Most stand-up comedians go onstage and throw everything they've got at the crowd, striving to crack them up. Demetri Martin approaches the art from a different angle. He makes the crowd think first, then laugh with his cerebral comedy.
For me the game is how to get ideas down to the fewest words. I think my obsessing over brevity helped sharpen my voice quicker. I kind of got down to the essentials of what my perspective is. I come from more of a writer perspective for sure. I was never a class clown; I was more of a nerd.
NYU Law School on a scholarship but left after two years to pursue comedy. What made you take such a quick left turn?
After getting there I realized that it wasn't going to work for me. Luckily I was in Greenwich Village, where there are comedy clubs. I'd walk by these places thinking I should try that because I like joking around. People told me to finish law school so I'd have something to fall back on. But I realized that I don't want to fall back on anything else. I just felt that I had to go for this. They say leap and a net will appear. I think that's true sometimes.
One of my favorite Woody Allen quotes is: "The audience teaches you how you're funny." I think that is really true. When I've told blue jokes, they usually didn't land. The crowd doesn't really want that from me. It seems like a crutch, so I was never attracted to it. By natural selection, blue material didn't make it into my act.
How come you steer away from topical material?
I've never been attracted to topical jokes. For me it's not worth the energy. I'm slow and steady. I like to be off on the side with my own ideas and let them sit out there for a while.
Was your style of comedy hard to sell in the beginning?
When I started, I couldn't get stage time in the clubs. I remember one club owner said to me, "You are too low energy and cerebral, so I can't use you." I was really surprised. I didn't realize that being cerebral was a liability.
How much of comedy is confidence?
In stand-up, confidence is helpful in taking command of the room and keeping people engaged. I don't know how much confidence has to do with ideas that might stay with you and being funny in a surprising, deeper way. The audience is such an important part of whether that comedy works or not. It all depends on who they are and how they respond.
What types of people gravitate to your shows?
When I meet people after my show, I found that almost 100 percent of them I'd hang out with. Everybody is usually pretty nice and patient. I don't know how ethnically diverse my crowd is. I guess it's a lot of white people.
It isn't for some people, which is really liberating. It's just about taste. If I eat a piece of asparagus and I say, "This asparagus is delicious." Then you eat it and say, "It's terrible." We're both right. I can't convince you that it's delicious because it's your taste buds. I guess I'm just asparagus to certain people.