If you’re a fan of Demetri Martin, you know he’s an unconventional comedian with interesting hair who likes to whiteboard ideas and draw during his standup routines.
He’s also a musician who plays harmonica, guitar and sometimes even a glockenspiel during his sets, and an illustrator whose black-and-white line drawings reflect his funny, smart and wry take on life. He’s also the author of two books, with a third on the way later this year.
So it’s no surprise that Martin, who served as a “senior youth correspondent” on The Daily Show and then had his own series on Comedy Central for two seasons, would try his hand at filmmaking.
But what is surprising is that instead of a comedy, he’s written, directed and starring in a dramedy called “Dean.” It centers on a young illustrator coping with the death of his mom and working out his relationship with his dad, played by Kevin Kline. Martin borrowed his character’s name from his dad, who died when he was young. Even so, he says the movie isn’t really a memoir.
“It’s fiction and nothing in the movie actually happened to me,” Martin said ahead of the film’s June 1 release. “But kind of everything emotionally has been something that I have experienced or lived through. It’s not a huge life-changing, earth-shattering story, but it’s a very personal one.”
Martin spoke with me about weaving his illustrations into his movie, why he enjoys puzzles and palindromes, why social media creeps him out and what we can expect from a future in which dogs can ride around in self-driving cars. Now 44 and a father of two, he also offered up a few observations about tech, something he did on “The Daily Show,” on which he famously called out MySpace and teens’ fascination with the Xbox 360.
“Technology is very humbling,” he says after our hour-long conversation. “I find it very challenging.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Why did you want to make this movie as your first movie?
The movie’s about grief and loss and coming out of grief. When I was 20, my dad passed away. He was 46, and he was young. My mom was widowed at 41. So our family was really devastated and in many ways has never recovered. We are fine and we’ve moved on in some ways, but you never get over it.
So [it’s] something I don’t talk about in my stand up. You know, [no one goes] out to see comedy on a Friday night and says – ‘He’s the guy with the dead dad. I can’t wait to see this.’
You’re a fan of Hal Ashby movies like “Harold and Maude” and “Being There.” How did he influence your work?
There’s a list that maybe each of us has of directors we like. And some of them are auteurs, I guess you’d call them. There is a consistent voice and tone that they develop over their careers…In Hal Ashby, I saw a certain humanity and warmth — I guess that mix of comedy and drama.
I thought about Cat Stevens, and his role in “Harold and Maude.” I love Cat Stevens, and I loved how there was one musical voice throughout that movie. That was an interesting idea to me that I was able in my own little way to do with the music of Pete Dello in my movie.
I can’t be any of those directors just like I can’t be the comedians I loved. It’s humbling but it’s also kinda fun as you make things, that you can’t escape yourself. You can’t escape your own voice.
Your film ‘voice’ turned out to be very different from your standup one.
I like jokes. I like jokes because they’re like objects. They’re like things. You can make a joke and share it with people — and you don’t have to talk about yourself. You don’t have to make it all about you and your shit.
I love movies that are just jokes, but for whatever reason I felt like I needed to dig a little deeper and share a personal story.
Your voice in the movie really shows through in your drawings.
I like to draw. I draw a lot, often before I go to bed or on airplanes. I travel so much for stand-up, I just bring little notebooks and I daydream and doodle and stuff. I thought if I make the character “Dean” an illustrator, there might be in this visual format, another axis I could tell the story on — a way to show what he’s dealing with. This development, his journey, whatever it is, and maybe get some jokes that could play.
That was cool because it was also like having a little silent film running throughout the movie.
How has your drawing changed over the years — you started drawing when you were what, like in sixth grade?
My skill level is very similar to what it was back then. I haven’t gotten much better. If I try really hard, I can draw better, but that’s just kind of how I draw. So, I’ve embraced that ’cause I realize it’s about the process for a lot of this.
The endpoint is nice, if it ends up being something that other people like. But to fall in love with the process, to me it’s a better quality of life.
I feel like I can enjoy the process of making things and coming up with ideas is validating. I feel like I’m still vital somehow. Even if it’s not objectively great, I can enjoy making this stuff.
