A few years ago, when New York magazine called Demetri Martin “the Barack Obama of comedy,” it felt like a career death sentence. Who could possibly live up to such ridiculous expectations? Even Obama couldn’t do it, so what chance did a comic who’s act featured palindrome poetry and paraprosdokian wordplay have? But back in 2009, when Martin was the fresh-faced “Senior Youth Correspondent” for The Daily Show and the star of his own Comedy Central series, Important Things With Demetri Martin, he inspired more than a few journalists to become delusional, frothing-at-the-mouth fanboys, making analogies that were embarrassing even in the heat of the moment. Important Things lasted only two seasons and his Daily Show gig soon evaporated, and Martin, like so many overhyped comedians before him, could have easily imploded from the pressure of not-quite-being comedy’s savior. No one would have blamed him for retiring at the ripe old age of 35 and returning to show business only for the occasional Comedy Central Roast. Instead, he wrote a book, called (with his usual meta-literalism) This Is a Book — available online and in bookstores April 25th — which is more or less like anything else Martin has ever done, except it’s a book. It’s got drawings (“Superhero Flying Through Flock Just to Be a Dick”) and poems (“A Poem About a Psychotic Mailman Who Has a Drinking Problem and Is Contemplating His Own Mortality”) and other bits that are sometimes smirk-inducing and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I called Martin to talk about his book, and at no point did I feel tempted to call him the David Foster Wallace of comedy. He never said as much, but I like to think he appreciated my restraint.
Eric Spitznagel: Let’s start with the very first sentence in your book: “Thank you for coming to the show.” Is there a chance you’re confused about the difference between books and live performance?
Demetri Martin: [laughs] No, I don’t think so. I come up with most of my stuff the same way, just by walking around and daydreaming and then writing it all down. So in a way, they’re not really all that different. At least in where they come from. But where they end up, yeah, it’s very different.
It’s hard not to be cynical about books written by comedians. Some of them are great, but I’ve read more than a few where it feels like they’re just transcribing their act and calling it literature.
I’ve thought the same thing. When I was younger and I’d read books by comedians, it took a few times to realize, “Oh, they’re just recycling their stand-up.” I wanted it to be an extension of their perspective or their sensibility, but it was usually disappointing. So when I had the opportunity to get a book deal, I tried to figure out how my style of comedy would work. How do I work in this form? So that’s why it ended up being kinda a grab bag. It’s a mix of some narrative stuff, some lists, a few drawings.
Comedy on the page can be tough. There’s no inflection, no way to let an audience know the beats of a joke. It’s all deadpan.
It is, yeah. With standup, it’s easy to understand when it works because you’re standing there, you say stuff and then you get noise or silence back. But writing a book, it’s a silent conversation. It’s like if I go to MoMA and I’m looking at some famous painting.
Like Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory?
[Laughs.] Sure, something like that. It’s a weird conversation between you and artist.
Dali’s saying, “Hey, melting clocks,” and you’re like, “What?”
Right, right. And maybe he doesn’t care what I think. But I’m there. I’m looking at his painting. I’m a part of the conversation. In a lot of ways, writing a book is like email. When email was a newer thing, we all had a big learning curve for that.
I still haven’t figured it out. I think every fight I’ve had with a friend or relative over the last decade has been about an email. It’s always, “I didn’t realize you were kidding!”
I learned to reread my emails, just to make sure I’m not missing anything tonally.
And even then, what reads funny to you might read to somebody else as “Fuck you.”
Sure, yeah. It’s the fear of those consequence that make me hesitate. I’ve been told over the years that I’m a bad emailer, by a number of different people.
How are your emails especially bad?
Well, number one, I just do one sentence or two sentence chunks and then there’s spaces between them. So it’s like a series of one-liners. The other thing is — and I have gotten better at this — I wouldn’t email somebody back because I couldn’t figure out how the conversation would ever end. You know what I mean?
I don’t. You were worried that your email conversations would just go on and on and on forever?
I really did. (Laughs.) I just felt like, “I can’t do this. I’m out. I’ve got to get out now!”
