Talking Irrelevance and 'Live (At The Time)' With Demetri Martin

"I'm one of the least relevant comedians you're going to find."

Demetri Martin presents another hour of his characteristic brilliant, offbeat observations in his first Netflix special, "Demetri Martin: Live (At the Time)," released on the streaming service Aug. 14.

This special was long overdue since we've heard little from the comedian since his sketch-variety show on Comedy Central, "Important Things with Demetri Martin," ended in 2010. The Huffington Post got a chance to talk with Martin recently about his current writing process, delivering jokes vs. storytelling, and the importance of being irrelevant.

"Demetri Martin: Live (At The Time)." Were there any alt titles for the special?

Yeah, I had three or four. One was: “Beeswax or Pleasure.” I forgot the other ones. This one was my favorite. I’m drawn to generic titles. Generally, the jokes I like best are the most generic. I like doing things that are personal but, I don’t know, once I’m putting it out there -- especially with me, and being what it is -- if you don’t know when it was made then I think people have a better chance of watching it or it staying around than if it is a standalone thing. I don’t do topical material too much. So that solves that problem for me.

Just keep it evergreen.

I’ve heard comedy doesn’t age well. It’s pretty true. If I can give myself a little more shelf life then it feels like it’s worth it.

I don’t think I’m going to watch an old Bill Maher special because I’m not interested in hearing about George Bush Sr.'s presidency. And I think I would watch your special later on because it’s just more Demetri jokes.

You know, my latest struggle is that ... it feels like more confessional, personal, anecdotal material seems to be what’s in vogue right now. With the Internet or social media, they’re putting out stories and stuff like that. And people respond and feel like they connect to the comedian. And while I’ve done those things, I’m just naturally driven to jokes. Just short jokes. I’ve come to accept that jokes are just what I’m naturally drawn to. I’ve told stories, but after telling it a couple times I become sick of telling that story, and sick of myself. I don’t want to talk about myself anymore. I’d rather talk about dogs or something. 

A lot of comics tell stories, and most of the time I just want to hear funny jokes, leave, and feel good. You do that, and so does Dave Attel.

Yeah! I think it’s a deceptive trick. People are really good at telling stories and making them funny. And then people see that and go, “Oh, I’ll just tell my story. I got it now!” And it’s like, but you gotta be good at it though! Like anything else. It seems like it’s an easy way to fill time sometimes. Like “Oh, alright, I’ll go tell that story about going to a party and having to fart and holding it in for 20 minutes.” OK, yeah, sure, maybe we should all be quiet and listen to that story, but I don’t know; It just better be really interesting.

Relevance is temporary, but irrelevance is eternal. Demetri Martin

How long did you prepare for this special?

I did 40 shows between November and March. I would just go out for a few weekends in a row. Because my jokes aren’t long, I gotta write a lot of them to fill a full headlining act. It’s a little tiring, even if the show is going well.

The nice thing about jokes is they feel like objects. I have a bunch of them in my notebook. I just have a bunch of keywords in there. As opposed to stories, I’ll just go tell these 30 jokes. The most exciting is having a pile of jokes that I haven’t said before. I always have a hunch but I never know how they’ll do. And then I tell them and then, silence. And it’s like, “Really?”

Do you find you write better on the road or at your house drinking coffee?

When I started, it was fun because they would just come to me and I’d write them down in my notebook when they came. But when it became a job, I realized I couldn’t wait around anymore. Planes are good because I’ll say, “OK, I'll write 100 jokes between here and NYC/LA. No matter if they’re good.”

So now, I said, every morning I’ll write one page of jokes. It might sound stupid but I have a couple typewriters that have really helped. I have computers like everybody else. But sometimes I feel like I’m living too much of my life in Microsoft Word. Just starting a new document, save as -- the f**king title. I’m happy for the convenience. But it was a weird revelation to put a piece of paper into a typewriter and then write a page and then be like, I HAVE IT! I didn’t have to worry about toner or the wireless connection to the printer or anything. So instead of taking a vitamin, I just take a typewriter out, put a paper in, and write to the bottom, and then put them in a binder. Theoretically, at the end of the year, I should have a new hour of one-liners.

That’s amazing. You could sell those pages to superfans, or at least scan them and make a book of them. Everybody would buy that.

