Saturday 17 March 2018

Q&A: Demetri Martin

Ed Power

Ed Power

American comedy is overrun with fast-living stand-ups venting about their spiralling drug habits and train-wreck love lives. You strum an acoustic guitar and make clever jokes about palindromes. Ever feel you don't quite fit in?

If you've been doing stand-up long enough it's hard not to be yourself. There's an authenticity it's difficult not to have. To be like some of the tough-guy comics I know from New York who go up and talk about hookers and cocaine and everything else -- I don't have that experience. It's not going to be where I end up.

You seem the nerdy intellectual type. Is that why one-liners appeal to you?

My first show in 1997, I told 12 jokes -- 12 one-liners. I liked doing puzzles when I was a kid. By the time I tried comedy, I was attracted by the sparseness, the economy of words, that you have with one-liners. You can understand it as a puzzle.

Growing up in New Jersey, you wanted to be a lawyer. How did that work out for you?

I thought I would do public-interest law. I had this scholarship. What I was going to do was maybe juvenile-rights law or community development. What those actually meant, I wasn't so sure. I realised those were things that sounded good to me in practice. But they were going to involve much more detailed work and thoroughness than I naturally gravitated to. It seemed like I was swimming upstream.

Turning up for a lecture in a gorilla suit probably didn't help your career.

I had the gorilla suit long before I did stand-up. Before I even thought I'd work in comedy. I asked for it for Christmas when I was in college. I wore it as a ski-suit. I thought it would be pretty funny if people saw a gorilla coming down the hill. What I found especially funny was the idea of falling. When someone falls in a costume their countenance doesn't change.

And then one day you arrived for a corporate law lecture dressed as a gorilla?

I think this was me trying to figure out what I needed to do with my life. So what happened is that I went down and interrupted a bunch of other classes. I just thought it would be funny to walk into one of the serious lectures for a second, as if I was supposed to be somewhere else. I'd look in, like it was the wrong spot, and just leave. In a gorilla costume. It was one of those moments where you realise you should really be doing something else.

From there, you ended up as a staff writer for Conan O'Brien. Was it terrifying having to pitch gags to him?

I was a sketch writer. I didn't do his monologue jokes. It was mostly white middle-class educated guys. The show was already 10 years into its run by the time I got there. We'd see Conan and he'd be there. But mostly we'd pitch to the head writer and help him decide what to bring to Conan. It was a good job and Conan is a good guy to work for. But the hours were really long. That was kind of why I quit. I had to make a decision between doing that and live performance.

You have a small, non-comedy, part alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, etc in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion.

The few time I've had a chance to be in movies, it has had a lot more to do with trust and collaboration than stand-up teaches you about. Stand-up, at least in the States, teaches you about self-reliance and vigilance. Whereas, on a movie set, especially when I'm playing a minor part, I'm really just trying to help the director execute his vision. I'm an instrument or a tool. It's not like they hired me for my 'vision' of that character.

Demetri Martin performs at Vicar Street, Dublin, on Tuesday

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