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Talking Improv, Twitter, and Kevin Kline with comedian Demetri Martin

A Long Way from Flip Charts

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It's odd to hear stand-up comic, actor, artist, and musician Demetri Martin refer to himself as a "one-liner" comedian. While it's true that his most recent standup special, Live (At The Time) is a collection of lines like, "I have an 'L' shaped sofa. Lowercase," many of Martin's most memorable moments (whether it's onstage, as a correspondent on The Daily Show or on his own Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin) prominently feature his guitar playing along with his drawings and animations. But in his own mind, he still regards himself as a Steven-Wright-inspired comic who rattles off a series of brief-but-memorable bon mots.

"I started with one-liners, and I still gravitate towards that," Martin says. "Sometimes I vary up how I deliver them; I play guitar with them or put drawings with others, but I must've used 120 jokes or something like that on the Netflix special."

And as far as Martin is concerned, that collection of jokes is gone for good. He feels like the time when a comedian could slowly create an hour of material by workshopping jokes in front of an audience is gone. "People can go look them up online," he says. "Sometimes it feels like people even watch them right before they come and see me. That, for a lot of us, means we really have to write new stuff faster, especially if you want to be on the road with it. So I'm working on a new batch of jokes and drawings."

In fact, for a while, he considered Twitter the bane of his existence, for various reasons. "I would try a joke for the first time and people were already tweeting it," he says. "It's so easy for people to do that. A lot of comedians have trouble with that because you're building your new hour and people have a chance to broadcast it before you're really finished with it. It's a humbling thing, because we need audiences to develop our work. Musicians might need that too, but it seems to me that you could write an album in your house without anybody hearing it and then release an hour of music that no one's ever heard before. But with stand-up, someone's heard it along the way. That does puncture that intimacy."

But it was also a problem because it made a lot of other comedians who typically did longer bits into interlopers on his territory. "Twitter, I think, has made a lot of comics into one-liner comics because of the character limit," he says. "So that was kind of a bummer for me because I felt like, 'Jeez, I've been doing one liners for a long time and now everyone's doing it.'"

As a response to that trend, Martin has also started to improvise a lot more, which might be surprising to those who have seen his older performances. His delivery is so offbeat and singular that it's difficult to imagine him interrupting his rhythm to try something new. "I like that because it keeps it fresh," he says. "It's become more fun for me than telling jokes because it's more like making jokes with the audience. It feels like more of a conversation with the audience. The jokes are still there but there are nice breaks where it makes it a little more present. I felt less precious about someone sharing that because it's different every night. It mitigated some of the stress."

It might seem like a big risk to work without a net onstage, but Martin says that after 15 years of stand-up comedy, he's reached just the right level of fame to improvise well with his audience. "I'm lucky, because even if I don't draw the biggest crowds, people are excited to see me and what I do," he says. "It's a nice thing when you get to that place where you're not doing a show where people don't know what to expect. They're giving you the benefit of the doubt for a window of your time when you're onstage. I'm grateful for that. It's pretty validating."

While on the road, Martin tries to stay disciplined, writing and drawing as much as possible. And that discipline has resulted in his first movie, Dean, a film that he wrote, directed and starred in. "It going to be coming out in the spring," he says. "I got Kevin Kline to play my father in it, which was great because I'm a fan of his. And it was really fun working with him. It's a comedy but it's kind of dramatic in some ways. I worked really hard on it. When you decide that you want to write and direct something and put it on camera, there's a lot of hubris in that. You've raised the stakes in a lot of ways. I found that it really compelled me to work my ass off to not embarrass myself."


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