Red Deer. There were a couple other stops where I had pretty rowdy crowds. And I realized, Oh, this is not fully my audience. So I said, 'Oh, I see what's going on here.' And I had to headline. I'm spoiled. I'm used to having my audience. People mess with me a little bit sometimes but not like that. But there it was like, 'Wow, this is really rowdy.'
GM: I didn't see the show but I heard you walked off the stage and then came back?
DM: Yeah, yeah. Sometimes if I'm not in the mood, I'm just like, 'You know what? When that guy leaves, then I'll come back out. I just don't feel like performing for him.' And then usually they take the guy out. It's funny, I think for twenty years in, a lot of us... I've handled plenty of hecklers; that's not the problem. But sometimes if you're on a tour and you're show-number-whatever, you're just like, 'You know what? I'm just too fucking tired, man. I don't really care. You want to be an asshole and bother everybody? Everybody paid to hear a show. I don't think they'll listen to you.' Usually venues are pretty good and they'll take the person out. Sometimes you're in the mood, like, 'Great, let's play' and then you practice dealing with hecklers. But other times you're like, 'Hey, you know, I have an act here. I kinda want to get through it' and they just keep disrupting and it's just like, 'Ach.' That's when you've been doing it a while.
GM: Your new show is called Let's Get Awkward. It sounds like it could make for an awkward situation when you come back on stage after walking off: 'Okay, everybody, let's laugh again!'
DM: Yeah, of course. Of course. The heckler always makes it weird. Yeah, I called it Let's Get Awkward because I'm just trying to open up more. I'm trying to share more personal things without telling my life story up there. I love jokes and I gravitate naturally to one-liners and kind of just material about things but I thought I'd go a little deeper, which is not my usual move.
GM: Are you trying to get personal or you want to avoid getting personal?
DM: No, no, I'm trying to get more personal. I'm trying to find a place that's just not telling your life's story. I dunno, sometimes it feels like in the era we live in right now for comedy there's a lot of over-sharing. It's like diarrhea of autobiography a little bit. I don't know. I've just not been attracted to telling my whole story up there but I think somewhere between that and doing jokes about balloons and chairs and stuff, there's a little more wiggle room for something that's based maybe a little bit more in emotion or what you feel, not just discrete thoughts.
GM: So this will be a combination of one-liners but more personally directed?
GM: And it's got to pass the Who Gives a Shit? test, I know that.
DM: You know it, yeah (laughs).
GM: I studied philosophy in university and I don't know if that's why I'm more interested in ideas in comedy rather than storytelling. It could just be a personal bias, but to me an observational or joke-comic is interesting to me. They look at the world in a unique way. With a storyteller, sometimes you get killer lines attributed to other people, like, "And then this guy said to me..."
DM: I think a good storyteller seems to have stories or material, longer bits, that are dense so that there is a lot to it. Sometimes when people tell a story, it does feel a little thinner. It feels a little bit lighter with less punchlines per minute. But also as I get older I'm realizing – you know, I care so much about laughs per minute and I'm trying to cut all the fat and have as many jokes as I can – and I'm realizing that a lot of people really don't care. It's just do they like the show and did they enjoy that performance? But I'd say I'm more probably in your camp, which is I loved philosophy when I was in school. I ended up as a history major but if I could go back, I think I would have ended up majoring in philosophy. It's just that I discovered those classes a little bit late in my college career and it was too late to accumulate enough to get that major. But those were, to me, some of the more stimulating classes and some ideas that have stayed with me the longest, questions that you think about. I've mentioned, I'm sure, in our discussions, of course Steven Wright was a comedian for me who made me think a little bit differently as a fan. Some great, economical, simple ideas in there that you kinda come back to. Which is different than somebody telling a long story about how they farted at a party or something. Okay, that could be funny but the stuff that stays with me tends to be more...
GM: It goes back to what you were saying, how subjective it all is. Everyone has their preferences but funny is funny.
DM: For sure. Richard Pryor is one of the all-time greats and one of my favourites. I could never be like Richard Pryor but I can really appreciate that kind of amazing comedian, storyteller, joke teller, he could do characters. I mean, he could kind of do everything. Sometimes I guess it's greater than the sum of its parts.
GM: Are you still bringing other elements to your shows, like with a guitar or drawing?
DM: I've been doing some guitar stuff and I have been drawing on some of the dates. I'm kinda back and forth with it because I introduced that stuff into my act because I like the experimentation in finding different ways to deliver the jokes, and then sometimes the pendulum swings back where it's like, 'All right, let me just do this. Let me take a more purist approach and just tell jokes.' I still enjoy the guitar. It's fun to play. And it's really just jokes, just lumping them together with either a visual aid or guitar or whatever. So I'll probably do some version of that.
