Sure, actor, writer, and stand-up comedian Demetri Martin may have cut his comedic teeth in New York City. But his family has roots going back a quarter century in Boston after his father attended to the seminary in Brookline some 25 years ago. In spite of that not providing a treasure trove of early memories or notable moments to remember throughout ones life (“I think there were some Celtics practicing in the gym there,” he says), Martin’s range and unique blend of music, illustration, and good old American joke-telling has been making waves and landing him roles in everything from HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, to Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock. I caught up with him before his March 3 stand up show at The Wilbur Theatre to get into the origins of his big white pad, and the pitfalls of being a book nerd while on tour.
Boston, as you know, seems to be in perpetual harsh winter. Are you ready for some bitter Bostonians?
I’m from the East Coast originally, and what I’ve found is that West Coast audiences, especially around LA, can be aloof. Not always, but more of an arms-folded feeling. When I’ve been to Boston, I’ve always had a good experiences, even with short sets at The Comedy Studio. [There’s] such a large student population, but a nice mix of people who are Bostonians and have a lot of passion and go out to do things. I’m always excited when coming to town.
Any favorite spots in town to hit when playing here?
I go to the bookstores in Cambridge. My next book is all short fiction, so lately I’ve been looking for old collections of short stories. I like the Harvard bookstore and their used books. Last time I was there I bought a bunch. There’s something very comforting to me to go to a bookstore in whatever city I’m in, looking at art books, and finding weird old comedy books. I also like a lot of cartoon books, and did a book of drawings. The problem is books are heavy. I end up shipping a lot of books home so I have a present when I get home. Overall, it’s mostly daytime places for me. I have to either wake up early to go to the next city, so I want to sleep, or I’m just tired after the show and just want to go to bed. I’m not old, but something weird happens on the road [that makes you] know the spots you like, but in a bad way. You’re like “I’ve been here before, I remember that.” If I have time I try to go to the museums to feel like I’m doing something, and not just eating.
Where did the whole large white pad thing originate in your act, which most people know you for and say “oh the guy with the pad”?
I still do it on and off, but for this last tour I’ve been putting it aside, just doing the best jokes I can. The large pad was something that wasn’t a big departure, I’ve gotten jokes from drawings [before]. I loved drawing while riding subways, but wasn’t particularly talented, and then sure enough there I am starting out as a comedian (this is before smartphones), writing and drawing, and thought “hey some of these are jokes” and it worked the first night on stage. Fast forward to when I got to film a Comedy Central Presents special in 2003. They do these half hour segments, and you have the same audience [watching] four comics, like a factory system. They say “you have to do 28 mins, but we’ll use 22” so the comedians are the last concern. They pay you nothing, just have more content for the channel. I saw Lewis Black, Zack Galifanakis, all these guys I knew from New York. They take the guy’s closer [joke] and put it in the last part of their second act bit before a commercial break, and so on. The editors did whatever they wanted with the material. So they gave me an offer, and my first act was straight jokes, second was drawings, and third had guitar and boom box bits with a curtain…I just devised this whole thing. The channel fought me on it, said “no, just tell jokes.” They weren’t going to let me, but at last minute said “you can do it, but you have to do it cold, in one shot.” I realized if I did the drawings on TV it would be hard to edit it out of sequence, [it would become] a continuity issue. [Each segment] said “The End.” I was basically producing my segments. Came back with a boom box and guitar, and would strum guitar in between jokes, would hit stop on the boom box when the audience clapped, which determined where the edit breaks would happen. I [basically] got to control my comedy special and artistically it was what I wanted.
I’m guessing that may have pigeon-holed you a bit.
I created a golden cage for myself, where people were like “oh, you’re the guy with the drawings … where are your drawings?” So if you look at my specials, I’ve done a lot of pad bits. [laughs] That’s the long story, that’s where it came form.
What do you know about the local comedy scene here? Lots of big names cut their teeth on the Boston circuit.
I watched the Boston comedy documentary When Standups Stood Out. That was cool [just] learning about the Boston comedy scene – Eugene Mirman came out of [there], and I’m sure a pile of others. You can feel that tradition. I remember watching one of those Cam Neely specials years ago too, and got a sense of the Boston scene and how robust it is. But I think the crowds are really good. Nice mix of being attentive and having energy, but not being too rowdy to start fucking with you and derailing the show.
Here’s hoping there are no townie meatheads causing a ruckus at the show.
I mean, I’m a pretty mellow act.