Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sepinwall on TV: 'Important Things with Demetri Martin' interview

In today's column, I profile Jersey guy Demetri Martin, whose new Comedy Central series "Important Things with Demetri Martin" debuts tomorrow night at 10:30.

I liked it quite a bit, and one of the things I liked about it was the brevity of the humor. Martin's stand-up (which is peppered throughout the show) is built largely on one-liners, and some of the sketches don't run much longer than that. So I suppose it's ironic that Martin the interview subject isn't quite as concise as Martin the comedian. Near the end of our conversation, he apologized for the length of each answer, saying his publicists had been asking him to keep things tighter; I told him that I'd likely run the full transcript -- which follows after the jump -- and it would be fine.

One of the things that struck me about the show is that it contains a lot of elements I'd seen previously in your stand-up specials. When you were coming up with the idea for the series, was it case of you saying, "I need something where I can draw, where I can play the guitar"? How many ideas did you go through before you landed on this one?

That's a surprisingly insightful question for someone who hasn't been involved in the whole editing process. I wish I had that kind of foresight when I went into the show. What I wanted to do, initially, was sketches. I wanted to see if I could get laughs doing scene work, and I debated whether I should do any studio stuff, any stand-up to wrap around it. "Should there be a live audience or shouldn't there?"

I was thinking I wanted to branch out. Anyone who knows my work would know that, "Oh, this guy does stand-up, and he has drawings and stuff." Anybody who doesn't know me wouldn't even know that, but for the people who know me, at least they'd get to see me doing something a little bit different. But then, in the process, I couldn't help myself, and it migrated back towards what I had ended up putting into my stand-up stuff. Some of the drawing stuff, where I'm drawing with both hands, that was shot very late in the process, I just wanted to do some drawings. And we added in a few jingles.

Now, through the process of editing and building the show, I think we found a way to trim a lot of the fat that would come in exposition and replace it with, I don't know, demonstrated bits. I don't know what the word is, but they're illustrative in a way: drawings, and little songs. The connective tissue ends up being the stuff I've done in my stand-up specials. It gives it a better pace.

In terms of trimming the fat, one of the things I like is the way you use the subtitles to set up the joke, and you can get in and out very quickly. Some of those sketches are like 15 seconds long.

That was one of the earliest things I figured out. I said, "I think I want to have these things called 'This is,' and forget about any kind of long walk into something, and figure out what's the core of the idea I'm trying to get across. Those are my favorite things, because they're between a traditional sketch format and stand-up. It's kind of like a one-liner, but you're showing it instead of telling it.

Even the stand-up that you see comes from a much longer bit of stand-up, like I'm up there for a while telling these jokes about timing. And when we watched it in editing, we realized, "Yeah, okay, we get it. Come on." So to just come in in the middle of the jokes was such an elegant way to get rid of some stuff. I said, "Ah, this is so much better. This seems like the show."

How much of the material from the show is pre-existing, or was it all invented for this?

It's a good amount. I don't know if it would be 50-50, but as the stand-up goes, there's a good amount. I haven't put any stand-up on television since the last special that came out at the start of 2007, but I write jokes all the time, and it's nice to say, "Okay, if we're doing these episodes, let's go through this pile of jokes and see what applies." But I wrote some new jokes for the show.

The data stuff, most of that in any episode, was not only not pre-existing, but most of it I wrote with a couple of other guys the week of the studio shoot. And some of that, I didn't even know we were going to do until the last minute. Our crew was great. We had a couple of graphics guys backstage, the audience would be loading in, and I would just be drawing stuff with a marker, and someone would run it to the graphics guys and they would scan it in. The nice thing about having low-fi graphic elements is that you can be last minute with everything. I don't recommend it for anybody, because it can be kind of stressful to have all this nightmare of production, but with that aside, it was cool, last minute, to think of a couple of jokes, someone scans it in, and then it's on a screen behind me and I'm telling a joke I've never told before, that I didn't even write the week before. Some of those things worked really well, and I thought, "Great, there's a segment we can work into the show."

