There's an illustration in Demetri Martin's new book, If It's Not Funny, It's Art, that shows a bald, bespectacled man's head suspended above two crossed arms. The caption reads, "Skull and Crossbones (when he was still alive)." OK, so that's an example of a joke that shouldn't be translated to writing (sorry), but it's a good intro for newcomers to Martin's distinct approach to joke-making.
Martin, 44, is a quiet, unassuming dude who specializes in short, minimally but smartly worded comedy. The punchlines sometimes take a second to stick, but in his specials, books and TV appearances (my favorite: as the new keytar player in Flight of the Conchords), his low-key charisma is apparent off the bat.
Martin, who is performing at Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall on Fri., Oct 20, released If It's Not Funny, It's Art in September. It's his third book of drawings, a skill he developed and integrated into his performance when he was first doing standup. Last year, he starred, produced and directed Dean, a semi-autobiographical romantic indie comedy that looks and sounds and feels very Demetri Martin. In it, he plays an illustrator (more on that later). CP spoke with Martin by phone last week, discussing his hobbies, Halloween and Ang Lee.
I saw you’re in a little bit of a break in the tour, it looks like 10 days or so off?
Yeah, it’s been nice.
What have you been doing?
Well, we had help fixing up our yard, which is a pretty boring answer. We had to put in this retaining wall and leveled the dirt and stuff and had grass put in, so I’ve been watering little trees and plants. Now it’s like 94 degrees out here for some reason, so mostly like domestic home stuff.
But when you’re on tour a lot, when I get home, you just want to be home, just stay in your pajamas or shorts, and just hang out around the house.
Yeah, housework can be weirdly relaxing.
Yeah, it really is. There’s something escapist about it that I like.
I want to talk about your drawing style. Have you always drawn in that minimalist style? Did you ever have forays into maximalism or bright colors as a kid?
I liked drawing as a kid, but like every kid, I was not trained. I’m not a trained artist now as a grownup, but where I was from, Toms River, New Jersey, in my elementary school, I remember being one of the best at drawing. I think. And then around sixth grade, seventh grade, I just stopped. I just didn’t draw anymore. Then I got into breakdancing, then skateboarding, then basketball. I wasn’t on the basketball team or anything, I was just obsessed with trying to dunk a basketball. Skateboarding endured through all of that. But, for whatever reason, I just didn’t draw.
And then when I started doing standup, I was 24. And probably a year into that, I started to draw again. I had a notebook with me all the time and when I started doing comedy, so I could write down ideas when I got them. Then drawing just started to come out again. No surprise: My ability to draw had frozen perfectly from sixth grade to adulthood. I didn’t have a phase in between where I was doing more fully rendered stuff. I used drawing as a way to communicate ideas, jokes, little cartoons. Along the way, I [took] up painting when I was in law school.
Before I did comedy, I started to paint for fun, and I still do that. It’s acrylics and oils, I haven’t done much watercolor. I don’t know what I’m doing with any of them. Again, I’m just kinda messing around at home for fun. But I do find in painting I can do more colorful, fully fleshed-out things. But they’re not really jokes, it’s really just for my enjoyment. It’s more like enjoying the process of it.
Like still life?
Yeah. Still life. Some abstract stuff. I’ve done portraits of my wife. I have two kids, I haven’t done portraits of them yet, but if I get good enough. … It took my a while to do something representing my wife that wasn’t insulting to her. You have to be good enough not to piss the person off. Like, "That’s what you think I look like?" I’m just not good enough, let me try again.
Are there any objects that you have trouble drawing?
There are probably tons. My drawing process is weird, because a lot of the time I do it right before bed. I have a little notebook on my nightstand, and on the road, I draw a lot on the road. So often I don’t even have an idea, I’m just moving the pen around, like scribbling and making shapes. Then a joke might emerge, or it might look like something, and then maybe I’ll try to redraw and do it better.
I’m not that good at drawing really anything, but with people, I’m trying to learn to draw women better. I often just draw like generic little stick figures. I don’t draw clothes, and I don’t normally draw faces. But sometimes when I draw women, they don’t look like women, or they look cartoonishly … it’d be insulting to a woman, almost like a Jessica Rabbit thing. So I’m trying to learn to draw more realistic-looking women. Not that my men look all that realistic.
