Timing Is Everything

Photo: Jake Chessum

On January 20, the day Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th president and George W. Bush officially left office, not only ending eight years of political turmoil but robbing the nation’s comedians of arguably their most fertile punch line since Gerald Ford tripped down a flight of jet stairs, Demetri Martin was not indulging in his usual hobbies, like composing palindromes or teaching himself to write with both hands simultaneously. Instead, he was sitting in an editing suite on Hudson Street, considering a joke about dolphins.

The joke, as told onscreen by an animated version of Martin, went like this: “My friend asked me if I’d ever swam with dolphins. I said, Yeah, of course. [Pause.] Wait. What distance are we talking about? [Pause.] From the dolphins. [Pause.] Because last time I was in the ocean, I’m pretty sure I swam with most of them. [Pause.] Think about it. [Pause. Pause. Pause.] All right.”

Martin, along with one of his writers, Michael Koman, whom he’d met while working on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and an editor, Bryan Shelton, was cutting together an episode of his forthcoming show, Important Things With Demetri Martin. They needed to get the episode down to 22 minutes for its premiere on Comedy Central on February 11. They’d been at this process, on various episodes, for weeks. (When Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River, Martin didn’t know about it until he saw the plane being towed along in the river outside the building’s window.) As a result, the editing suite had the slightly stale air of a missile-firing silo in which the men, bleary-eyed, have been locked together for too long, hands on the firing keys, ready to launch.

Someone floated the idea that they could save a few seconds by lopping off the “All right,” but Martin objected. That final beat, he argued, makes the joke, like a gymnast sticking the perfect landing. They watched it again. Martin was right.

Important Things is produced by Jon Stewart, which is fitting because if Stewart was the comedic face of the first decade of the 21st century, then Martin may be the face of the next one. As a stand-up comedian, Martin has made his name with jokes that are short and punchy and stealthily smart, like elegantly assembled pipe bombs packed with explosive absurdity. For example: “A drunk driver is very dangerous, but so is a drunk backseat driver, if he’s persuasive.” Or, “I was walking down the street and this guy waved at me. Then he said, ‘I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else. And I said, ‘I am.’ ” Or, “If I ever see an amputee being hanged, I think I’ll just start shouting out letters.”

His TV show, like his act, incorporates these jokes, along with drawings, and guitar-playing, and pie charts, and sketch comedy, and anagrams, and animation, and guitar-playing-with-harmonica-and-a-tambourine-tied-to-one-foot. What it doesn’t incorporate is jokes about politics, or Bush, or what-the-hell-is-happening-to-this-country, or any references to the general cultural lunacy of the type that have made Stewart and Stephen Colbert so successful. With its hybrid of stand-up and sketches, Martin’s show is more reminiscent of Chappelle’s Show, except without the racial edge—as if Dave Chappelle were a white guy who went to Yale and was obsessed with palindromes.

Which brings us back to Obama’s inauguration. Comedy, like politics, is about the right man at the right moment. Jerry Seinfeld landed on TV in 1990 as the apotheosis of the eighties “What’s-the-deal-with?” observational-comedy boom. Jon Stewart emerged in 2000 as the righteous, eye-rolling poster boy for Bush-era comedic rage. So if the last election signaled a free-floating desire among young people to embrace a shift toward the smart, the different, and the new, then Demetri Martin is a man arriving at the exact right moment. Put another way, if Obama was the candidate of people who like to feel hopeful and smart, then Demetri Martin just may be the Barack Obama of comedy.

Think about it. [Pause.] All right.

In person, Martin is thoughtful and self-effacing, articulate, and only occasionally prone to getting lost in the culs-de-sac of his own digressions. His mind works like a Rube Goldbergian contraption that’s constantly spitting out offbeat observations and half-formed premises. Most of these ideas will find their way into one of his notebooks, which he has custom-made at Kinko’s and which are jam-packed with scribbles and jottings and drawings that may one day grow up to be jokes. He’s 35, lives in Brooklyn Heights, and has a girlfriend. (He was once married.) He’s partial to New Balance shoes, hoodie sweatshirts, and T-shirts he’s drawn himself, like one that reads PERSON. (He finds extreme literalism very funny; one of his comedy albums is titled These Are Jokes.) At first glance, he could be any cuddly emo-boy you’d encounter in a Williamsburg bar. In fact, with his taste for clever allusions, hand-drawn graphics, and finger-plucked guitar riffs, he can sometimes come across like a stand-up comedian that Wes Anderson would dream up for a movie. To some people, this makes him adorable. To others, he might seem toxically twee—people who prefer their comedy in the form of, say, the shrieking indignation of Lewis Black or the abrasive subversion of Bill Hicks. The jokes, though, are hard to resist. For example: “I went into a store and the saleslady said, ‘If you need anything, I’m Jane.’ And I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never met anyone with a conditional identity before. If I don’t need anything, who are you then?’ ” Or, “ ‘Sort of’ is just conversational filler, but after certain phrases, it can mean everything. Like, ‘I love you.’ Or, ‘You’re going to live.’ ” Or, “Drummers are cool. Until you put them in a circle.”