Do you draw with your kids?
I do, yeah. My son’s three and my daughter’s 10-months old so. He draws better then she does. [Laughs]
My son — I like how he draws, I really do. He’s my son and I’m not an asshole. I’m not gonna not like his work, but it’s nice to see what he does. It’s nice compositionally. Do you know what I mean? It’s not just a random scribble. You love your kids, so they say a word and you’re like “He’s a genius! My God did you see that? He said bagel!” But to see him using colors and not being self-conscious, it’s nice.
Maybe you can learn some coloring techniques?
I feel like I genuinely can. I just see him making choices and I’m just gonna copy what he did (Laughs.) Abstract expressionism, you know?
As a kid, you were pretty convinced you wanted to be a lawyer. Why?
I was class president for the first time in sixth grade, and I never lost an election, through law school. And I realize now that it was because I was comfortable talking in front of people. I had no policies, I had no ideas, I had nothing. I wasn’t a government person, but I guess I gave a good-enough speech where they’d be like, “Sure I’ll vote for him.”
But you dropped out after your second year — and after an internship in the Clinton White House — to become a comic.
I got to law school and I found out quickly that it required a level of thoroughness that I don’t naturally have. I’m just not a through person. A month into law school, I felt like, this sucks.
My standup jokes are short. I think that’s not a mistake. I don’t have much more on each topic. I say a sentence or two, and I’m like, “All right, let’s just try for something else to talk about.” I’m not going to go that deep.
You’re a big fan of palindromes and wrote one while you were an undergraduate at Yale for a fractal geometry class for non-math majors. How did you become a palindrome poet?
The point is I thought is,”Hey, I’ll write a poem that is a palindrome. And I’ll have sentences that are palindromes in it and then words in the sentences that are palindromes themselves. And therefore I’ve created what we’ll call a fractal because it’s on three levels. It’s palindromic. And I’ve met the requirements of the assignment.”
It had to have certain properties, and one of them was that self-similarity thing. So I did it. It took a while. It was hard to write it. And when I handed it in, the professor loved it. He gave me 100 on it and a special note. He was like, “When you mentioned this project, I expected something much shorter.” I was elated. This is one of the great accomplishments of my life. It’s a 224-word palindrome. I did it. So then, years later I repurposed it and I put it into a stand-up set, which went into a one-man show where I had a slideshow.
You might know there’s a French writer, George Perec, [who] wrote a palindrome that was 5,000 letters long in French. So I was like, I want to do that in English. So that’s why I put it in my first book. I thought, it would be national press [laughs]. Nobody cares about my 500-word palindrome. I’m running a race, nobody cares about. It’s borderline gibberish, but it does work as a palindrome.
That’s why I like writing jokes by the way. I just like puzzles. I like the game. There’s something very validating about that — when you feel like you solve something. The audience usually tells me if I solve the problem. If they’ve laughed at the joke, I feel like cool, I solved it. You know, it worked.
So it’s all about the challenge?
I read in a book once about the internal locus of control versus the external — where if you get your self-worth from something that’s more internal, that might be a healthier road to travel as you age, where as the external can be very difficult.
So I built my career on the external, because I need people’s validation. I want the crowd to like me and laugh at my jokes. But along the way, the things that I’ve found that have been more internally focused make me feel like I like myself. And it’s a steadier development than relying on an audience each night.
You were a contributor to “The Daily Show” and did a famous skit in 2006 mocking MySpace and introducing that audience to social media. How would you write that skit today?
Man, I don’t think I could do that skit today. I find it very humbling. I don’t know how you all get your heads around it as things change, it seems, by the minute. I find it, as a public person, very difficult to navigate social media. And as a 44-year-old man, I feel somewhat alienated. I don’t get a lot of it.
I don’t want to be on Facebook Live. I don’t want people to have smiley faces flying in front of me when I’m doing jokes. I think it’s insidious and it’s fucked up. I think they’re purposefully manipulating people’s pleasure centers in their brains. I’m worried for my kids and for myself.
So social networks in particular freak you out.
