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Demetri Martin, from stand-up comedian to filmmaker

Comedian Demetri Martin has made a semi-autobiographical indie

Comedian Demetri Martin has made a semi-autobiographical indie film with Kevin Kline. Credit: Getty Images / John Sciulli

If we need a Woody Allen for a new generation, Demetri Martin may be the guy.

In his first film, “Dean,” a quirky, thought-provoking comedy he wrote, directed and stars in, Martin plays the title role — a young cartoonist who struggles to make sense of his career, love life and place in the world in the wake of his mother’s death. His father (Kevin Kline) is trying to do the same thing, but the two aren’t connecting. In real life, it was Martin’s dad who died young, and he decided to name his character after his father as a tribute. The film hit area theaters last week and expands into more this week.

Martin, 44, who grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, is married and has two children. He has appeared on shows like “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

So how hard is the transition — stand-up to filmmaker?

Hard! As a stand-up comedian, you generally work alone, so to do a project with collaborators is special. But I felt pressure — I mean, actors like Kevin Kline, he’s doing me a favor. And, you know, it’s an indie film. Low-budget. No frills. There’s no trailer for changing — a lot of times, we’re changing in a bathroom at some location. I’ve heard these stories but the first time you do it, you realize, “Wow, this is tough.”

Why do you think Kline agreed to do it?

I don’t know. He told me Steve Martin said, “Yeah, Demetri’s good.” Now I don’t know him but somebody else once told me that Steve Martin liked my stand-up, which is one of the great compliments you can get.

The film includes a lot of your own drawings, which you’ve used in your stand-up.

Yeah, I draw all the time.

I heard you drew a lot as a kid, then stopped in sixth grade, and picked it up later in your 20s. Why’d you stop?

I got into break-dancing around sixth grade, and that was my passion. Jersey Shore, right? But also . . . I come from a family that’s not really keen on the arts. My dad was a funny guy. My mom loved cooking, and was creative in that sense. But I didn’t know any grown-ups who were writers, dancers or musicians. Certainly no comedians. That sort of thing is unspoken but it does set the table for what you think is possible.

Absolutely. Although sometimes you don’t realize what you’re seeing. My dad played drums on weekend gigs, but I thought of him as a businessman, because that was his main job.

That’s like my kids — their Dad’s a comedian. Which is hilarious they take that for granted. They’re little, 3 and 1. My son is old enough to kind of understand, oh, Daddy’s backstage. But that’s normal to him. Like with you and your dad, you probably didn’t realize till you grew up, “Ohhh, not many dads play the drums.”


But taking that leap into the arts when nobody around you has done that . . . it’s hard. And wanting your parents’ approval.

You went to Yale, completed two years of law school, then dropped out to become a comedian.

My mom was really disappointed. I could see it was breaking her heart. But once I’d disappointed people, and failed at something for a while . . . it changed things. I felt freer to experiment and not be as afraid to fail. Stand-up is great for that. You bomb. A lot. Even after you’re established. You try out new material, and sometimes it just falls flat.

Why didn’t you finish that last year of law school? There seems something almost angry about your choice.

There was a kind of a defiance. I had my little quarter-life crisis. I thought, “I want to be passionate about what I do.” My dad died when I was 20 and he was only 46. You realize life is short.

And, your mom?

My mom . . . sadly . . . she got early-onset Alzheimer’s when she was 56.

I’m sorry. I wondered, because when you talked about her earlier, you used the past tense.

Yeah . . . she’s technically alive, but doesn’t know who I am. She can’t talk anymore. She’s sort of catatonic. So this film, which is about losing a parent, ends up being a love letter to both my parents. I gotta say, I feel lucky I had parents who loved each other and loved us. Nobody beat anybody up. But sometimes I think . . . it’s amazing . . . how we’re all going through stuff. It’s a shame we don’t have patches, or hats we can wear, that say, “Hey, I lost somebody in the last year so, . . . maybe take it easy on me, y’know?”

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