Photo: Jake Chessum

Of all the decisions that have led Martin to this particular moment—the time he decided to drop out of NYU law school to become a comedian, even though he’d never done stand-up before; or the time he was flying home from L.A. after finding out NBC had canned his sitcom; or the time he attended his father’s funeral and realized, at age 20, just how short life is and how easily it can all disappear—perhaps the most significant was the time he decided to teach himself to write with his left hand. “I looked at my hands and thought, Why is it so hard to write with my nondominant hand?” he says. “What am I taking for granted in my regular dominant hand?” So for two months, he decided to write only lefty. This is the kind of challenge he habitually, almost compulsively, creates for himself. “His whole life is meticulous,” says his friend John Oliver of The Daily Show. “That’s his means of getting through the day. He lives his life like some kind of Greek mathematical genius. But try ordering with him in a diner.”

Writing left-handed, of course, made it much harder for Martin to jot down ideas for jokes. He decided to make this a game. He’d try to write each joke in as few words as possible. “I’d be like, This joke has twelve words. That’s so cool. This joke has seventeen words. That’s okay. But this joke has 22 words. That seemed like a concession.”

He sometimes likes to think of these short jokes as fractals, an idea he came across while reading James Gleick’s Chaos. “I thought, this is so interesting, this concept of self-similarity—how, if you have infinite resolution, you can see a pattern in a system repeating itself again and again.” In other words, he figured that if you can compose a successful six-word joke, you can build a six-minute set. And if you build a successful six-minute set, you can build a 60-minute act. And with a 60-minute act, you can conquer the world—or, at least, the nerd-hearted portion of the world that’s likely to respond to a comedian who’s prone to thinking of his jokes as fractals.

I first saw Martin perform live at the Zipper Theater back in 2005, and I remember having two reactions: Wow, this guy is really funny, followed shortly by Wow, what the hell is anyone ever going to do with him? His jewel-cut punch lines and homemade pie charts didn’t seem obviously transferable to, say, a buddy-stoner comedy. He readily acknowledges his two most apparent influences: the laconic one-liner kingpin Stephen Wright and Gary Larson, creator of the “Far Side” cartoons. And when he started doing stand-up in 1997, he was often warned his energy was too low and his jokes were too cerebral. He recalls, “I couldn’t believe it was a liability to be cerebral. I couldn’t believe that was going to be my Achilles’ heel.” His career thus far has been marked by smart people identifying his talent yet never quite finding the right way to showcase it. He spent a year writing for Conan, where his favorite segment to work on was “Actual Items,” because he could go off alone, flip through magazines, and let his mind wander. He later did a half-dozen “Trendspotting” segments for The Daily Show, in which he parodied youth-trend reporting, but his bits, while funny, seemed at odds with the mock-gravitas bombast of the show. “Sometimes Jon [Stewart] would say, ‘You’ve got good jokes in here, but it’s just too atmospheric,’ ” Martin says. “ ‘It needs to be more relevant.’ And I am typically not that relevant as a performer. Political stuff is not a good fit for me. I like to daydream.”

Not long after I saw Martin at the Zipper, I heard that NBC had given him a deal to write a sitcom, which seemed like a hilariously unlikely union. It was hard to imagine him hanging out in a café with a gang of four wacky friends, or living next door to a hot single mom with an adorable kid. Sure enough, the sitcom he wrote, called Williamsburg, about a George Plimpton–style participatory journalist, didn’t get produced.

It was the second time he’d tried to write a sitcom—the first was in 2001, after he did a “New Faces” show at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival, at a time when networks were still trawling for the next Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano, and a crisp six minutes could land you a six-figure development deal. “People would do these sets that were like, ‘My mom is such a character! And my neighbor … ’ so the executives in the audience could say, ‘Yes, we can see your show. It’s your mom, and your neighbor, and you,’ ” he recalls now. “But my set was just one-liners.” Even so, the one-liners were funny, and Martin, with his camera-friendly looks and relatable slacker vibe, seemed like comedic clay that could be molded into a TV star. So he flew to L.A. and wrote a pilot with two veteran sitcom writers, in which he winds up living next to a single mom with an adorable kid. It didn’t get picked up.