Obviously there are huge benefits to the developments in the tech world and I get to have audiences because of it. In the generation before mine in comedy, if you were lucky enough to get on “The Tonight Show,” that’s how you got an audience. [Now] I can use Facebook and Twitter. There are huge upsides but man it seems perilous — like it’s just so cold. It’s so snarky.
You’ve said one of the biggest negatives online are the comments. Can you explain?
On Facebook, I have a public page. I can’t disable comments. So if I post a joke, if I post a drawing, I don’t have the choice of just letting it be the piece of work that I intended it to be. I am forced into a dialogue with people.
So I was trying to figure what would be an analog of that, but say for a museum. I like museums. I like art. I just went and saw the Matisse-Diebenkorn thing [in San Francisco] yesterday. I thought it was great. But in my piece, it was gonna be you come into the museum, and when you enter, they greet you with a Sharpie and a thing of Post-Its. They say “Thank you for coming into the museum. Please put your comments under all the paintings on the wall. Your comments are important to us.’
Now I get to go look at a Matisse, I don’t just get to see the Matisse. I get to see “faggot” under it, “you suck,” “too pink.”
My problem with it is that they’re changing the content. I like to look at the painting and just think what I think, even if I’m stupid. I wanna have my experience. I wanna not know what I don’t know, you know what I mean? I don’t wanna be told, and I don’t wanna have a dialogue with Matisse. I just wanna look at his paintings.
I’m not Matisse, but my work’s important to me. That’s part of my frustration. I just find it challenging.
Is there a piece of tech, though, that you wish were invented, that you would actually love to have?
If there was something that stimulated empathy. I don’t know if there is, but that would be good.
I can’t wait to see driverless cars. I think that’ll be interesting because it’ll just be a matter of time before people figure out they can just get a car for their dogs. It’ll be like, “Honey where are the dogs?” I got a car they’re just driving around for an hour [laughs]. Can you imagine being at a red light and a car full of dogs just pulls up next to you? And they just drive away? That’ll be incredible. I mean that’ll be great. The dogs will love it. They’ll be like, “Finally I’m driving. I knew it. I can do it.”
And then if you get into an accident with dogs — like, aw, these dogs hit me, it’s not a big deal. I mean, come on!
You asked for my thoughts on tech. I’ll say most people like me who’ve covered tech a long time have learned that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Man I agree with that. You develop stuff, whether tech or not tech, and then it’s someone else’s problem. You don’t have to be responsible for it. Which I guess is great in a way because it encourages creativity and development but it is scary when things get out there and it’s like, “Sorry, we didn’t know.” Yeah, but you’re blowing up the planet. “I know, but it’s a great app.” [Laughs]
One thing I’ve been reading a lot about is. I’ve been working on my next script and I want it to take place in the tech world. So I’m trying to learn.
When people talk about consciousness and the singularity — machines that can really think and feel — they talk about how much they will improve our lives and how many of the, let’s call them menial things, they will eliminate from our daily responsibilities. It just seems so myopic to me. Because aren’t there people who still don’t have running water? And a very large percentage of the world, they don’t have toilet paper and clean water.
It’s a nice fantasy in the bubble I guess, but I think the future — it’s really for who? I mean for rich white people probably, I guess it trickles down slowly, but it just seems like such a mismatch. I was raking in my backyard, I don’t know, a month ago. When I was done, I felt really good. I was like, cleaned up some shit. I had a specific goal and I did it. It felt intrinsically valuable.
Some of the things I’ve read, they’re like, “We’re not going to have to do this or that.” I’m like, but shouldn’t we sweep and stuff? Like shouldn’t you clean up your own house? I feel like it’s part of being a human being.
So tech shouldn’t do everything for us just because it can?
When I was a kid, the ideas about the future — they involved more responsibility or at least being enabled to do more. As you externalized your brain, we can do more. I get it. And I can kind of remember more becaise this [pointing to his iPhone] is remembering it for me.
But when I was little, I thought there would be flying cars that you would fly. So that’s way more responsibility than driving a car. But no, we’re gonna take away driving. You don’t have to even drive anymore. Just sit somewhere. So that’s driving now, just sitting somewhere.
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