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Professor of Comedy: Brainiac Demetri Martin At the Palace of Fine Arts Tomorrow Night

The father of an old friend once shared some sage wisdom with me, albeit reluctantly, lowering his voice as if he were divulging an insider’s stock tip: “When meeting someone for the first time, usually the first sign of intelligence is a sense of humor.” His thesis still seems far-fetched some ten years later, but then I talk to someone like Demetri Martin, a Yale graduate and a former NYU Law student who also happens to be one of the funniest people on the planet.

I ask Martin about the theory, and his response is professorial. Actually, he says, there are seven different types of intelligence, none of which are technically “funny” — linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. But perhaps Martin, who has become a jack of multiple trades since his early standup days in NYC — he's corresponded for “The Daily Show,” recorded a few hit standup specials and a sketch series for Comedy Central, written a book and starred in a film or two (like his most recent turn in “Contagion”) — has found a career that involves all of said intelligences.

We recently caught up with him in advance of his upcoming gig tomorrow at the Palace of Fine Arts to discuss his career in motion and the nature of the biz:

I've always amazed by the volume of jokes you’re able to squeeze into a set. I imagine your apartment filled with notepads of observations and thoughts, and I’m curious about your process. Has it changed over the years?

When I started doing standup years ago, that was the first time I had a notebook that was for creative stuff. In college I had a notebook for class but not for my ideas. I’d think of a joke and say to myself, 'OK, I’ll remember that.' Then I realized ‘oh no, I often forget,’ and realized I should just write everything down. I realized I should write everything down, because I never know what’s going to be useful. Then I realized I should get more organized about it, and thought if I can get notebooks that are kind of the same size and catalogue them somehow, then if I ever have opportunities to make a TV show or a movie or write a book, then I'll be able to go back through my material. Some of it I’ll look back on and it won’t be useful for anything, but sometimes I’ll go back and realize that a joke will work for stand-up, or I'll say to myself ‘wait a minute, that could be a drawing.’ And I’ll draw it. Now what I do is I have just my latest notebook and each day I keep it with me and whatever comes in my head I’ll put in there. So the notes are all over the place, but if I go back through them with a specific search criterion in mind then I can usually find what I'm looking for.

I’m curious also about how you’re able to remember your jokes. Do you use mnemonics or is it based on routine…?

I’ve done that in the past. Things chunk themselves together. I have little key words on my notes near my water and I’ll glance at a word and it can kind of trigger a chunk. I used to use a mnemonic where I would do a sequence and visualize different, weird pictures that go with a joke. So if I just glance and have a grab bag of things I can go to. Somebody like Stephen Wright, I still don’t know how he does what he does. Those are really all one liners. It’s just him wandering around.

He was one of the comics you were first drawn to. Was that what you were most impressed by? His sheer memory?

No, this was back in the '80s watching TV. I didn’t have any comedy records, I wasn’t a comedy nerd like a lot of my friends who know all these old bits and have this guy's seven albums and so on. For me, it was just watching TV in the '80s. He was one of the only ones where I thought I just couldn’t predict his punchlines and just didn’t know what his deal was.

It is interesting because a lot people compare you to other comics, but not necessarily Stephen Wright—

Which is so funny to me because I say in interviews that’s who I’m influenced by. Of course, people have compared me to him too, but it’s funny how much you get compared to whatever. I was influenced by Stephen Wright and Gary Larson.

Do you think you’re getting to a point where you can safely say ‘this is ridiculous, I’m Demetri Martin, I’ve made a name for myself and I’m not a spitting image of these other people,’ and maybe other comics will start to be compared to you?

Maybe. I think after going through the TV show and having written a few TV pilots that didn’t become shows, I feel like life is better if I try to get my satisfaction, enjoyment and self worth and all that from how many things I’m making. Because when it comes to selling them and seeing how they're received, that seems closer to gambling where I don’t really have control over the outcome. That becomes kind of a dicey area because people’s opinions matter to me when I’m in the room. I’m making comedy to share with other people. Where it’s tricky is reviews, blogs, Twitter, social media, people’s opinions as individuals. I never feel better after looking at that stuff. 

Was that part of why you chose to write a book?

I put it off and procrastinated while I was writing a pilot. And I thought it was going to be hard — and it certainly wasn’t easy — but I liked it a lot. So now I’m looking forward to making other books. In a way, I got to be in a vacuum. It’s hard because I don’t know what people are liking in the book. I don’t have the audience feedback along the way, but even with that kind of pitfall, I still enjoyed working on it.

Do you feel like you’re kind of different than most comics in that you’re more introverted?

I think it depends of course on the comedian’s style. I know guys who like spending time alone. I think a lot of comedians are more introverted than people would think. There are plenty who are not, and on all the time. Before I started doing this, I thought a comedian more as someone who is the life of the party, but I think there are plenty who are like me. I don’t do as many shows and sets as I used to. When I lived in New York it was easier to get shows and stage time, once you’ve been around a bit. In California you have to drive to do your set and there aren’t as many rooms. So that equals for me less time trying out short sets and means more time on the road where I go and do a longer set somewhere. I don’t have an entourage, I just travel alone. Or if someone’s opening for me, then maybe it’s just me and another guy, and that just lends itself to more introspection.

I’ve listened to you in interviews before and just talking to you now it seems like you can really tell a good story. Have you ever considered adopting that as a style, instead of your joke-driven conceit?

I don’t know what it is, I think I just love jokes because I like puzzles so much. So a lot of the pleasure for me as a comic is the time I spend alone just coming up with jokes. It’s like a game each day.