You do know that’s clinically insane, right?
I do. And by not responding to emails, I ended up being a terrible friend. Or a former friend, I guess. Down the line, I’d hear about friends getting married, and I hadn’t been to any of their weddings. I’d be like, “Wow, I blew it.”
What about other Internet means of communication? Are you into social networking? Do you have Twitter and Facebook accounts?
Reluctantly. I remember when MySpace was first becoming a big deal, somewhere around 2003 or 2004, I was in a restaurant with some friends. Actually, it was Veselka in New York. It’s on 2nd avenue in the East Village.
Nice unnecessary detail.
Thank you. I was there with friends, and we were talking about MySpace and I remember declaring, “I will never do MySpace! I think it’s desperate and sad!” Whatever my little tirade was. And then years later, like two years later, I was on the Daily Show. And I did a Trendspotting piece on MySpace. And sure enough, I had a MySpace account at that point, like every other comedian at the time. So I couldn’t just make fun of MySpace and be hypocritical. I had to walk a line between the two, acknowledging that I had an account while also making fun of it.
Did your dining companions at Veselka give you grief?
Oh god, I got crucified. They of course remembered everything. And then after that I got a Facebook account, and then Twitter appeared and somebody started a Twitter with my name. I only found out about it because I was in Texas performing at a college and after the show I was in my dressing room and somebody knocked and said, “Lauren is here to see you.” And I’m like, “I don’t know anybody named Lauren.” And they explained that Lauren was my friend on Twitter, and apparently I’d been messaging with her and invited her to the show. So she walks in, and she’s like a teenage girl, and I’m like, “Ooooooh, shit.”
Wow. So the fake you likes ‘em young?
Apparently. He called himself Fake Demetri, and he had something like 15,000 followers. I looked at his Tweets, and they were terrible. Just so, so unfunny and heartbreaking. You try to build your act, and this coward is out there, using my name to try out his terrible jokes. I begged with the Twitter people to get it taken down. I had to send them a personal letter, using a few of his tweets to demonstrate just how horrible it was. He was very cunning. He’d look at my schedule on MySpace, find out where I was going to be, and then he’d be like “Hey guys, just got into Nashville!” And then he’d make these lame jokes.
That’s some straight-up identity theft.
It really was! I railed against Twitter, and to end an unnecessarily long story, they got rid of it. And now I’m on everything — Twitter, Facebook, all if it. I’m just like anybody else.
I’m surprised that your first book isn’t a memoir. That seems to be the most popular genre for comedian authors. Chelsea Handler made a fortune writing about her family and drinking problem.
I hope that I someday accomplish enough that I feel entitled to do a memoir. But right now, I have something that I call the “Who Gives a Shit?” test. And very often for myself, I just don’t pass it. But maybe someday, when I have a body of work and I’ve done enough things that I’m proud of. I just finished reading Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. And he’s written how many books? A million? If you’re Stephen King, you can write a memoir. I’m interested.
Is there a chance that some of the stories in This Is a Book are at least semi-autobiographical? What about a line like “The bowtie is the most effective form of birth control in the world.” Is that just your imagination, or is it partly based on experience?
Yeah, for sure. You’re totally right. I certainly can’t escape myself. When I was in college, I used to ride a unicycle. Not all the time, but I’d ride it sometimes around campus. And this is a perfect example of what you were talking about with inflection, but I did a one-man show a while ago which was autobiographical, and I had a whole bit about this. I remember saying, “I was riding around on campus thinking, ‘I’m the only guy on a unicycle.’ I should have been thinking, ‘I’m the only guy on a unicycle.’”
You’re right, nobody reading this interview is going to understand why that’s funny at all.
It doesn’t translate on the page.
We need some tonal adjectives. The first time you say “I’m the only guy on a unicycle,” you’re being…. cocky?
Or proud? No, you’re right, probably cocky. And the second time, I’m maybe concerned? Or worried?
Whatever the adjective is for “ego-crushing epiphany.”