But the sketches, they weren't pre-existing. I don't really have a background in writing sketches. I wrote for Conan for a year, but that's a different form. They're not really these kinds of sketches.

How many other writers are there besides you on this?

There were six. The show got picked up before the writers strike started. I made a call for submissions, I put together a packet and said, "Here's my template." I put together something on the subject of fire, and people just would write a sketch about fire, a couple of jokes about fire, any other random ideas about fire. I think 106, 107 people ended up applying. I had people cover up the names on the packets, and I read through every page of that stuff, not knowing who was a friend, who wasn't, and picked some people off of that. At the same time, I had a couple of friends I wanted to hire. The head writer is this guy named Michael Koman, who was a writer at Conan for about 7 years. He's a great guy, really funny. It was a treat -- he left Conan to work on my show. It wasn't so much poaching as he wanted to try something different. Jon Benjamin is one of the writers on the show, he's also one of the performers. He's great. That's a funny, funny guy.

Is it nice to have these other people around you? Your style is very idiosyncratic, and yet you were able to find other people to write the way you think.

The nice thing was, it was very collaborative. Every show works differently in how the writers room goes. It was fun. The most fun part of this thing was the very beginning. I always like the beginnings of things, because there's much more possibility, and less deadlines and things having to get done. So we could just be in a room and throw out ideas. We'd do stuff like, "What should these episodes be? You know what: feathers. Everybody go to your office, think about feathers, and any premises you can come up with, and we'll come back in an hour, two hours, and everyone can read out their favorite ideas. And we'll see what that generates." And then we could say, "I liked your pillow factory idea. You write that up. I'll do this one." And as we got closer to production, the pile would narrow down, and we'd also get a better idea of what the show was and what would belong. "As opposed to a fake documentary, let's do this actual scene." I was involved through this whole process, so it wasn't like scripts were presented to me. It was more of a discussion. People would work in different groups. The nice thing is, I got to be in everything, so if I had to change lines, I could put them into my voice. I'm a new actor, too. So I'm asking, "Can I even do this? Can I be angry in a scene? I'm not sure I can do this."

There's a joke you tell in one of the episodes: "I saw a door with a sign that said, 'This door must be closed at all times.' And I'm like, 'Dude, you're thinking of a wall!'" That seems very Steven Wright-esque, in a way. I'm wondering if he's one of your influences, and who some of the others might be.

I love Steven Wright. I was in high school in the '80s, and there was a lot of stand up on television. I remember watching "Stand Up Spotlight" on VH1, and these shows. A lot of times I would watch the comedians, and I don't know that I would laugh, but I would start to analyze it, try to predict the punchlines and see where things are going. One time I saw Steven Wright and I'm going, "Wow." It struck a chord right in me. And before that, I'd say Gary Larson, the ("Far Side") cartoonist, which was a similar experience. "I can't believe I'm just looking at some lines and they're making me laugh. Just the shapes, the way this guy composed something, can make this stranger in Jersey laugh." So if I go with a shortlist, those are my two big influences. I think anybody who saw my work and knew their work would say, "Okay, that makes sense. That kid loved those guys and kind of ran with that to see how his branch would be a branch off that tree."

To me, Steven Wright is one of the originals. There are a handful of us around who owe a large debt to him. I think my sense of humor is my sense of humor, and I do love short jokes and I love puzzles, but when you see Steven Wright -- back then, everybody else had segues and long bits, and that guy had economical, razor-sharp perspective. Just "Bam! Bam! Next joke, next joke!" And I've met him a few times in person, and he's such a nice guy, so classy. I think his work just speaks for him. He doesn't have to do anything. If you're Steven Wright, you're just, "These are my ideas. This is what I think is funny." I think that's much better than some big rock 'n roll, "Look at me!" whatever. He's very understated.

And as far as actors go, Peter Sellers is my all-time favorite. I loved the Pink Panthers as a kid, and he still makes me laugh as an adult. And then later, after I'd become a comedian, when I was 25, I discovered Woody Allen, and Steve Martin, and Andy Kaufman. Those are all, to me, inspiring as performers and artists to see. What a cool body of work. You see the evolution of a guy like Woody Allen from the comedy records into the short fiction into the films as they become more narrative and more dramatic in their structure. It's call to see someone's career evolve.

