Demetri Martin Talks Palindromes, Jersey Shore, and Groupies

How awesome would it have been if comedian Demetri Martin were our fifth-grade teacher? Maybe then we would've grown up to be entertaining, witty, and interesting. But instead God gave us Mr. Wiener, some bald jerk with a lazy eye who seemed to hate children almost as much as he hated himself.

Today, though, Demetri Martin is finally helping us all overcome our inherent humorlessness. Deploying an ever-expanding arsenal of graphs, charts, tables, logic games, and the like, this 37-year-old fan of fun and knowledge is teaching the world to laugh.

A couple of days ago, Cultist chatted with Demetri about bowl cuts, nerdly pursuits, and hanging out with Flight of the Conchords.

New Times: How long have you had the bowl cut? For some reason, I imagine you were born with that hair.

Demetri Martin: You know I actually did have a pretty similar haircut as a kid. I was born in the '70s, so I guess it wasn't that weird back then. Later I wanted to have like spiked hair and stuff. So I kind of had spiked hair in middle school. But it came back by the time ... I guess I was actually out of college. So it's been quite awhile that I've had some version of a Beatles haircut.

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When did you first become a fan of charts and graphs and logic games and palindromes? It seems like those things could've been childhood obsessions.

Yeah. Puzzle books and stuff like that were pretty early parts of my entertainment book reading. And then palindromes were like, yeah, probably around high school. I just found some puzzle book once. I used to work in my family's diner. Sometimes I'd work as a busboy, sometimes as a waiter, and sometimes I'd have to be the host where you seat people and then sit up by the cash register and stuff. So I'd bring those books and I remember one day seeing this weird poem in there and I couldn't figure out the answer to the puzzle. The answer was that it was a palindrome, the same forward and backwards through the whole poem. So I thought, "Oh, this is kind of interesting." That wasn't a natural fit probably for where I was raised, because I'm from Toms River, New Jersey, which is the town right next to where Jersey Shore takes place. Although I guess you guys have some experience with Jersey Shore now as well. They spent time down there, I guess. I've never seen that show.

Yeah. They terrorized South Beach.

That's kind of the vibe where I grew up, although it was an earlier time. I don't know if there's anyplace where palindromes really flourish, but it certainly wasn't the Jersey Shore. That was sort of my own little thing. Years later when I started doing standup, I kind of made the connection for myself that what I like about comedy for me is that the jokes are fun little pun experiments or puzzles in a way. It's like deconstructing really basic things and trying to find a funny answer to them.

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You went to law school, right? Was it something you wanted to do? Or were your parents hoping you'd become a lawyer?

For me, it was a misfire of my own doing. It was a goal since, I'd say, seventh grade. I thought, "Yeah, yeah ... Lawyer. Maybe corporate lawyer." You know, not even knowing what that was at the time, I thought, "Oh, yeah. Corporate lawyer." And then I got into law school and I ended up going there to do public interest law. But pretty quickly I realized that I just wasn't passionate about practicing law. I really had no other plan.

I did two years and then I left. And that summer after I left was the first time I ever got on stage. I realized immediately after I tried that, "This is what I want to spend my time doing." I mean, I had to go get temp jobs and figure out a way to make a living and everything.

 

Like most art, comedy doesn't really pay. What did you do to feed yourself between law school and making it big?

Well, in New York, you could go and get a temp job as somebody answering phones, a secretary, doing filing. Then somebody told me, "You know if you become a proofreader it pays a better hourly rate and you don't have to answer phones. You just have to correct the document." So I trained to be a proofreader. It's like a four-hour course in this lady's apartment. You go and she shows you the symbols and tells you what you have to do. And I did that and I passed the test and I became a proofreader.

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Proofreading, if you're going to do it well, requires pretty focused attention. Did that actually feed into joke ideas?

I think so. A lot of that work was about reading in a different way. You're just reading the words -- or the document, especially when I was doing legal proofreading -- as just kind of a sequence of symbols or little rules. You try not to read for content because you might miss something or you might make the same errors as the person typing it did. So you have to kind of divorce yourself from the meaning and just look at the sequence. It's almost like its own game. In that way, it requires a certain kind of concentration that can still free up your mind to think more about concepts or something. You're not really burdened with the concept when you're doing proofreading, you're just looking at like, "OK, great. Period, space, space, capital letter."

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You joke that your nerdly pursuits turn off potential sex partners. But you're kinda famous now. So do you have groupies? Or at least a stalker?

When I was in the UK, comedy seemed to be received a little differently than it is here. And I'd see guys who had what seemed like groupies. I'm friends with the Conchords. I met them in 2003. And those guys have always seemed to kind of have groupies, not that they hook up with the groupies or anything. But they seem to have a good female following. They're musicians and I think they're legitimate musicians and I think they're funny guys. Over here, I find the closes thing I have to a groupie is a teenage guy who wants to be a comedian and wants to talk about being comedian, almost an earlier version of myself coming to talk to me, which isn't sexual at all.

Demetri Martin. Friday, August 20. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets cost $33.75. Visit livenation.com.


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