Interview: Demetri Martin still finds appreciation for the art of telling jokes

Via The Wilbur

Demetri Martin has been at this stand-up thing for a minute. With his tell-tale “one-liner” approach, and mix of stand-up, musical comedy and animation, he’s carved out quite a corner for himself in the comedy game.

But even after all this time, he still finds himself evolving and figuring out new ways to make his act better.

Bringing his I Feel Funny Tour to Boston’s Wilbur Theatre for two shows on Saturday (January 15), Martin carries with him a bonafide stock pile of new jokes and ideas that have simmered for the last three years, a renewed hunger for the stage, and a refreshed appreciation for the art of simply telling jokes.

Vanyaland had the chance to catch up with the comedian and author ahead of his stop in the Theatre District, where we chatted about everything from the anxiety of COVID-era travel planning and his medically necessary reset in 2019, to his admiration for Steven Wright and the thrill of looking back at old notebooks and set lists to see how far he’s come, creatively.

Check it out.

Jason Greenough: I’m glad we could reconnect, Demetri, and especially for such a great reason. You’ve got your I Feel Funny Tour coming up to Boston for two shows at The Wilbur. How are you feeling about making your way back to the city?

Demetri Martin: I’m looking forward to it. Maybe it’s because I’m so many years into it and it’s just the way the world is now, but the shows are always the best part, thankfully. Travelling is always the worst part, though, and I always worry about almost everything but the show leading up to it, until right before the show thanks to my classic last-minute cramming fashion like how I used to be in school.

I mean, I’ll have my material together, but I’m more worried about being on the plane, and I just saw something on the news about people in Virginia being stranded on the highway for 24 hours, and I’m flying to Virginia and driving up to Boston from there just to have one less flight and be in fewer airports. I hadn’t thought about that. So everything I’m worried about is travel related, but I’m actually really psyched to be coming to Boston to do these shows when I actually let my mind go there. But everything else, it’s all about where I go when I get to the airport, or finding a hotel room without having to use an elevator. It’s like a weird game or puzzle that I don’t even know if it’ll matter. I’m still going to wear my mask, but it’s like, am I still going to get it?

But as for the actual shows, I felt rusty when I started back up in September, and it only took one or two shows before I felt like I was back again, so I’m really looking forward to the shows themselves. I’ve continued to write, and I have a lot of material, so I don’t have to do anything old. It’s all new, with some of it being from 2019, but that’s still pretty new because I never got to do a special with that stuff. I don’t even think I’ve done The Wilbur since maybe 2018 or 2017, so I’m really looking forward to getting back there because the crowds have always consistently been great there. I always have fun there, and I found a good hotel and I have my rental car, so once I get all that stuff out of the way, I can focus on the whole reason why I’m doing this. I have this new material, and in my middle age here, I don’t feel like I’m getting worse. You just sort of hit your stride. I know my voice and what I do, and I love doing crowd work. It’s all of that stuff, and I was kind of surprised at how quickly everything came back to me when I was on stage. I didn’t feel too quick on the spontaneous stuff, but that only took a couple of shows to get back to.

Jumping off of that, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that with each new show, you present a bit more creative evolution than the last one. With that in mind, what can fans expect from this new show, and how did your time away from the stage leading up to late last year affect your writing process?

I don’t know how much it goes into my stand-up, but I’ve been playing a lot of music. I’ve been practicing a lot and trying to learn music a little bit better. I don’t think I’m all that naturally good at it, but I’m a fan of it and I like it a lot, and I think that’s slowly filtering into my act. Not like I’m doing comedy songs or anything like that, but I’m trying to put a little more production value into the show. I have an eye toward a new special, or maybe even two since I have so much material, and in the last one (2018’s The Overthinker), I had some voiceover stuff, and splitscreens with my drawings and that was done in the edit, so I sort of allocated some screen space in real time where I knew the screen was going to split. It’s fun to think about stand-up shows as two things. First, it’s the show itself, which is what people are paying to see primarily, so that’s what I want to give primarily, but for a lot of us that do specials, you’re basically rehearsing for it as you go along. The first specials, now years and years ago, were really about recording a live event, almost like a document of ‘this is what the live show was like.’ It is primarily still that, but it’s for me to think about that, plus what can you do on a screen that is different or enhanced from the live experience. That’s where I get into music and cutaways, or maybe homemade animation. I think about different angels, like on the series I had for Comedy Central, there were times where the camera would be showing my hands doing something. So, I like to think about that kind of stuff while I’m touring, and see what fits best in certain spots, and where I could cut away. In the live show, you might not get that much of it, but you’ll get some of it, and you’ll see a bit more production value in it. Stuff like that is really fun to do while on the way to filming something.