I want to bridge the gap between teenage Demetri in Toms River discovering that stand-up comedy is interesting to the 25-year-old who was actually doing it. I know you left law school with a year to go and all that, but at what point did you realize, "Hey, the law is not for me, the comedy is more interesting"? Had you been performing in college?

I didn't do improv in college, I never performed, I didn't do theater either. I was in student government, I was a history major. I ran a youth group. I was kind of just preparing myself for the best law school I could get into. Since seventh grade, I was convinced, "I'm going to be a lawyer. I figured it out, I'm set, I get my good grades, I love skateboarding." I wasn't even a big comedy nerd. A lot of the comedians I know -- a lot of my friends are comedians -- they knew a lot about comedy growing up. They listened to comedy albums and they could quote people's material. I remember when "Delirious" came out and we all quoted Eddie Murphy, but he was like a rock star. I don't think you needed to be a comedy nerd to know that one. That was like a cultural phenomenon. That was pretty extraordinary.

But other than that, I loved puzzle books, and I loved skating. At the Jersey shore, we had a half pipe in my backyard for a lot of years, and as far as I was concerned, that was my playtime. I did my schoolwork, took my SATs, got into Yale and was psyched because that was my dream school. I was like, "All right, next, I'll get into law school." It was only after getting to law school, after being there for a month or so that I realized, "Oh my god. This is not for me. I can't believe I made such a miscalculation. I'm bored. This is what it is? This is all about thoroughness." I had this weird epiphany: "I am not a thorough person. I like generating things. I don't want to do research about the jurisprudence as it relates to this issue." And I didn't know what to do. This was trouble. My whole identity was based on the idea that I was going to be this guy. And I was the student government guy. I was student council president in high school, and even in law school, I was vice-president of the student bar association. I would always do this socio-political stuff.

In retrospect, I realized I just liked talking in front of people. Because for all those things, you have to give speeches. It was pretty late for me that I realized I was on the wrong path for me, but didn't know what the alternatives were.

But you have to realize that my family, coming out of Toms River, my group, there weren't any painters, or singers, or dancers or actors or anything like that. We have a diner, my dad was a priest, my mom was a dietician. Then we got a diner, we had a Greek food stand at the boardwalk in Seaside, and the diner, that's still there, in Beachwood. There's a lot of creativity in my family. My mom's a great cook, and my dad was a great speaker, a really just genuinely funny person. There was creativity in their work, but they weren't creative jobs, per se.

It's funny: when people always talk about the importance of role models, I used to think that was so exaggerated, but as I get older, I start to realize I don't feel that way so much anymore. If you see somebody like you who's doing something, an older version of what you are, it does make you feel like it's more possible. With the absence of that, it took me longer to just say, "You know what? Maybe I could be a comedian as a job."

Obviously, your family was not pleased when you initially decided to ditch law school. At what point did they make peace with it?

I dropped out in the spring of '97 with one year left. And I had a full scholarship, so it made no sense to people. The people who cared about me weren't trying to discourage me, they were just confused. They said, "It's already paid for, you have one year to go, why not get the degree so you have something to fall back on?" And I said, "I don't want anything to fall back on. That's the whole point. Now I know what it is I'm after. I don't want to waste any more time before going forward." No one was so much disapproving as disappointed. It was a quiet disappointment that existed for a while as I went into the temp world and tried to become a stand-up.

The first time I got to do standup on television was in 2000. I got booked on Conan, and I was psyched. That was a nice blip, people went, "Oh, he did stand-up on TV, I guess that makes him a real comedian." Then I got a development deal in 2001 with NBC to do a sitcom, and I got more money than I'd ever made in a year of temping.

