Demetri Martin is ready to get personal -- but not political

By Ben Hooper
Demetri Martin is ready to get personal -- but not political
Stand-up comedian Demetri Martin spoke to UPI about his latest stand-up special, "The Overthinker," upcoming album "Live (At the Time)," and the "tug-of-war" involved in talking about his personal life on stage. Photo courtesy of Erik Simkins/Netflix

Aug. 29 (UPI) -- Demetri Martin is known for his one-liners and 30-second jokes, but the comedian says he's ready to take his act to a new frontier: his personal life.

Martin, 45, who released his latest Netflix special, The Overthinker, Aug. 10, and is preparing to release a comedy album, Live (At the Time), on Friday, told UPI in an interview that he's decided to bring more of a personal touch to his stand-up act.


"Usually I just stick to jokes," Martin said. "I really like one-liners, and having a bunch of jokes to tell, and that's still the core of the special, but on top of that, there are a few moments where I just talk about personal stuff. And they're a bit longer, which is fun to do."

Martin said he previously included some biographical anecdotes in his one-man shows, which he primarily performed at overseas comedy festivals. But he's mostly steered clear of getting personal in his stand-up act.


"What I found was when I tour, and do theaters, comedy clubs, colleges sometimes -- the narrative thing, for me, becomes tiring," he said. "I start to get sick of the stories, and usually because they're autobiographical, I get sick of myself. And it's just not a good process for me."

He said the quick jokes that he's most known for -- for example, "Doughnut hole is the most disgusting-sounding thing that tastes the best to me" -- "have that flexibility to them" where he can swap them out and even remix the content during a tour.

"Of course, the hard part with jokes is that you don't get as intimate with your audience. So there's kind of a tug-of-war there," Martin said.

The Overthinker

The Overthinker marks a new stage in that tug-of-war, as Martin shares some real-life anecdotes from his life as a husband and father, including one memorable tale extolling the difficulties of eating out with dietary restrictions and the comical sight of a grown man running with toast.

Martin said he's wary about spending too much time talking about his family on stage, partially because he values privacy, but also because he values his audience's attention.


"In comedy itself, sometimes I joke that it's just like diarrhea of autobiographies, everyone telling everything they can about themselves up there," he said. "I think some people are really funny when they do that, and it's really interesting, and others I just wonder 'Why? I don't care, I don't need to hear this.'"

The comic said he runs his own personal stories through what he calls the "who really gives a [expletive] test" to see if they are worth telling on stage.

The audience "paid to come sit here and listen to you, this better be interesting if you're going to tell them [expletive] about yourself," Martin said.

Martin said it was a different version of the same balancing act when he was writing, directing and starring in his debut film, Dean, released in 2017 to critical acclaim. The movie includes several of Martin's comedy trademarks, including absurd jokes and bizarre drawings, but also tells a personal story.

"It's one of the things that attracted me to making movies, telling stories in that medium, is that I feel like there's a different mix there," he said. "Maybe because you can make it fiction and get into a world with these characters."


"You know, I love movies, and that kind of intimacy, you can show somebody what's going on rather than telling them, not just announcing it or saying it, but hopefully thematically illustrated. But that's one of the goals, to try to make something a little more personal. It's more emotional, there's a heartfelt thing there."

Martin said that while he is slowly warming to the idea of incorporating more personal stories into his stand-up routine, there is one subject he has no plans to tackle: politics.

"It's just not my interest," he said. "It's not what I'm drawn to. Even years ago when I got to be on The Daily Show, when I got to go in and interview with them, I remember saying, 'I think you've got the wrong guy.'"

Martin went on to make multiple memorable appearances on the then-Jon Stewart-helmed show with his popular "Trendspotting" segment, which satirized youth culture while keeping a safe distance from political controversies.

"I'm just not inspired by or drawn to politics. It's the opposite for me: It just frustrates me and I get angry and bummed out the more I know about what's going on," he said.

The performer said he recently found himself questioning whether he should speak out on more issues, but ultimately decided against it.