When did you first get into graphs and charts?
This would be a long time ago now. I started doing standup in ’97. The first time I did drawings on stage was probably ’99 or 2000, probably around there, and included in the drawings were some graphs. I liked the idea of quantifying things, even if it was make-believe. I did my first special in 2003; I think had a few graphs in that, a few charts in that. Then when I was on the Daily Show as the youth correspondent, it was kinda cool because I would just do my own graphics, just with a Sharpie. It took no time at all. I felt like I was kinda on the forefront of that move. I feel like I got there a little early.
So I saw a comment on the trailer for your movie Dean that said, “What pen does he draw with??”
Mostly I draw with the Papermates Flair, you can just get boxes of them at Staples, easy to find. Then when I worked on my first book of drawings, I used a nib. I used India ink and I dipped the nib in there. I had never done it before.
I’ve read that there are aspects of the movie that are autobiographical. Why make this film now, at this point in your life and your career?
I’ve sold a couple of pitches and written scripts for studios, feature films that have not gotten made. And the first one I sold was in 2005. That was an idea I had in 1998. So naively, I thought that would get made — maybe it will still, but I’m pretty sure it won’t — and I was almost waiting to get my chance at movies with the one script I sold. Those are higher-concept ideas. It dawned on me eventually, that if I’m gonna try to make movies, or write movies that will get made, I’ll probably have to do it myself, which means I gotta start small.
So, for me that meant putting aside any high-concept ideas just to see if I could make a true independent film. The budget was under a million bucks; it was a 20-day shoot. My best shot at that was to do something that was grounded in reality, and that led me to Dean, which is fiction but it deals with things that I’ve been through, like losing a parent at a relatively young age, having a difficult relationship. I have two books of drawings published, so in the movie, I made my character an illustrator that just had his first book published. So that was pretty autobiographical.
But everything aside from those little similarities was fiction, which I like. I didn’t want it to be like reportage. Like, "Here’s an exact version of what I’ve been through." So, I thought, that would be a good first step to see can I get a movie to be funny, emotional, tell a heartfelt story without any high-concept element, just to get characters to work together. That was partly budgetary, because I couldn’t afford to do much else. It was also educational, or at least, or part of the first step.
Was Taking Woodstock your first leading role?
Yup. I don’t have that many. I think that’s my only, besides the one I just did.
Were there lessons you took from making that film, from working with Ang Lee, that you brought to making Dean?
Yeah, some good lessons. [It] was a great opportunity to get to work with Ang Lee, especially as an untrained, unknown actor. He was pretty serious, kinda no-bullshit, was very clear in the beginning of the process — that "What you do as a comedian and all this stuff, I’m not interested in that. I hired you as an actor." So, it taught me quickly about how collaborative that medium is. Standup teaches you vigilance, it doesn’t so much teach you collaboration. It doesn’t really teach you that much trust. Then when you make a film, and you’re there to help them execute their vision, you want people you can work well with. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good work experience. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have a good product when you’re done with the thing.
Do you like Halloween?
Yeah. I love Halloween.
Do you like scary movies?
OK. Not particularly. I’m fine with them, but I’m not drawn to them.
Did you have a go-to costume for trick-or-treating as a kid?
Regularly? No, it kind of changed every year. But I do remember these two kids on my block, it’s a funny Halloween memory for me. Their parents got them Darth Vader costumes at some point, but then they went as Darth Vader every year, both of them. But their costumes would just like slowly fall apart. [They] lost the light saber, one of the guys just had basically a flashlight, the cape was gone from one guy. So it’s just like a shittier and shittier pair of Darth Vaders every year.
One of the earliest ones I remember is being a mummy, and my mom trying to help me with the costume. She got me a couple old sheets and ripped them up, and I said, "I got it." I was like 6. I wanted to do it myself. Then I tried to pin it up myself, and I made it only about three or four houses away. I came home crying. Tighty-whities, with the sheets around my ankles.
That’s all I got. Anything you want to add?
No, just that I’m looking forward to coming back. I haven’t been to Pittsburgh in a while. I went to the Warhol museum when I was there last. Maybe I’ll check it out again.