“A drunk driver is very dangerous. Everyone knows that. But so is a drunk backseat driver – if he’s persuasive.”
That’s just one of approximately 10 million jokes that the wildly prolific standup comic Demetri Martin has written over his career. His comedy style – inventive one-liners, often paired onstage with visual or musical elements – has won him a huge following among both general audiences and hardcore comedy nerds.
Martin previously worked as a writer with Conan O’Brien, a correspondent on “The Daily Show” and star of his own Comedy Central show “Important Things with Demetri Martin.” He’s also written a book (“This is a Book” in 2011) and appeared in several films, including “Contagion” and Ang Lee’s criminally underrated “Taking Woodstock.”
Martin takes the stage Friday at the Carolina Theatre in Durham with an hour-plus of brand-new material. He recently spoke with the N&O about the new show, collaborative creativity and watercraft metaphors.
Q: So this is the first week of a new tour? And all new material?
A: Right, I just wrote a bunch of new material, starting at the beginning of the year. I hunkered down and said, all right, I really want to have a new act here. I want to get on the road with it, because it’s a bunch of new stuff. I might sprinkle in a few old jokes, but it’s at least an hour of new stuff.
Q: When you go on long tours, do you have any strategies for staying sane and healthy?
A: Yeah, I feel like I haven’t quite figured it out, but I do try to drink a lot of water. And not eat bad food. The sleep deprivation just happens – you get whatever flights you can get. I’m a baby, I get to be a touring comedian, so it’s not like I’m doing hard labor or anything. But I think, since 9/11, travel really did change. What was already kind of tiring just became a lot harder. There’s more time and anxiety added to every transaction.
Q: You got into comedy relatively late, after a stint at law school. Were you into comedy as a kid?
A: Not really, actually. It’s weird, I wasn’t into comic books, I wasn’t into comedy per se. A lot of the guy comics I know – I don’t know how many female comics I’ve talked to about this – but a lot of my guy friends who are comics, there was a lot of either comedy albums or comic books. I was into skateboarding and I was into puzzles, which is its own subset of nerdiness.
Q: You’ve done acting and writing, just about everything you can do in comedy. What is it about standup comedy, as a form, that appeals to you?
A: The immediacy is very hard to match. You get accustomed to a certain feedback loop that standup provides. Over time, there’s a certain feeling of experimentation, of testing out hypotheses. You have a laboratory, then the scale changes. You can be in a bar performing for 16 people, then you can be in a comedy club for maybe 300 people, then in a theater for a thousand or maybe fifteen hundred. So it’s never really one thing, standup, there are all these incarnations of it. For me, the high I get off standup is still trying new material and having it work.
Q: Your sensibility is so unique, do you find it’s harder to work in more collaborative projects, like film?
A: No, I really enjoy it, actually. I like being around other people and working on a film. What keeps a comedy career interesting for a guy like me is there are different ways you can take your sensibility. There are different things you can apply it to. I’m not a boat person, but it does seem like the difference between doing movies and doing standup is like being on a battleship or a dinghy. When you’re on a big ship, the ride can be smooth, but it’s very difficult to change direction. When you’re in a dinghy, you have absolute control, but you get knocked around so much. You might not make it, but it’s your boat.
Standup is very simple and straightforward: It’s microphone, person – here we go....