Over the past few years, Demetri Martin has emerged as one of the leading stand-up comedians in America. Already long popular in the U.K. due to his successful stints at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Martin has become a sensation in the U.S. due to his “Trendspotting” feature on The Daily Show, his stand-up special, Demetri Martin: Person., and his variety show for Comedy Central, Important Things With Demetri Martin, now in its second season. He has become a favorite of the college crowd, and his use of music is often an integral part of his act, such as this inspired bit about getting his harmonica “the cool way.” Last summer, Demetri Martin starred as an actor in the movie Taking Woodstock, based on the memoirs by Elliot Tiber and directed by Ange Lee. Here, Martin, talks about the role of music in comedy (and vice versa), why college is awesome, and his experiences with Taking Woodstock.
You use a lot of lo-fi and twee music in your act (along with glockenspiels and unneccessary bells). How did you begin to integrate that into your act?
Years ago I did a one-man show. When I started I just told one-liners on stage. My first attraction to comedy was to just think of jokes and then go tell them on stage. And then I got an idea to do a show that was a little more involved that would have a whole structure to it. I wanted to see if I could get the audience to laugh using a different presentation. When I started writing that show I thought, “I’d love to score it. I’d love for certain parts of this to have certain kinds of music.” That got me into playing music, which I knew wouldn’t be easy. But then I learned guitar with a book that told you how to make chords. Most of the show was in C-major, and it was very simple, and then I added a glockenspiel — harmonicas were kind of a challenge. It started out as just a task for myself to see if I could score moments. If I wanted to be more hopeful, what chords what I do? And, likewise, what if I wanted to do something darker? What was amazing to me was it didn’t take that much ability to add an emotional moment a little nudge. That led later to performing on stage.
Traditionally there was a lot of integration between music and comedy. Do you feel like it’s coming back into favor?
A lot of it’s hard to gauge. A lot of people haven’t heard of Victor Borge. Henny Youngman used a violin. But I don’t even know how many people know who Henny Youngman is who aren’t into comedy. When you think of silent films like Chaplin’s, music was the only sound and scores were everything. Maybe it’s just that things have ebbed and flowed a little bit, and people have used it differently who’ve been popular over the years, like Steve Martin and the banjo. Even Andy Kaufman playing the bongos was a big bit — bongos and crying. But then there were Seinfeld and other guys who were really big and don’t use music. I guess in the ’80s the stand-up acts weren’t as musical, so what people of our generation know to be stand-up comedy is ’80s stand-up comedy. Like, “Here’s this next guy with a microphone and a brick wall.”
I think a lot of people are surprised when they learn you’re in your late 30s. Do you think your connection with technology and “Trendspotting” on The Daily Show gives you more of a connection to a college-aged audience?
I think the weird thing is when I started doing comedy in 1997, comedy didn’t seem as big a thing at the time. It was hard to get audiences. Even at the clubs in New York, people weren’t coming out that much to see it. I didn’t know a lot of comedians who made their living off college shows. But then something happened. I guess people started finding comedy on the Internet and promoting comedy on the Internet, and they didn’t have to rely on comedy clubs. And that college audience is a big audience. Bands are still one of the bigger gets for college, for spring-fling kind of events, but there’s a growing arena for comedy there. I like doing college crowds; I liked college, and maybe that helps me stay relatable. When I do colleges, the crowds don’t seem so cynical, and they’re up to let you try things and they encourage experimentation. It’s a really hopeful age.
You seem to find a lot of comedy about how people use music in their everyday life. How do you work on putting music culture into your act?
One of my favorite live performances is always music. When I see someone performing music, there’s a certain level of commitment and connection with the audience. Comedy is great, but music is so visceral. When I think about seeing music live, even if I don’t particularly love the band or their music, I still appreciate it. People can get an emotional connection by telling stories in comedy, which is great, but I seem to get the most moved by music. You can get comedy’d out when you’re always going to comedy shows and going backstage and all your friends are comedians. It’s harder for me to get music’d out.
Is it a similar situation with basketball players and rappers, where comedians want to be musicians and musicians want to be comedians?
Yeah, I think so. I think there are some really funny musicians. When I go and hang out with musicians, they’re funny in this really great way, where it’s not like they’re trying to be funny. And it’s not like they need to be funny in order to have some sense of self or accomplishment. They can just be an awesome guitar player or an awesome drummer. For comedians it can be more challenging, like you’re trying to prove something.
I wanted to talk about Taking Woodstock, because I think your character was a pretty good example of how freeing and exciting music can be when it’s not really part of your life.
That was interesting because when they approached me my thought was, “Wow, I’m going to be in a movie about Woodstock.” What was surprising to me was this side story. The music was present, but it wasn’t about the concert in the way people would expect it. What was cool about it was it was like a time machine to a smaller, local story rather than a portal to some big historical event. It was a story about a guy and his parents, what it feels like to be alienated and not sure of yourself at the time, but surrounded by this cultural moment. It was really cool. I just love ’60s music and late-’60s fashion and art.
You’ve talked about how you come from a family that didn’t really have an artistic background, and how weird it was seen to go into that. Were you able to tap into something more autobiographical with that role?
I think that’s a good point. My parents were the children of immigrants, so there was a slight generational gap. But having said that, I came from a family that focused more on business and practical matters, much less on things like art expressing yourself or music or dance. My character, Elliot, was a real person, an interior designer, but there was big difference between him and his parents. But there was something I could relate to with my family. Though they do like sports. They’re big sports guys, but that’s quite a difference.
You’ve been working on a couple of movies that are in development. How are those going?
The movie Will, that’s a movie I had a long time ago. I worked on developing it, and it took me years. Then the script kind of sat on the shelf and was reignited this year. Now it’s gotten the green light, and we’re supposed to work on it this summer. I get a small part in it, but I still get to work on it and rewrite it. Jonathan Dayton and Val Faris are the directors (Little Miss Sunshine), Paul Rudd will star in it, and Zach Galifianakis will be in it. I’m really excited that it’s becoming a film. That’s what I’m going into right after the show [Important Things].
Demetri Martin’s TV show, Important Things With Demetri Martin, airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central. Taking Woodstock was released on DVD and Blue Ray on Dec. 19. More info can be found at http://www.demetrimartin.com/.