Right on. I, for one, enjoy seeing that ‘brick-by-brick’ building of a special.

It’s cool to see stuff evolve, for sure. When you do a bunch of one-liners, and you have a lot of short jokes in the act, what’s interesting as the comic, for me, is that every night is a change, fix upgrade, expand each joke. Whatever you want to do. Taking jokes out on the road, I’ve done them in small rooms, and I’ve done them in theaters, so I’m coming with a bunch of material that usually works. I’m not going to experiment too much on people who bought tickets, got a babysitter, and are going through COVID protocols. But what’s nice is that, with each joke, there’s a chance to find a new ending. There’s still a chance for it to find a place to live in a spontaneous space. So, whether it’s a tag or a bit that leads to another bit like connective tissue, that’s still maybe the most fun part for a comic who has been doing it for awhile. You can still write on stage. Aside from crowd work and improv, it’s just that you’re heads in a certain space for a certain joke, so when I’m rested like I will be for these shows, I’m excited to do that. It’s not show 27 of 50 where I’m feeling run down. I’ve had a long break, I’m hungry to get back on stage, and while these jokes aren’t broken, maybe I can fix a few of them.

Sometimes it feels like a joke is done, and it could be finished with only a punchline or two, but other times, it could be a bigger payoff to a larger idea. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes I get that. For the audience, especially when it’s coming from a joke-teller, it can infuse more energy and present-tense into the jokes themselves.

Leading up to your fall tour in 2019, you had to cancel the whole thing because you had gotten sick. How did that whole experience affect your approach to the stage? You mention that hunger of wanting to get back to it. How did that affect it going into last year?

Before anybody knew there would be a pandemic, there were two or three years where I was doing a lot of dates every year. Those were pretty heavy years, and at the time, my wife was like ‘I think you’re overdoing it,’ but I just wanted to try and get the most out of the material and support my family, so I totally ran myself into the ground, and I didn’t even know what I was doing to myself. Before the pandemic hit, I had to cancel those shows, and thankfully I’m totally fine now, but it takes a lot for me to cancel shows. Not only is it disappointing for fans, but it can also damage your credibility, and I hadn’t done that before. So, I was just at home because I couldn’t physically do it. I wasn’t up for getting on planes or anything. I just couldn’t do it.

As much as it was a disappointment, it was also a relief because I was able to rest. Then the pandemic hit, and what I was surprised by, personally, was that I didn’t miss doing stand-up for, like, nine months. I thought after a month or two, I’d be ready to get back to it, but it wasn’t there. I’m not happy there’s a pandemic , but I was happy to be home without thinking of stand-up or anything like it.

So, it was like a nice little reset button, in a way?

It was a total reset for me. Call it amateur or hobby or whatever, but I like drawing and painting, and I started making outdoor furniture for my house, and I was making mobiles out of little pieces of wood. It’s not a career for me, and I don’t think it’s my calling, but it was very fulfilling for me.I also have a book that I’ve been working on for years that I made some good headway on. I still haven’t finished it, and my wife jokes with me about how if I don’t finish it during the pandemic, I’ll never get it done. I mean, I am, but I’m learning how to write fiction better.

So, all of that stuff made for a giant reset for me, and real time away from stand-up, both physically and mentally. I wasn’t thinking about jokes, or chasing it the way I had, so coming back to it really gave me a new appreciation for it, and for just telling jokes. I have a personal hang-up sometimes that I’m just doing a lot of jokes and not doing these big stories or stuff that seems more ‘relevant’ for the times, but I got into this to do jokes, and artistically, it’s just what comes to me. I feel like I’ve lost touch with the scene, and sometimes it just feels like I’m lost at sea, but the jokes still come, and I like jokes in the structure of a joke, instead of the podcast, storytelling, autobiography bubble. I just still like jokes. I know there are other comics who do one-liners, and short jokes but it doesn’t seem like there are many out there right now building shows on that stuff.

It’s hard to pump out new hours when you’re doing a lot of new material in the hour. If you tell funny stories, they may not be packed with punchlines, but it keeps an audience engaged, and you get to tell five or six stories and you’ve got an hour or more. I’m doing 120 jokes during an hour, so it’s just different. There’s a lot more premises. At its worst, it can be a lot less personal, but at its best, it can be personal and creative, and it moves unexpectedly and can change where the show is going.

Just because you aren’t talking about politics or COVID doesn’t mean you aren’t doing what you do with passion. A lot of people just want well-crafted jokes to make them laugh, and you’ve put the work in. It definitely shows.