GM: When I talked to you three years ago, you had finished filming Dean. What's the status of it now?
DM: It was just out. It was out over the summer. It was in theatres in a limited release – independent film and everything. And then on August 29 or somewhere around there it's going out on DVD, on-demand. I don't know if it ends up on Netflix or wherever it goes. But yeah, it's out, or has been out and now you can get it for your home viewing.
GM: Do you love it?
DM: It was really difficult to make a first movie. I'm sure I told you last time. It was really challenging. But now that I have some distance from it, I think, oh yeah, I want to do that again and not make those mistakes again. I feel like every new project you do is like a relationship. Like when you break up with someone, you're like, 'Let me try this.' And then you're like, 'No, I don't want someone like that.' But it just kinda helps you narrow down the right fit for you. So I hope with a slightly bigger budget, I'll get to shoot my second movie and then hopefully my third. And I've got a couple ideas. I want to make more movies.
GM: And each experience you'll have a bit more confidence, I would imagine.
DM: Yeah, for sure.
GM: But it's such a long process, isn't it? Like, three years ago you had filmed it, and it was out this summer. What was the total length of time.
DM: Yeah. I think it was even longer. It's such a small movie. I did a tour and a Netflix special in between. I didn't get to shoot everything I thought I was going to, so then I took more time in post, so it took even longer than it probably should have. But from script to finished product was probably about five years on and off working on it. So yeah, that was long. Especially because it's not like it was Star Wars; it was a low-budget 20-day shoot. It was a small movie but it took me a while to figure it out.
GM: Was there an animation aspect to it?
DM: No, but I did put some drawings in it. Short of animation, my character's an illustrator in the movie and there are a lot of inserts of drawings and there's some footage of me doing the drawings in the movie. So that was an extra little layer to it that I like. I think it has its own style, which is cool.
GM: I'm older than you but there was a sitcom I vaguely remember about an illustrator. Do you know that one?
DM: Was it Caroline in the City?
GM: No, it was much before that.
DM: Oh, no, I don't know.
GM: They had drawings in it. I gotta look that up. [It was called My Life and Welcome To It based on the writings of cartoonist James Thurber.] You've had a few books out now. Three?
DM: My third's coming out in September.
GM: Is that the one called If It's Not Funny, It's Art?
DM: Yeah. It's like my second book. All drawings, single panel line drawings, kind of like one per page. I'm excited about it. I think it came out really good. I'm excited for people to find that book.
GM: Is the title a truism with your drawings?
DM: Yeah, there's something funny to me about making cartoons or whatever you want to call them. They're supposed to be funny but they are also drawings. I like thinking that it's art either way.
GM: Do you have role models in your art like you do in comedy?
DM: Kind of. I have probably too many art books. In my travels, I usually end up in used book stores. I've been into Matisse lately, an influence on my work. I mean, it's not like I'm going to draw like Matisse or anything. I just read a biography of Matisse. I think it was called Matisse the Master. It was kind of sad. I didn't realize he had such a rough ride. Lately it's Matisse and the Fauves: like Derain, Vlaminck, or however you say these guys' names. But Saul Steinberg I really love, which could be closer to what I'm trying to do. But again, these are people that are beyond my reach. But it's still fun to look at the work of great artists. Who else? David Hockney. I'm a big David Hockney fan, as well.
GM: Do you paint, as well?
DM: Yeah. That's what I like to do at home, yeah. I do oils and acrylics. I haven't done much water colours. But yeah, I have some paintings up in my house that I've done. They're not masterpieces or anything but I find painting really enjoyable. I read a book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – his last name's very hard to spell and pronounce. But it was a pretty popular psychology book about the flow experience, when you're involved in something. It could be painting or rock climbing or playing an instrument or whatever. You kind of lose track of time and you get fully immersed in what you're doing. I find when I paint, I get that flow experience sometimes. It's really nice. It's like a real escape in doing that stuff.
GM: You're a real Renaissance man.
DM: It's interesting: if you lower the bar and don't worry too much about quality, then you can really be a Renaissance man. Just do all these different things. I don't have to be a world-class painter or anything.
GM: Do you have an opener for your show here?
DM: Yeah, I can't remember who it is but I do have an opener. Hold on, I'll tell you in a second... I think it's going to be Kyle Bottom.
GM: Great. Well, I hope you get your own audience back.
GM: It's been a pleasure talking to you again.
DM: Talk to you in three years.
GM: 2020, buddy.
DM: Okay, later. Oh, happy birthday!