You’ve said that your drawings are inspired by The Far Side and Gary Larson. But I get kind of a Kurt Vonnegut vibe from them.
It’s so funny you would say that. I didn’t even know Kurt Vonnegut drew until recently. I just picked up one of the posthumous collections of his short stories. It’s the one with a self-portrait of Vonnegut, and there’s a huge nose and mustache and a bunch of eyes staggered around the nose?
Oh yeah, Look at the Birdie. It’s a great book.
That’s when I started to realize, “Oh, Vonnegut was a doodler.” I literally just learned this. I’m talking in the last month. And then I also recently saw that other great thing he did, the asterisk.
Yeah, the asshole. From Breakfast of Champions, right? I saw that and I was like, “Oh wow.” It wasn’t the inspiration for my drawings, obviously, cause I’m a little late to discovering it. But I really like his stuff. I’m doing something similar, in a way, just because they’re both simple line drawings.
If you were going to do an artistic rendering of your own bunghole, like Vonnegut’s asterisk, what would it look like?
And yes, I’m aware that I just asked you what your asshole looks like.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I don’t know, the asterisk is pretty elegant. I wonder how I could top that. I guess I’d want it to be a more traditional star. Maybe a circle with a pentagram in the middle.
As I’m sure you’re aware, comedy is very subjective, and not everybody thinks you’re funny.
Yeah, I’m aware. I’ve been on the Internet.
One of the people who doesn’t care for you is my editor at Vanity Fair. He thought your Comedy Central show was annoying and too smugly aware of its own cleverness. Help me explain to him why he’s wrong.
He’s not wrong.
Umm… You know we’re talking about your act, right?
Yeah, yeah. But if somebody thinks that something is funny or not funny, they’re right. In either case, they’re right. It’s not my job to convince anybody. All I’m trying to do is find the people who like what I do. It’s a big enough world. There are three hundred million people in the country. I’m going for an audience of a hundred million. The other two hundred million people don’t have to like what I do, that’s fine, I don’t need them. If I get a hundred million who find me funny, I’ll be fine.
That’s extremely mature, and slightly opposite of human nature. Don’t you think about the people who hate you and why they hate you and what you could do to change their minds?
I really don’t. I mean sure, I take it personally. As a comic, I’m just trying to be authentic. You’re trying to be yourself. For better or worse, your personality is what you’re selling. So it is really weird when people on the Internet say they hate you or they don’t like you. Because they’re not just talking about your jokes. They’re talking about you. With social media and the Internet, everybody has a voice and they can just malign you and say whatever they want about you and that’s just the world. It’s an unhealthy bargain, but it comes with the territory. You have to leverage your identity so you can make a living. But it gets better if you put it in the right perspective. Like your editor friend at Vanity Fair. What’s his name?
Right. I can’t argue with Mike, and I can’t disagree with him. Because what he thinks is funny is what he thinks is funny.
You sure you don’t want to argue with him? I can get him on the line right now.
No, that’s okay. Comedy is just one of those things that’s hard to nail down. It changes constantly based on the context. If I did a standup show in front of a group of people, and they laughed at my jokes, that would seem to be a rather objective measure for that particular group of people about what is or isn’t funny at that exact moment. And if they didn’t laugh, that’s also pretty objective. But it’s that group dynamic of subjective opinions. Each of them is just a subjective cell in that whole organism of the audience. And when I put them together, then I can get a pretty good measure. It’s like averages, you know?
So Mike is throwing off your curve?
Only if he’s in the audience. If I did a show and Mike was there, or if it’s a club filled with Mike Hogans, then nothing in my act would be funny. But if there are no Mikes at all, then I might think, “Okay, these joke are kinda funny.” Neither response is wrong, it just changes based on the context. I don’t know if that makes sense.
It does. What you’re saying is that if you showed up at a nightclub and there’s an audience of several hundred Vanity Fair editors named Mike Hogan, who I guess were cloned in some sinister experiment in the Conde Nast basement, like an army whose sole purpose is to not laugh at your jokes, then you probably shouldn’t do the gig.
[Laughs.] Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.