And, again, my family was confused, but this time in a good way. "Wait a minute, they gave you how much? And you're going to have a sitcom?" And I said, "No, probably not." And I didn't get a sitcom, but I got to keep the money. My mom said, "I'll help you invest the money, you should invest that." And I went back to my temp job after the show didn't go. And around that time, what started as disapproval turned into no longer worrying about me, at least. Somewhere between then and now -- and in the middle, putting my grandma and my mom into one of my stand-up specials -- my family are my greatest supporters.

My mom, I'm so proud that I'm her son. She's been so flexible, and so supportive, and even when she didn't understand what I was after, she was never discouraging. She was just worried that I wouldn't make a living.

There was one day when we were in New York in a cab together, and she goes, "God, could you picture yourself as a lawyer? Could you imagine yourself as a lawyer?" And I just started laughing. It was such a nice thing to hear, that even she couldn't imagine me as a lawyer anymore.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com


Anonymous said...

If I had never heard of him, I'd be in for this show looking at the GPA-Limbs chart.

Anonymous said...

I don't have cable, but I'm really looking forward to seeing this show. I hope that it's uploaded to Hulu or Comedy Central's website.
Thanks for posting the interview, Alan!

Anonymous said...

I got to see Martin perform at the New York Nightlife Awards (I think about 6 or 7 years ago). I had never heard of him before and I was just blown away by how funny he was. I remember walking out of Town Hall that night thinking he would be very famous some day. I was so happy when he started popping up on The Daily Show, and I'm completely psyced for Important Things. Thanks for the interview, Alan!

Anonymous said...

He's always reminded me a little of Steven Wright. Not in a way that seemed he was copying Wright, just that Wright had inspired him. Martin definitely has his own hilarious style.

I'm really looking forward to his show.

Alex Carey said...

I really enjoyed this interview. Martin's a very thoughtful guy. Thanks for posting his long answers in an era of short answers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview, Alan. I'm really looking forward to seeing this show for sure!

Charts are always funny.

Karen said...

Terrific interview, Alan--thanks so much for posting all of it.

And, seriously, Jon Benjamin's on the show? As in, like H. Jon Benjamin? From Dr Katz and Home Movies and Lucy Daughter of the Devil?

And I didn't think I could be any more psyched for this than I already was.

The CineManiac said...

Thanks for the interview Alan. I discovered Demetri when whatever I was watching on the DVR stopped and his special was on Comedy Central and I couldn't stop laughing.
I can't wait for this show. And as a recent law grad he's endered himself to me even further with his bit about law school. I finished and I'm still not sure it was for me.

Steve Ely said...

I cannot wait for this show. He's fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Anybody that lists Stephen Wright as one of their top influences is cool with me.

Without this column/post, there's 0% chance I watch this show. Now, there's a 100% chance.

Thanks, Alan.

Anonymous said...

its 2009. how doesn't someone have cable?

Joe said...

Martin is very funny, very smart.

Often the problem with SNL is that the skits are too long.

Anonymous said...

oh man, thanks for the interview, Alan... now my crush on Demetri Martin is officially out of control.
(especially since I hated law school too and i've known since i was 10 i wanted to be comedian...*sigh* )

Steve Ely said...

Through two thirds of the first episodes, I'm kind of disappointed. Not bad, but not as good as most of his stand-up that I've seen.

Karen said...

Sadly, I was disappointed in the show. The stand-up segments seemed poorly edited--with Martin laughing at things we weren't seeing, and the audience in hysterics at the set-up line (seriously: the opening "I hate being introduced to babies" is not actually that funny on its own). It just seemed choppy.

The Amanda Peet sketch went on too long. The time gigolo started strong but petered out (so to speak), and its punchline wasn't particularly funny.

My favorite parts were the fast blackout sketches, the charts, and the masterful musical flipboard segment.

I'll watch it again, but in hopes that the first one was a fluke, because Martin has always been genius on The Daily Show.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was very funny. His stand-up does remind me of Mitch Hedberg though. I especially enjoyed the sketches. Looking forward to next weeks episode.


Anonymous said...

It was okay, but not much more. It reminded me of "You Can't Do That On Television".

Canadian Teens: Comedy Genius!