It would be interesting, especially for when I’m gone. Like, I wont be embarrassed when I’m gone and I can just give the binder to somebody to do something with them. 

But I will say whether I’m working on a book idea or drawings or stand-up jokes. There is something liberating about finding a rhythm and working on the process. Whether the result is in a book or stand-up special. It helps me to not focus on the results. Because it’s frustrating, there are things out of my control. A flight is late, the crowd is pissed cause they had to wait, whatever. But the process, things can happen, but it’s easier to control. There’s something so reassuring about it. It’s what I love about the job of comedy. It's your relationship to the work. Even though it’s dumb jokes, most of them.

I feel like the people who stick around are the people that would do it just to do it. Like, you put them in a cave and they naturally make comedy in a cave.

I think you’re right. Another one of my hangups. Probably because of the Internet and everybody knowing what people are talking about. When I was a kid, I wasn’t aware of comedy being directly relevant. It just seemed like they were being funny to be funny. And if they said something more, that’s great. But now it seems like there’s a burden or an expectation to be relevant. I always joke with my friends that I’m one of the least relevant comedians you’re going to find. Not in a self-deprecating way. I really am just drawn to borderline pointless things. And I’ve come to accept it that there’s not going to be a big message, at least not in my stand-up. But there is still something valuable to me in trying to think a certain way or to deconstruct the simple experiences we all go through.

I think the more you try to be relevant, the more you become the chase. If you aren’t chasing it, you are then the newsmaker and the thing people are talking about.

Yeah, the way I think about it is: Relevance is temporary, but irrelevance is eternal.

That’s great. For this special, you did stand up and then guitar. I hope that doesn’t mean that you’re done with projections or live drawings.

No! For a lot of the tour I had new drawings. But I decided, ya know, I’ve never done a special that’s just jokes. I was going to take out the guitar too because where I started was just standing and telling jokes. But I liked the chunk with the guitar so I left it in. I think the next time is going to have stuff like drawings.

Awesome. In this special, was the death riff [where Martin was met with silence after an improvised death-related quip and responded with, "Uh oh, too real"] real?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I joke around sometimes that for some reason I end up writing a lot of death jokes and fart jokes. And when I make a special, I go, “All right, pick three or four death jokes and two or three of your favorite fart jokes.” I left it in there cause it was honest.

You had a couple in there.

I thought I could clean it up a little but I thought it added more life to it. It’s always interesting doing something for TV because it’s a different experience for the viewer than being in the room. My live shows have much more improvisation in it. It’s harder to do that for TV. For some reason, when you're watching somebody improvise, like watching the audience watching it, it just loses the magic. But when you’re in the room, it’s just the best. I wanted to put it in so the audience could get a flavor of the live show. But I didn’t want to hurt the quality of the broadcast.

What was the origin of the couch joke?

That was an older one. Over the years, I write jokes in my notebook. The typewriter thing is new. Now I have a treadmill desk. Most of my earlier stuff was just while I was walking around NYC. I live in California now so I don’t have that luxury. So that one was probably on my treadmill.

My favorite joke in this special was “Jesus was the first scarecrow.” Was that a walk-around joke?

It was. That was one like, “How have I not thought of that before?” Sometimes I tag that joke with, “That’s not a religious joke, that’s a bird perception joke.”

I really feel that way about it. Of course I’m getting blowback. I feel like I’m one of the most tame comedians. You can look at my whole body of work and my hit rate is pretty low. This is an era of outrage. And my father was a priest. I was an altar boy until I went to college. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church. I think I’m a good person. I haven’t killed anybody. But it’s still a problem for some people. I haven’t gotten too much blowback. But you can’t help but feel like, “Hey, I haven’t been sacrilegious!” And I like that joke too. It’s very economical.

Going off topic, Jon Stewart is gone. How did you deal with that?

It seemed like he finally got a chance to get out of that calendar. It’s a year-round thing. No summer break. Just hiatuses. And the years fly. And the amount of work that "The Daily Show" requires is so intense. Because they’re on that topical wheel. So to see Jon leave, I felt like he must be so relieved. And I guess when he got to shoot a movie and step off that treadmill, he could just hand in his project and do the next thing.

"Demetri Martin: Live (At That Time)" is available now on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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