On March 24, comedian Demetri Martin came to campus to perform his standup for SUAAB’S Big Bad Comedy Show. The Mercury had the chance to talk to Martin about his beginnings, his big break and his hopes for the future.
How did you get into doing standup?
I started in New York. I was in law school at the time and I was thinking I wanted to try it before I left New York, not knowing where I might settle after school. I decided during the course of my first two years of law school that I just wanted to really go for it. So I left school after my second year and my first time trying it was that summer. It was in July.
Was that a difficult decision to make?
Yeah, I think it was. When I think back, it must have been harder than I remember it being. It was mostly that I was feeling kind of lost and having a little bit of a crisis trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, knowing at that point that I wasn’t really inspired by what law school had to offer. The prospect of that kind of a job just didn’t seem right to me. Luckily, I was in New York City, so there was a lot there to expose yourself to.
Were you interested in stand up when you were younger? Was it something that you followed?
Yeah. Not like crazy, but at that time there was a lot of stand up on TV. Mostly with people doing short sets, but there were also HBO specials. When I flipped through the channels, I’d usually stop and watch. I didn’t have any comedy albums or anything like that. It was mostly just what I’d find on TV.
What was that first summer like when you were trying out stand up comedy?
It was hard to even find places that would let you get onstage. It was pretty challenging. Then if I did get onstage, I’d only get six minutes or five. If I were lucky, I’d get 10. I ended up going to a lot of open mics. Open mics are (where), at least at that time, you’re performing for comedians. The audience is just everyone waiting to get onstage. They’re pretty tough rooms. But even in those conditions, I enjoyed the challenge of it and I liked writing jokes, thinking about material and the opportunity to try it out — however difficult the room was.
Was your family supportive?
No, I can say no one was supportive of it. They were not actively against me, but some of my relatives were pretty vocal that they thought I was making a huge mistake. Nobody stopped me, but I didn’t have any support. And of course not financially either. Luckily, I had a scholarship to law school, so I had no debt. I immediately had to find jobs. I got temp jobs and I had roommates. I was kind of lucky I started at zero, not negative. I could make money to pay my rent and food, and then do stand up at night. Looking back, I think having so little support and encouragement was a weird kind of backhanded gift because it quickly taught me to not rely too much on other people’s opinions when it came to making big life decisions for myself. It didn’t feel great at the time, but now I can say, “Hey, I was kind of liberated from having to please people.”
What was it like to be out there on your own?
It was hard. I got good grades and went to good schools. To the people who knew me, it was like I was making a huge mistake. So in a way, it was a good opportunity that I had, but I think I was lucky enough that I liked stand up comedy so much. This was pre-internet and pre-Youtube. There was something about it that felt a little more exclusive, whereas now — there still aren’t tons of people doing comedy — but it seems like a lot more. You were immediately part of a community. Without social media, it was kind of nice because a lot of your social fabric for the comedy world was in person. It was like a little world I was discovering and escaping into.
When would you consider your “big break” to be?
I got hired to be a staff writer at “Conan,” that was a big step for me because then I was able to get a regular salary just from writing comedy, which was great. And then I left that job so that I could go tour, as much as I loved that job. So after I left “Conan,” I was doing my on-camera pieces for “The Daily Show,” starting to get headlining work around the country. Not tons of gigs, but enough. My first hour-long special for Comedy Central was in 2006. It’s hard to pinpoint (my big break) for me, but somewhere in there. I’d done Letterman, Conan and Kimmel. I had an hour-long special and was able to draw crowds. That made me feel like I was over some sort of a hump.
How has your comedic voice changed over the years?
I started with jokes. I think that’s a lot of what drew me to standup. I like jokes that are succinct and well structured and that surprise me, so I wanted to see if I could make some of those myself. My first set ever was 12 jokes. It hasn’t changed much, my style. But it’s grown and evolved a bit. I do a lot more improvising onstage. It’s a lot more spontaneous than when I first started. Along the way, I’ve told more personal stories and incorporated drawings and music. I’ve tried all kinds of different bits over the years. Some endure and others I abandon. But for me, the building block is still the short joke or simple idea that I can build off of.
What are your future career plans?
My future plans are to make films, continue doing standup, write books and maybe do a TV show. I don’t know. Some mix of those things. I like to bounce between those things if I can. I directed my first film that I wrote and I starred in and that will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in about a month, so I’m excited for that to be finished. And then hopefully I can start in on another one. And I’m working on a book of short stories that I got a couple of extensions for because the film took more time than I realized it would. Maybe someday I could write a novel. I like the challenge of telling stories in different forms and telling jokes in different forms.