When comedian Demetri Martin performs stand-up, it's not just the Star Trek-loving, elbow-pad wearing, dorkus malorkuses who are laughing. Despite the fact that Martin may be a genius, and many of his jokes revolve around dictionary definitions and unicycles, his self-deprecating approach to comedy doesn't intimidate us regular folk.
A 30-year old law school dropout who won last year's Perrier Award -- one of the comedy world's most prestigious awards -- Martin sips a hot chocolate with whipped cream at a diner near New York University and explains what he's been up to recently. He spent August in the United Kingdom, first in Edinburgh, Scotland, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (that's where he won the Perrier Award) and then two weeks in London, where he sold-out multiple theater engagements.
Now back in New York, Martin is writing for the Conan O'Brien Show, putting the final touches on a 22-minute short for the British TV show Comedy Lab, developing a sitcom with NBC (it's still in the early stages -- he doesn't even really know what it's about yet), negotiating a movie deal with Montecito Pictures (the division of DreamWorks that produced Todd Phillips-directed comedies like Road Trip, Old School and the upcoming Starsky & Hutch), finishing up a Comedy Central special, and performing live almost every Monday night at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Phew.
When describing Martin, Scottish newspapers constantly referred to his nose as "aquiline," but here in America, we call his nose, and everything about him, "really, really cute." To be sure, with shaggy brown hair that falls dramatically over his dark brown eyes, paired with his hooded sweatshirt and old school New Balances, Martin rocks the nerd-chic look and he rocks it hard. He definitely doesn't look or sound like your typical, turtleneck and blazer-clad, "What's the deal with airplane peanuts?" stand-up comedian.
Along with funnymen David Cross and Todd Barry, hosts of the weekly comedy show Tinkle (which takes place at the Lower East Side's super-cool new nightclub Pianos), Martin belongs to a new breed of stand-up comics, who, one punch line and one pair of vintage sneakers at a time, are making New York stand-up dorkily cool.
But Martin, a Jersey boy-turned-Fort Greene resident, remains a bit frustrated with the New York comedy scene -- especially after having spent time in Great Britain. "Over there, people are famous for being comedians. Not here." In New York, he explains, comedy is all about what sitcom you're on and what HBO special you've done. Here, Martin performs at the Upper East Side Comic Strip for $10 a night. But in London, one can make an actual career out of stand-up. "In London, it's so cool. Comedy is so pure. Here, it's such a different game."
As for comedic methods, he tends to approach jokes like puzzles. Sometimes before he goes out on stage, he asks a friend to give him a word and forces himself to make a joke about it. A lot of his jokes, though, are one-liners, which the shaggy-haired comic delivers with a charming brand of deadpan perfection: "I think Employee of the Month is a good example of when a person can be a winner and a loser at the same time." During a recent show at the UCB Theater, Martin told a story about how most performers, when they're young, know they want to be performers because they crave attention. Martin, himself, played this out by wearing a gorilla suit to class.
Martin explains that in "the business," what he's going through right now is called "heat," as in, he's hot. That's why it's so hard to imagine that 10 years ago, Martin was doing decidedly un-hot and un-funny things. A super-student in high school, Martin headed every organization possibly could. He attended Yale University as an undergraduate, where he became seriously involved in student government. After he graduated from college in 1995, Martin went straight to NYU Law School. After his first year in law school he landed an internship at the White House when Bill Clinton was in office. But he soon realized that law was not for him.
On his way to classes Martin often passed comedy clubs. And always the joker, he decided to give comedy a shot. He got a part-time internship at The Daily Show and eventually just stopped going to classes. And after years and years of preparing to be a lawyer, Martin dropped out of law school ("It was boring," he says) and decided to pursue a career in comedy. He took a job as a temp and did stand-up at night.
"Being a Yale grad, you have these expectations of success. I mean, you go back to your fifth year college reunion and people have business cards from Anderson Consulting. I was a temp for $10 an hour. I was like, 'Shit, what's happening?'"
When he's not participating in one of the many comedy-related activities on his plate right now, Martin spends time in his studio in Brooklyn where he paints watercolors and practices the guitar, the piano, and the glockenspiel. Is there anything this Renaissance man can't do? "Can you tap dance?" I ask him. "Yes, actually," he responds. "I took tap dancing lessons." It's unclear whether or not Martin is joking at this point. But, who cares. We're chuckling. Demetri Martin is funny. And in the end, that's what matters.