Demetri Martin was never the class clown growing up.
The standup comedy star, who will perform at the Wheeler Opera House on Thursday, was that low-key funny kid whose under-the-breath quips would quietly humor whoever was sitting next to him at that moment.
This is, in many ways, still reflective of Martin’s comedic style, which embraces equal parts wit, satire and authenticity delivered in a deadpan manner. The comedian also learned at a young age how to handle criticism — and not care — upon turning down Harvard Law School and leaving a full scholarship at New York University Law School in order to pursue comedy.
“Yeah, that was across-the-board disapproval, and a very clear lack of support,” Martin recalled in a recent interview with Time Out. “There was no one was saying, ‘You can do it, you’re funny.’”
Shortly after, Martin began writing for “Saturday Night Live” and became a regular contributor on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Today, Martin is an award-winning stand-up comedian and a New York Times best-selling author. He also acts, directs, draws and is the voice of a cartoon bear in a popular animated series.
Ahead of Martin’s show in Aspen on Thursday, the funnyman chatted with Time Out editor Erica Robbie on fame, the evolution of standup and his advice to aspiring comedians. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.
Erica Robbie: As with most comedians at your level of success, you dabble in many different projects — from acting and directing to writing books and drawing — outside performing standup. Of these various mediums, where do you feel most comfortable? And where do you excel the most?
Demetri Martin: I started doing standup, I remember, specifically just because I like standup. I like the idea of it, and I was a fan of it. It was just such a great fantasy to just be a standup comedian; it certainly seemed like plenty for me, if I could achieve that. After doing [standup] for some time, I was pleasantly surprised to see there were other ways that my ideas could work, so that if I tried to write a joke, I thought, ‘Well, hey, wait a minute, this doesn’t really seem like an idea for a joke, but it could be an idea for a story, or this could be a movie idea, or this could be some dialogue, or it could even be like a single-panel cartoon.’ And when I discovered that, I thought, ‘OK, great, generate material every day, if you can, and don’t worry too much about fitting it into standup form. If it doesn’t [fit], don’t ignore an idea and throw it away; just try to keep track of this stuff, and maybe someday you’ll get to make a movie or write a book of stories or a novel.’
Then shortly after starting to write jokes and carry a notebook, I started to draw. And I hadn’t drawn since I was — I don’t know, 12 years old or sixth or seventh grade — so then I picked up drawing again around age 25. And so that started, for me, a really nice daily experience creatively of just trying to generate ideas and develop some of them and come up with new ones and review old ones. So, I’ll say, standup is probably where I’m still most comfortable, where I feel maybe the most skilled, after 23 years now, but, film is really exciting to me.
ER: What about film do you enjoy?
DM: When I’ve had opportunities to act, it’s been usually pretty fun. What I like about acting is that I get to work with other people, I get to do scenes with people, have coworkers, and it’s more social. Standup affords so much freedom, but at this point in my life, I do have to travel a lot to do it if I want to make a living from it, so I find that a lot of it is TSA and airport lounges, and hotels, and rental cars and stuff like that. And I don’t travel with anybody else, so that can be a little lonely. And I like being alone and brainstorming and all that stuff, but even after too many shows in a year, I start to get worn out. So, it’s kind of shifting.
ER: Do you think that comedians can be successful solely doing standup in today’s day and age? Or is producing content across several platforms — television, film, Netflix, books, etc. — now considered necessary in order to ‘make it’ as a comedian?
DM: Hmm, yeah. I don’t know, it’s hard to know objectively. Fame is a bigger part of everybody’s daily lives and more people are famous … In my lifetime and in my career so far in show biz, it does seem like [fame is] a bigger part of what people are after. I started doing standup in ’97, so that was still kind of after the comedy bust, or after the boom of the ’80s, by the early ’90s, things had settled down, and I think it was a lot harder. I remember talking to comedians who had been working in the ’80s, and they said, ‘You know, you used to be able to make a living doing this, and now it’s really hard.’ So, when I started, my expectation was, ‘Oh, this is going to be hard, either way, but this might be extra hard now to make a living.’ But then, you know, obviously, standup comedy is doing pretty well; people can tour, and with all the avenues for standup specials’ content, I think you can make a living as a standup comedian and that can be your job. Again, the fame thing, it seems like it’s out of a lot of our hands, but for me, personally, it’s really appealing to get to diversify and try different things creatively.
ER: What advice would give to aspiring comedians?
DM: I have heard people say that you can break comedians into different categories, and one way you can do it, is some people come from a writing perspective, and others come from a performance perspective or a personality perspective. It does seem like the most successful comedians, or the most appealing ones, the ones that find the biggest audiences, have managed to do both. So, if you’re pursuing [comedy], maybe try to be honest with yourself, and diagnose, you know, do you come from more of a writer angle or more from a performer angle? Which one are you stronger at and which one are you weaker at? And then how can you develop both? How can you develop your weaker side?
ER: Which of these styles apply to you?
DM: The writing, for me, isn’t as hard. That’s kind of what I do anyway when I’m thinking. But it took me more time to be comfortable, to have that confidence. When I was at open mics, certain comedians would just [exude] the confidence of Chris Rock, and they’d never done anything. And I was just like, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that.’ For me, it was all about the material, and I had to maybe have enough of that to feel like I had earned that confidence.