Demetri Martin on Woody Guthrie, prop-comedy and not being a hipster
Demetri Martin is headed for Denver
Demetri Martin's polished micro-jokes, nervous stare and intense appreciation of aesthetics have made him a welcome antidote to the wave of loud and sloppy comedians who have dominated the scene over the last decade. In advance of Martin's visit to Comedy Works South this Sunday for two shows (one is sold-out), we caught up with the floppy-haired emodian (emo + comedian = emodian) to get his thoughts on music in standup, whether hipsters will die out, and what it was like being a 34-year-old "Senior Youth Correspondent" for The Daily Show. See also: - When Obama appears as Satan, where's Stephen Colbert? - Comedian Adam Cayton-Holland debuts new podcast with Ben Roy interview - Kickstarter campaign for Denver comedy documentary Joke Life now live
Westword: You incorporate so much live music into your act -- have you done many shows on the same bill with a band? I hear that can be pretty tricky for a comic.
Demetri Martin: I've done a few shows with bands, and it's usually not a good recipe for comedy. Especially if people aren't there specifically to see comedy. If they're there to see a band or something else, comedy is usually an unwelcome surprise, and the comedian gets the brunt of it.
I can imagine, especially considering your style requires an audience to be drawn in, as opposed to a more loud, hysterical comic like Russell Brand.
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Yeah, those situations usually didn't go too well for me. I've done music festivals in the comedy tent. And that usually goes pretty well, but it still has that feeling to it where it's like: We're at a music festival -- oh, and there are some comedians here. And yet there's been such a huge cultural overlap between music and comedy in the last twenty years.
And I'm grateful for that. It's been cool to have a comedy audience in some unconventional rooms -- the comedy club scene is a late-'70s or '80s invention. There are other ways to do comedy. I was talking to Albert Brooks once -- who's one of my favorite comedians -- and he told me how he used to open for Neil Diamond. I thought that was cool.
The way you utilize an instrumental guitar to complement your jokes and stories reminds me a lot of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger performances. The way they used to do comedy banter between songs while still absently plucking the guitar.
That's funny: I have this friend Marcellus Hall who was in a band called Railroad Jerk, and he gave me a cassette of Woody Guthrie's Talking Blues after he first saw me perform. I listened to it, and I was like, "oh yeah, I can totally see the similarity." It was cool, because there was a musicality to it, but he was also just in and out of the meter.
For me, [playing guitar during comedy] comes out of the idea of scoring what I was saying. Not doing a song parody, or even a song. Because as much as I wish I could, I really can't seem to pull off singing. But I do like playing music, and listening to it. And what I feel like music can do to a scene, or an idea, as an accompaniment, is just amazing.
It's like the soundtrack to a film: It can't dominate the scene, only season it.
Yeah, it's amazing how, if you make some interesting choices, you don't even have to be a great musician. Just with some simple chord changes, it can have a real affect.
You also use a lot of other -- for lack of a better word -- props on stage. Would you hate to be referred to as a "prop comedian," like Gallagher or Jeff Dunham?
I don't really care about any title. The thing is, I do one-liner jokes, which is arguably the oldest way to do comedy. Really tight, simple jokes. And people who have seen me know that I do a ninety-minute set, and the drawings are about six or seven of the ninety, the guitar is maybe ten. So it's still a headlining set of simple, spoken jokes.
So when people call me a "prop comedian" or "musical comedian," they either don't know what my show is or they don't like me very much and they're trying to ghettoize me into a little category. But if I cared about all that, I would've stopped doing it years ago.
I was watching one of your Trendspotting segments from The Daily Show back in the mid-2000s when you were reporting on Myspace. It felt like such a casual piece about young people and their social media, before it caught on with most Internet users. Did it feel at the time like you were reporting on something very big?
That's interesting. I don't know if I had such foresight. I remember the original idea when we did that piece was: "Hey, Demetri, you have a Myspace page, I think it would be cool if you covered this." I didn't think I was reporting on anything special; I had no idea that it would become such a huge part of my life.
I often wonder if that will wane, or if it will take another form. Because all the kids on Facebook today -- the kids who have had Facebook their whole lives -- I wonder if their kids will be as interested in doing it. Maybe privacy will become something cool again, who knows?
You were about 34 when you were the "Senior Youth Correspondent" for The Daily Show....
That, to me, was kind of the joke. I didn't think I was that "youthful." You looked youthful, though. You could've passed for early twenties.
Yeah, but to me, that's part of the bit. I mean, Jon Stewart's only ten years older than I am. He would act like he was old and didn't know what was going on, and I did, like I was so much younger than he was. It reminded me of Michael J. Fox being in his mid-twenties while playing a high-schooler in Back to the Future.
Yeah, or Ralph Machio was in his mid- or late-twenties during Karate Kid.
Do you feel that social media has changed comedy? Is it essential that a comedian have a Twitter account?
I don't know. There are comedians who have amassed followers through Twitter. I participate in it, reluctantly. I get that it helps get people coming to my shows, but I prefer delivering jokes in person. I like developing my act in front of an audience. I was a late-adopter, but people had set up accounts in my name and I had to go fight for my identity. And I resent that. I wish you could opt out easier.
I know you said you hate titles, but I'd like to get your opinion on a certain word, either applied to yourself or other people: Hipster.
Yeah, I don't know. I started doing standup in '97 in New York, and I couldn't get stage time in most of the clubs, so I was called an "alternative comic." And most people came to use that term pejoratively. It started as "alternative" and then it became "hipster." I've been considered a hipster by some people, and not one by others.
It's a label with a very fuzzy definition. I've heard it applied to so many different types of people, always negatively.
I've certainly used it negatively. Sometimes I'll go somewhere, and it will feel a little too hipster for me, there's a kind of exclusionary feel to it. And maybe the hipsters from our era, right now, will help future generations define what this era was for us, for better or worse. In the same way that hippies were for the '60s. So you're saying we're a generation of hipsters?
I don't know if we're a generation of hipsters, but I'm guessing in ten or twenty years you can look back and be like, "Oh look, mustaches, tight-jeans, fixed gear bikes," that all might end up being time-specific. Maybe it'll slowly evaporate. Demetri Martin will perform at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 24 at Comedy Works South. Tickets are $35 (a second show is sold-out); for more information, visit www.comedyworks.com
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