With his Beatles haircut and low voice, Demetri Martin is perhaps the last person you'd expect to be a comedian. Influenced by the deadpan likes of Steven Wright, Martin has become one of the most popular stand-up comedians around, appearing in film, TV, print and any other media you can imagine, all off such one-liners as "every meal is a food fight when you're a cannibal" or "I think they named oranges before they named carrots."
"Whenever I get the opportunity to do something new, I look at the context of the different media, and I try to maximize it," Martin said in a recent phone interview. "If I'm doing a TV show, I try to think about what would work best in a TV show, like how it could be shot, or if animation could be used, or what music could work with the scene."
This Saturday, Sept. 11, Martin will appear at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. In his act, he often strums an acoustic guitar or writes on a large pad of paper. His jokes just seem to spill out of his head like random musings.
"If I'm doing stand-up, I'm thinking about improvising, or talking to the audience. Now I'm writing a book, and there's a different sensibility—I'll read back what I've written to see if it has the rhythm I thought it did when it was in my head. So doing a tour, being in front of a crowd, that's something I'm very comfortable with, and I love interacting with the audience."
Martin's been visible for more than just his stand-up in the last year. He's done two seasons of the series Important Things With Demetri Martin on Comedy Central and starred in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock. In the manner of life as a showbiz talent who gets by on his wit and work rate, Martin has a book deal somewhere and a screenplay in development, too. It's about a man whose life becomes extraordinary when the guardian angel writing his "script" accidentally doesn't show up for work. It's called Will, naturally. (Was Free Willy taken?)
Martin's achievements are greater considering that he only decided to become a stand-up comic when he was already midway through law school.
"Before I started comedy, I thought I had a pretty clear plan to finish high school, go to college and be a lawyer," Martin says. "So I thought I had things figured out, and I would focus on skateboarding or drawing or whatever was my leisure activity. When I was a year into law school, I realized I didn't like what I was doing. I was hurtling toward the real world, toward work and responsibility, and it wasn't what I wanted to do."
Martin quickly moved into stand-up, though he found his new career had a drawback: "When you don't want to do that full-time, it doesn't matter how many jokes you write, but when it becomes your job, there's this massive canyon that appears before you that you can never really fill," he says.
He began filling up notebooks with ideas for jokes, a practice that paid off. "Somewhere along the line, I stopped being so hard on myself about how good each idea was, and just started writing down anything that seemed like it had potential. And out of that, I found a lot of drawing and story ideas, and different kinds of jokes with different material."
He has no plans to do a third season of Important Things, a show that combined his stand-up with short films done in a low-tech, Pee-wee's Playhouse style. The 80-hour weeks required to produce the series, plus Comedy Central's wavering support, effectively ended it. He praises the collaboration, however, saying it allowed him to experiment: "What I realized after a while was that if something's not funny, it has to be not funny in the way I'm not funny. If something doesn't work, it should be because of your choices and not because of the choices someone made for you."
Martin remains philosophical about his success, saying that he still enjoys finding humor in odd ideas that pop into his head. "I think I've accepted that I'm more of a daydreamer and can look at these things close to me, this pretty simple stuff," he says. "So yeah, so far, so good."