Demetri Martin tells Hannah Story he’s too old to care if he’s labelled a “one-liner comedian” or, the greatest comedy slur of all, "a prop comic".
Demetri Martin has a straightforward explanation for why it’s taken him eight years to return to Australia: he’s “been domesticated mostly”. After last touring here in 2011, he married designer Rachael Beame in 2012. Over the intervening years, he dropped two Netflix specials, Live (At The Time) and The Overthinker, and directed his first film, 2016’s Dean.
“I got married and we got a house and we fixed up the house and then had two children and I'm finally leaving – just temporarily,” he laughs.
He says that now his kids are older, he can afford to tour more than just a few days at a time across the States, as far afield as Australia and New Zealand with his new material, Wandering Mind. “My kids are still young, but I think that we can all handle it as a family. We'll see how it goes.
“I'm excited for all of it. Some of the travel I'm dreading a little bit, but I'm trying to get the books that I have wanted to read, and I like to draw a lot, so I think, ‘Ok, let me treat it as much as I can as sort of a getaway.’”
When he’s on tour in other cities, Martin likes to visit museums and used bookstores, and to people watch. “I'm a big people watcher so usually I can hit a cafe or something [and] grab a notebook, because it's often an opportunity – just jokes will arrive.”
While he thinks he should “do probably some more outdoor stuff”, he says he feels guilty sightseeing without Beame.
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“I feel a certain guilt, ‘cause I’m the one travelling and my wife can’t go, and she’s the better traveller than I am. It makes me sometimes feel bad if I do things that she would've wanted to do but then I get to do them alone.
“Maybe that's why subconsciously I do things that she doesn't like. She hates used bookstores, 'cause it's usually just the same space – it'll be kinda musty and weird old dudes just walking around. Just like old record stores are kinda the same thing: she's like, 'You know what, can we go somewhere else?’”
Martin, while a prolific stand-up, whose Dr Earnest Parrot Presents Demetri Martin won MICF’s Barry Award for most outstanding show in 2006, might be familiar to some as The Daily Show’s so-called ‘Youth Correspondent’ from 2005 to 2008.
Now 45 years old, married with kids, he is still sometimes perceived as young: “Sometimes people are surprised that I'm as old as I am, which is sort of a compliment – that's fine.”
But he does notice that “folks are ageing along with me, so it seems like I’m keeping some of my fans”.
That idea of youthfulness may be attributed to his style of comedy, a mishmash of rapid-fire jokes, puns, drawings and music, delivered in an almost deadpan tone. Despite having released books, directed for film, and written and performed for television, does he ever feel pigeonholed as a one-liner comedian?
“I see myself as a one-liner comedian. Sometimes my wife teases me – she's not in showbiz but she'll say, 'Yeah, I don't know if you're thinking of yourself as that.' But no, that's what I wanted to be, that's what I am.
“None of that bothers me. Even prop [comic] – I don't know if anybody calls me a prop comedian, but when I was starting out in New York, this was 20 years ago now and I'm sure it's still this way, but in the States, prop comedy, that can be a pejorative. Like, 'Oh, you're a prop comic.' So if somebody wanted to give me a hard time because I have this easel and all this business, it's props. But even then now I'm older I don't care, I mean, whatever.”
For Martin the future for him lies, hopefully, in directing more films. “I think that's just a very exciting medium to try to make comedy in and tell stories in.”
He has two new movies ideas outlined, one of which he hopes to write when he gets back home to California. “I can't really do it on airplanes. I thought, 'Oh, I could write this movie while I'm touring,' but I need to keep my head in stand-up.”
That’s partly because the show is constantly evolving while he’s on tour, Martin more open to improvising now – “It feels much more spontaneous than I was probably eight years ago” – and writing new jokes while in the air.
“I've done a lot of the tour already so for me my shows in Australia and New Zealand are nicely positioned because I should have weeded out a lot of the garbage by the time I get there.”
After experimenting with the post-production side of things by incorporating voiceover in last year’s special, The Overthinker, Martin says he’s now putting a lot of thought into how he presents his shows.
“Because I liked how [The Overthinker] came out, I'm now thinking differently than I have in a while about how to present stuff, staging, maybe certain sort of audio cues, a little bit more than what I usually do, which is just flip through some drawings. I usually keep it very analogue and very easy to control because it's much more portable, but I'm finding ways even to fiddle with that, which has so far been pretty fun.”
And every night before the show Martin prepares the drawing component afresh: “In each city I get a new pad and I make adjustments.”
We wonder if Martin feels any sense that he needs to confront the changing political climate in the United States with his comedy, even as a self-described “one-liner comedian”. He speaks of a “world that’s gotten worse”.
“I mean since I started it does feel tangibly much worse than it used to be, but I don't know if it's also just because I'm older and I'm a parent and I'm worried...”
"The best I have to offer are jokes about ferris wheels and backpacks and stuff like that.”
Martin lands on the fact that he has the freedom to do whatever he wants with his stand-up – hence the combination of so many disparate elements – but that he, like any comedian, is limited by “how we’re funny and what we’re drawn to, and, I think, what inspires us”.
“I just discovered quickly that I'm not a political comedian because I'm not inspired by it… My favourite comedians are authentic, whoever they are. My friends who do political comedy, I think the ones who are good at it, they're being authentic because that's what they think about and that's how they're funny. For better or worse, the best I have to offer are jokes about ferris wheels and backpacks and stuff like that.”
Still, Martin says we need political comics “now more than we have in my lifetime”.
“But on the other hand, if that was the only kind of comedy we were seeing and hearing, it seems like it would be pretty exhausting. I've come to terms with the fact that maybe I'm in a different wing of the whole comedy thing, where I'm more of a distraction and maybe less relevant, as they say with a capital R. That's fine.”