“I remember flying back to New York and thinking, Okay, I tried to make a sitcom, and it didn’t work. So I’m going to do a one-man show. And you know what? I’ll guarantee that it will not be marketable. I will have no notes from anybody. And I will bask in the full creative control I can enjoy.” On that plane trip, Martin realized something else as well. So far, his act had consisted solely of one-liners, presented like Zen koans. (He has one joke that could serve as a personal credo: “Some jokes are short and elegant, like a mathematical proof, or a midget in a ball gown.”) Now he wanted to learn to connect with the audience. “Yes, the audience can sit there and say, That was a good joke about robots. Very interesting about fire hydrants. That’s true about snowmen. But how long can you do that for? We’re not robots,” he says. So he decided to write an hour-long show about himself: his obsession with wordplay, his nagging need for validation, his embarrassing arsenal of useless talents (a unicycle would make an appearance), and his habit, for a few years at least, of keeping a notebook in which he’d give himself points each week for doing things like eating vegetables, helping strangers, or demonstrating moral courage. And he decided this production would be a true one-man show, in that he’d do everything himself, right down to composing the music and sewing the costumes. The only problem with this plan was that he didn’t know how to play a musical instrument. Or sew.
But Martin has always had a childlike view of the world, in this sense: Everything is something he can learn how to do. So when he got back to New York from L.A., he bought himself a guitar, a few harmonicas, and a glockenspiel because it had the notes written right on the keys. He borrowed his mother’s sewing machine. A year later, he took his act, If I, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won the Perrier Award for best show.
These days, Martin does not have much time to daydream. He’s elbows-deep in every aspect of Important Things, from writing the theme song to drawing the cartoon clips. Also, he has a few side projects to worry about. The show’s original pilot was shot back in 2007, but the debut was delayed when, somewhat unexpectedly, Martin was cast in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a film about the rock concert, scheduled to come out this August. James Schamus, the CEO of Focus Features and the film’s screenwriter, had been shown a YouTube clip of Martin’s stand-up by his teenaged daughter. “I’d seen him on The Daily Show,” says Schamus. “But this was different. There was something so genuine about his sensibility.” He invited Martin to meet with Ang Lee, who later cast him in the film—as the lead. Martin plays Elliot Tiber, the gay-rights pioneer who helped organize Woodstock. Schamus was drawn to Martin because he’s “that kind of person who’s always standing a little bit outside, with an awkwardness that’s born out of self-knowledge and a truly analytical point of view. People like that tend to be snobs, but a few gentle souls have the ability to be both self-analytical and really nice. Most analytical types are above it all. Demetri’s more to the side of it all.”
And so, having taught himself to ride a unicycle, draw with both hands, and sew, Martin had a new challenge: Learn to act. “I think I’m a lot better than I was a year ago. I hope I am,” he says, as though he’s just spent a year in a night-school improv class, rather than starring in a film opposite Liev Schreiber.
Despite appearances, as a kid, Martin was not a comedy nerd. He grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, and he liked to skateboard and solve puzzles. At a young age, for no particular reason, he decided to become a corporate lawyer and followed that through two years of law school before dropping out before his final year. The very first time he did stand-up, he told twelve one-liners. Six worked and six bombed. (One of them survives to this day: “I once tripped on an escalator. I fell down the stairs for an hour and a half.”) But the next day he strolled the city listening to his act on a tape recorder. “I kept rewinding it to the jokes that worked, walking around with headphones on, thinking, This is amazing.”
His family, however, was not pleased with his decision. “They were like, You’re going to be a comedian? This is crazy. Just finish your last year.” There are no performers among his relatives. His mother, a former nutritionist, owns a diner with his uncle in Beachwood called the Sand Castle. His father, a Greek Orthodox priest, died of cancer in 1994. “I remember being at his wake,” Martin says. “It was an open casket. He was the priest of our parish, so there were a lot of people there, and there was the bishop and at least 50 priests, all wearing robes and capes. And then to see your father, just 46 years old, six-two, clean-shaven, a healthy, good-looking guy from Brooklyn, spirited and funny. And it’s almost like you have no proof of that guy. I thought, I’m never going to get his approval, or his disapproval. It’s a weird thing that a person can be full of so many complicated emotions and dreams and hopes and tribulations and heartbreak, and then they’re just gone.”