Stand-up comedy remains first love for comedian Demetri Martin

November 9, 2016

As far as comedians go, you could say Demetri Martin is well rounded. This man of many hats has published two books of comedic illustrations, he’s had his own weekly television show on Comedy Central, he’s starred in feature films, and he’s currently working on a collection of comedic short stories.

But for all that diversity, “At the end of the day there’s nothing like standing in front of a group of people and telling them jokes,” says Martin. And at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10 at the Charleston Music Hall, he’s doing just that, bringing his unique brand of standup to the Lowcountry stage.

One-liner role model

Martin’s sense of humor is in a classification all its own. But like everyone else, he has his influences. One of particular note is Steven Wright, who Martin saw on a TV special in the 1980s. “He was a real groundbreaker for one-liners,” says Martin.

There’s certainly that one-liner element to Martin’s performance. An apt example would be, “I think the worst time to have a heart attack would be during a game of charades.”

But Martin’s show is multifaceted. That is appealing to Maari Suorsa, one-half of local comedy duo Nameless Numberhead. “He’s got a ton of different elements to (his show),” she says. “It’s awesome when someone doesn’t confine themselves to what that particular art form is supposed to be.”

Martin doesn’t just talk into a microphone and pace in front of a crowd all night. He’s been known to bring out a giant legal pad for illustrations, to use premade graphs and overhead projections, and every show has an element of live music. Oddly enough, his original reason for using live music wasn’t even for entertainment purposes.

In the early 2000s, Martin had been an audience member for some of his fellow comedians’ television specials. And when he saw the final products much later on, he was appalled at how the editors had chopped them to bits. Parts of jokes were left out, the order of jokes rearranged. “And these are things we’ve all worked out as comics,” says Martin. “And then they’re messing with our timing and all that stuff.”

So when he was approached to do his own 30-minute special, Martin had a solution: he played simple fingerpicking guitar as background music for his jokes. That way, editors wouldn’t be able to find breaks in the sound to cut and paste his set together. And wouldn’t you know it? His tactic worked.

Now years later, the guitar is still an integral part of his set. Not that he needs to worry about trigger-happy editors anymore. “There’s an essence of showmanship to (the guitar playing),” says Suorsa. “And it’s kind of its own segue rather than just like clearing your throat or saying, ‘um,’ which is what every comedian does.”

If you couldn’t tell by that anecdote, Martin’s a pretty smart dude. And his long path to fame bears the simple message, “follow your dreams.”

Dropout to stand-up

He was a Yale graduate attending NYU School of Law. “I was studying for exams at the end of the second year,” says Martin. “I just remember working out jokes. I was in the law library at this law school and I was working on my first comedy set.”

Obviously his thoughts weren’t with his studies. So the school year ended and he dropped out to pursue a career in comedy. And the funny thing is, Martin had never even performed stand-up before. And it would still be another two months before he would brave a New York City open mic night. But once he did, a love affair with stand-up blossomed, and continues to this very day.

But now, it really is a job. “I love being on stage, I love writing the jokes, but the logistics, that’s the grown-up part of it,” says Martin. “I heard somebody say once, ‘You get paid for the traveling.’ The show is not really the work after a while, it’s everything around it.”

And it’s more concentrated these days, with his other artistic endeavors occasionally taking up the bulk of his time. For instance, he recently finished, “Dean,” a feature-length comedy/drama he wrote, directed, and starred in. “I like the challenge of trying to tell stories, especially in film,” says Martin. “It’s really validating in a different way.”

For the project, Martin got to direct renowned actor Kevin Kline. “Working with him ended up being wonderful,” says Martin. “I felt like I genuinely learned a lot, not just the stuff he told me but just like watching the guy work.”

And sure, the production had its ups and downs. The stress of an independent film budget kept Martin awake at night, but he truly enjoyed the experience of directing. “I thought I wouldn’t know what I was looking for in certain scenes,” he says. “I was afraid going into it thinking, ‘Gee, am I gonna know what I’m asking for? Am I gonna know what to tell the crew?’ That wasn’t a problem it turned out. From being on stage and writing the script, you don’t realize how much you have ideas about how you want to tell the story.”

So Martin already is working on another script as well as his short story collection, but for now, stand-up is taking precedent. “When I’m working on standup, I’m kind of all in,” he says.

Yes, he may stray down other avenues but he always returns to the main road, his first passion. “I love stand-up,” he says. “And if you’re lucky, you find something you love doing. And then if you’re really lucky, you do it and you get paid for it so you can make it a job.”