Demetri Martin stands up for Fairview
In illustration, music and deadpan, Martin deconstructs the mundane
GREAT BARRINGTON — "The other day, I was thinking — it's weird — I was thinking I tend to overthink things. Then I thought, `Do I, though?'"
Early on in Demetri Martin's 2018 Netflix special, "The Overthinker," the comic explicitly addresses the impetus for the show's title: his tendency to fixate and ruminate.
"It was, for me, a little bit of a breakthrough," Martin said by phone Wednesday of crafting the special, "because I realized, hey, this is a problem or trait that I have, and I know that it's not that unique, and it's not anxiety, but there is something sort of inescapable for me, that kind of obsessive thinking."
He often aims that attention at the mundane. In the "The Overthinker," Reynolds Wrap copy, cupcake presentation and doughnut holes all come under scrutiny. Boring items yield jokes, he said, along with story ideas, scripts and drawings — drawings?
That's right, drawings. Martin is perhaps best known for the illustrations he displays onstage. In "The Overthinker," he flips through a large pad, demonstrating how letters can evoke unflattering human positions and how a hat can come out of a rabbit. He also strums a guitar as he offers more deadpan lines. While Martin won't repeat any of this material during his Fairview Hospital Gala performance at The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Sept. 21, he'll still deliver jokes in multiple mediums. In a shift, his "Wandering Mind" tour act will perhaps be more narrative than some of his past work.
"I've been slowly figuring out ways to incorporate stories more into the show. I'm not usually drawn to telling stories. I'm not a big autobiography kind of comic, but I've found that it can sort of vary up the presentation in a good way, so it's not just one-liner, one-liner, one-liner," Martin said.
The comic stressed that the show isn't "that" different from what he normally does. Still, he's excited to use his large illustration pad in new ways. He started employing visual art in his act shortly after his stand-up career commenced at 24, a "relatively late" beginning, he said. The Toms River, N.J., native didn't have any family members versed in the arts world.
"All of it was not even on my radar," Martin said.
His stage life took off when he dropped out of New York University School of Law. To prepare for sets, he scribbled jokes in a notebook, a practice he continues today. He also doodled and drew pictures in the journal, leading him to wonder, "Could I get extra punchlines in some of these ideas by having a visual element to go with it?" He tested it for the first time at the now-defunct Luna Lounge, one of New York City's "alternative rooms," about 20 years ago.
"It was like a Monday night show, and the idea there was that you'd experiment and try something different and try new stuff," Martin recalled. "So, that crowd was really open to that idea, that this isn't just straight stand-up."
His visual presentation went over well, and he included it in his first 30-minute TV special.
"That's led to it being a regular fixture in my sets," Martin said.
The success of his stand-up helped him land gigs with "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" and "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." He later had his own sketch and variety show, "Important Things with Demetri Martin," that ran from 2009 to 2010, and starred in Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock." More recently, he wrote, directed and acted in "Dean," a 2016 comedy-drama about a New York illustrator struggling with his mother's death. Martin's drawings feature in the film, but the logistical aspects of his filmmaking debut — nailing down a cast, booking locations — were a challenge.
"That was an experience where I kept thinking about that phrase when people say, 'You don't even know what you don't know,'" Martin said of his filmmaking debut.
The actual act of directing, however, came more naturally for the comedian, who has a couple of concepts for future scripts.
"You have ideas about how to deliver a joke or to have something work emotionally in a scene," Martin said. "So, questions about — 'Should there be two people in the shot or one, and how tight do I want to be?' — those get answered pretty quickly."
Martin's comedy has always been about resolution. During his childhood, he would play with puzzles, a hobby he now connects to his humor.
"The idea of solving ideas or jokes was always appealing, and it still is," he said. "I think that's what I like about jokes as opposed to just being a funny personality or telling a funny story. I like the game of noticing a thing and then deconstructing it."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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