"I realized it's just not what I feel like I have to offer," Martin said. "I'm old friends with John Oliver and I think he's really great at what he does, and it's so great that he has this show and figured out that format, and that it's as accessible as it is."

Martin said he first met Oliver, a fellow Daily Show alum and host of HBO's Last Week Tonight, many years ago at a comedy festival in Scotland. He said that even in those early days, he was impressed by how Oliver's political jokes came from an "authentic" place.

"I'm all for this trying to be authentic, and for better or worse, it's just a joke that I'm one of the least political comedians in America. I do jokes about balloons and dogs and stuff," Martin said.

Live (At the Time)

Martin's particular brand of politics-free absurd humor will next be showcased on the album Live (At the Time), which is due to be released Friday. The album bears many similarities with the 2015 Netflix special that shares its name, but Martin said not to expect an identical show.

"I was going to call it Live (At Another Time), but I didn't want to confuse people that like might think it's all new material," he said with a laugh. "But it's not like I just took the audio from the special and said 'oh, here it is in this form.'"


The album was recorded during the same tour as the video special, but in a different venue with a more intimate crowd. He said there is also some variation in the material, including "some improvising, some other jokes, just mixing it up."

Martin said he likes to experiment with the differences between video and audio.

"In the podcast era there's all kind of things going on that people do. So I thought 'Yeah, there's probably a way to do that so it's not just a straight recording of a guy at a comedy club,'" he said.

One way Martin experiments in his stand-up act is the unique inclusion of his signature "funny drawings," which have featured in his comedy, his 2009-10 Comedy Central series Important Things with Demetri Martin, his film Dean and even two books, This Is a Book and If It's Not Funny It's Art.

"I've done two books of them now. It's great! It's like, wow, I get to sell my drawings and books! But then it somehow becomes like higher stakes, you know?" Martin said.

He said the popularity of his drawings was unexpected after he first experimented with using them in his stand-up.

"Now crowds are like, 'where are the drawings?'" he said. "I did it a couple of times, now people are like, 'Wait, you're the guy with the drawings!' So, 'oh [expletive], I've got to come up with more drawings.'"


Martin said that while he is worried about his artwork becoming more "like an assignment" than something he does for his personal enjoyment, there are more ways he would like to experiment with his drawings, such as a gallery showing.

He said much of comedy comes from the "reveal" of the punchline, and he has been considering how the structure of jokes could be translated to a gallery show.

"What if you had a little show, a pop-up show somewhere, and somebody moves through the room -- What are the reveals? If you walk this way, if you turn that corner -- stuff like that," he said.

Martin said that while he enjoys creating books, movies and TV, he has no plans to give up stand-up comedy as his primary art form.

"My dream when I started out was just to be a stand-up comedian, and if I could do that, with my own jokes and, you know, make a living off it, this was a big deal to me. And it still is," he said.

Stand-up comedy has a "purity" to it that Martin said he and many of his fellow comedians find "alluring."

"You write the jokes and then you show up and you tell them. There's a live audience, there's no focus grouping, there's no distribution, there's no launch, just, 'here's the people, here's the jokes,' you know, there we go."


Martin acknowledged there is a downside.

"What I don't like about it is that the travel can get pretty tiring," he said. "It can be kind of a drag after a while, when you're just out there alone. You know, I'm not in a band, I don't have friends to be out there with, I don't have roadies or anything. I'm kind of like a traveling salesman but I'm just selling my jokes in each town."

Martin said that lately he's been finding inspiration in the classic routines of the late Rodney Dangerfield.

"There's just like a rhythm and a relentlessness to his stuff that's still funny to me," he said.

Modern comics who have recently made an impression on Martin include Kate Berlant, who had a small role in Dean and appeared in Martin's "Our Fascinating Planet" series of shorts, and Rory Scovel, who has lately been experimenting with fully improvised hourlong stand-up sets.

"I'm still drawn to and inspired by people who experiment with [stand-up], so it's not so straight ahead all the time. Somehow that's an important part of it for me," he said.

Demetri Martin: The Overthinker is streaming on Netflix. Live (At the Time) is scheduled to be released on CD and digital formats Friday.


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