For sure. I’m often touched when people contact me, and tell me it’s their third or fourth time coming to see me, and it just makes me feel really grateful. I just feel grateful for the people that come back over the years, and I make sure that they’re not seeing the same stuff, because that would suck. If I were the eperson coming to the show, I don’t want to already know most of the material. If it stays new, it feels worth it to come back. It’s really a pretty simple formula.

Well, it seems like people in the area are welcoming you back pretty warmly. It always feels like a major event separate from the rest of your shows when you make your way back here.

For sure. That feels good.

Like I’ve said before, I love Steven Wright. When I first saw him on TV when I was in high school, he stood out for me personally. What he does just spoke to me in a different way. There are a lot of comedians that I’ve enjoyed, but then sometimes, you don’t know why, but that kind of delivery speaks to you, whether it’s due to it also being how you feel about something or whatever it may be. When I was in college, I got the chance to see Steven live in New Haven. It was awesome. I didn’t even know that I was going to be a comic, or that I was going to try stand-up at that point, but I was just a fan of comedy at the time. I know Steven now, and while I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, he’s always been gracious to me, and to me, it’s important to tell people that he’s an influence on me. There’s no secret there.

At the same time, I’ve been at it for so long, that you can’t help but become yourself and I suppose I have my own branch now, but I have to credit him for inspiring me. In the ‘80s, there were a lot of comics who were wearing a blazer and doing observations, and a lot of them were really funny, but there’s something different about that guy. It was very lean and economical, with no hoopla in the delivery, and I just absolutely love that.

Do you ever think about how you looked up to Steven because he was doing something different, but now, for a certain generation of comedy fans, you’re now that for them? Instead of Steven, now there’s Steven, and you, and folks like Jimmy Carr doing this style of comedy. There’s a whole category now, and you guys are the vanguards of it.

I think that’s true. For Steven’s time, there was Henny Youngman before him, and I’m sure plenty of others, but only so many are lucky to break through enough that people would know them. I guess, if you could sub-categorize all these different types of stand-up, there would be a lot of guys and women like this one, but back then, there were fewer comics. Now there are twenty of this type, and fifty of that type.

Absolutely. And that’s great to see. As someone who has followed your work for a long time, it’s great to see how you’ve evolved in that sense too.

I’ve been a pretty diligent writer over the years, and one of the things I’ve done over the pandemic is that I’ve gone through all these old notebooks in trying to organize and get rid of stuff. So I have notebooks and binders from way back with setlists that have just a list of words, and usually I can remember the jokes just by one word, but sometimes, I have no idea what the hell I was thinking about at the time.It probably wasn’t a good joke because I don’t remember it, so there’s a lot of little mysteries in there, but I can also read a lot of jokes that i wrote out by hand, and see a bunch of things. One of which is just how many horrible jokes there are, which also gives me pride because it shows that I powered through instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. I can see a lot of those shitty jokes, but I can also see themes where I tried to write a joke about balloons for, like, seven years. Not in a row, but there will be one from 2002, and then I revisited the topic in 2009. It’s cool to see your own neuro pathways travelling through the paper, and see that I either never got it, or I got it right at some point and it made it into a special.

Down to my last question, what are you looking forward to most about coming back to Boston after all that time away, with this show?

It might sound a little sentimental, but when I got to come back and do some shows in Massachusetts back in the fall, I didn’t realize just how much I missed connecting with an audience. I feel very lucky that over the years, I haven’t had just the good fortune to do a lot of shows and tour and go to all these different places, but I just almost always get crowds that have this warmth. I always feel like I get a good room where people are just warm. I get heckled every once in a while, just like everyone else, but with my shows, I’ve found that if you’re doing it right and you’re being authentic, then what you get from the room is a reflection of what you’re giving. 

Sometimes, I get wrapped up in how I want things to go, that I forget about the people who actually show up to the show, and how an audience is an organism, made up of all these individuals who are all different from each other, but the audience as a whole winds up having a character. It’s just weird to me, so I missed that, and I’m looking forward to that.

Of course, every city has its variations from night to night, but I just feel super lucky to get the crowds I get, and that has me excited to come back east. Even with masks, and the pandemic still going on, and the exhaustion we’re all feeling from the political divisiveness, just getting in the room to laugh and take a break is great. It’s not shitty or uneasy. It just really feels a bit more together.

DEMETRI MARTIN :: Saturday, January 15 at The Wilbur, 246 Tremont St. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m. (sold out) & 9:45 p.m., $39 :: Wilbur event page and ticket link