A set list, postshow: The circled jokes did best. Martin sent a whole scrapbook of material to the magazine; the Post-its are his notes to us.Photo: Jake Chessum

“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.”

A diagram of an anagram: Demetri Martin, rearranged.Photo: Jake Chessum

Now he thinks a lot about permanence. He dreams of writing a book, directing a movie, inventing a thing. He’s not sure what kind of thing exactly. Something practical and permanent and elegant. As a kid he’d stick his hand out the car window, feel how strong the wind was, then imagine inventing a tiny windmill you could attach to the car to power your Sony Walkman. (“Of course, if my detraction from the car’s aerodynamic qualities is so great that it adds a significant amount of drag over time, thereby burning more gas, I’m basically using gas to power my windmill,” he says now, somewhat sheepishly.) He occasionally likes to visit the design section at MoMA to stand and admire a lamp, or a chair, or even a doorstop in which, by removing the extraneous parts, the designer has revealed the essential object. “There’s a certain simple concrete permanence to an object that a joke just doesn’t have,” he says. So far, though, he’s only built jokes.

On a frigid December night at the tail end of last year, 200 or so fans trekked up to the Metropolis Studio at 106th and Park Avenue to watch a taping of Martin’s show. He often jokes that when he got his trademark mop-top haircut, he accidentally asked for “Gay Beatle,” and there’s a definite tinge of Demetrimania in the air. The largest subset of the crowd in the studio is college-age kids, and the largest subset of that is college-age girls. When Martin appears and opens the floor to questions, one opportunistic woman yells out, “Marry me?”

The show’s logo is a stick-figure riff on da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and the set, with its wood-paneled walls, looks like an homage to seventies-era kids’ programs or, as Martin says, “a failed porn producer’s basement.” Later, after flubbing a line during a stand-up bit, he jokingly calls himself a “retard,” then pauses and says, “Er, drat. It’s an anagram of ‘retard.’ I only now realized that.” Then he points out to the audience, by way of apology, that “Demetri” is an anagram for “Me tried.”

“When you’ve been developing comedy for a long time,” says Lauren Corrao, the president of original programming at Comedy Central, “you start to feel that there are only three formats: narrative, sketch, or reality. But Demetri’s show is authentic. It has this handmade quality.” Martin has six writers working with him, as well as a troupe of sketch actors (one highlight: a sketch, not starring Martin, titled “This Is an S&M Couple Whose Safe Word Is ‘Bill Pullman,’ ” which ends with a man in leather being hit with a cricket bat and yelling, “It’s that guy! You know! The actor! What’s his name!”). In essence, though, Important Things is another one-man show. And watching it is like being invited on a guided tour of Martin’s daydreams.

He recalls a day, years ago and not long after he started in stand-up, when he went to the Museum of Television and Radio to watch clips of comics on TV. He watched Woody Allen on The Jack Paar Tonight Show and Richard Pryor on The Ed Sullivan Show. He watched comics throughout the decades, from Bob Newhart to George Carlin to Jerry Seinfeld to Janeane Garofalo. Each decade had its representative comedians, its signature voice. Then the reel ended. “And I remember feeling so excited when I left, because I realized the next chapter was still being written. And I thought, What’s it going to be? Because you see all these icons and legends, and then—blank.”

On second thought, Martin is not the Obama of comedy. After all, the world is just as messed up as it was last year, maybe more so. There’s still plenty to be outraged about, plenty of bozos for sharp comedians to shred and skewer. All the one-liners and anagrams in the world won’t remedy that. But there’s a part in If I where Martin talks about how, when he looks at signs on the street, the letters seem to rearrange themselves before his eyes, Mobil transforming magically into Limbo. He’s learned to believe that “there’s a parallel world right in front of us that’s revealed with a small shift in perspective.” Inside the studio, on that frigid night, the audience seems eager for the refuge of parallel worlds. Everyone’s glad to gather here in this bubble of pure absurdity, thrilled to watch six words become six minutes, and six minutes become a half-hour, and that half-hour, if it doesn’t change the world, at least allows them to escape it for awhile.

Excerpts From Martin’s Scrapbooks

See Also

Timing Is Everything