Demetri Martin: Joke Machine

Now over 25 years into his standup career, comedian Demetri Martin gets joke ideas pitched to him from some surprisingly unexpected collaborators—his kids.

Known for his mastery of deadpan one-liners, often paired with his acoustic guitar, or an oversized sketch pad, Martin has seen his unique style of humor reflected in his young son and daughter, who he says still respect him and what he does for a living. For now.

“I tell some stories now in my act, but my first love is still jokes,” Martin told REVUE. “Really what keeps me interested in standup comedy is writing new jokes and finding ways to make them really economical, and how to build a joke. So they’ve been helpful with that… I don’t know if helpful is the right word, but it’s just cool to see that they understand that this is a job.”

Martin’s career started when he left law school during his final year to pursue comedy after performing around New York City in 1997. He went on to write for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2004, and later worked on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

In 2009, he hosted his own show on Comedy Central, “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” and has written, directed and starred in his own feature film, 2016’s “Dean,” which was in part inspired by the loss of his father.

“It seems like such a trope that a comic has kids, and then he does a show about it,” Martin said about pushing back on personal parenthood experiences influencing his standup too directly. “It makes total sense that you would. So maybe it’s in indirect ways of just trying to be, I guess, more present as a parent… but I guess joke writing, sometimes it’s easier if you’re more present. I guess it depends on the situation because often for me it’s more of daydreaming. Escaping the present moment is what gives me jokes.”

Although he’s also voiced the character of Ice Bear on the popular Cartoon Network series “We Bare Bears,” and presently serves as the narrator for its prequel series, “We Baby Bears,” Martin said his kids actually don’t watch that much TV.

“We’re pretty hardcore about that,” Martin said about limiting screen time. “We’re not Mennonite or religious about it or anything, but we try to minimize that stuff. We also don’t watch a lot of stuff, my wife and I, and that helps.”

Now living in L.A., Martin admits the cliché hipster nature of the fact that he actually has several vintage typewriters that he uses to write jokes on, if he’s not writing in his notebook, rather than getting on his phone or computer. 

Martin’s latest special, “The Joke Machine,” due out April 2 on Netflix, will be his seventh overall, and first since the pandemic. Structured as part of a “trilogy of specials,” the new special is part one, while Martin is currently touring and will perform part two when he comes to Grand Rapids as part of this year’s LaughFest March 9. 

Martin said he likes to think of his live audiences as yet another unexpected collaborator in the refining of his expertly crafted jokes, and they’ve helped shape his career. 

“Not only do they sort of guide you in how you’re funny, audiences tend to be very honest,” Martin said. “Each one has its own pretty brutal honesty to it, and they teach you. They’re like, ‘We don’t buy that from you.’ Even if it’s true, even if it’s your real experience or how you really feel about certain things. I think there are these weird mismatches sometimes in how you look, or your age, or whatever. And crowds will be like, ‘No, we’ve sort of made a box that you’re in and that doesn’t fit in it. So what else do you have that fits in the box? What about this? Yeah, yeah, we’ll buy that.’”

During the pandemic he said he missed live audiences so much that actually built a small stage in his garage for Zoom shows that never happened due to the lag in that immediate feedback that no amount of technology can quite replicate. 

“One of the saddest things for me in the last few years was taking down the homemade theater that I built that I never used,” he said.

In terms of mental health, Martin said he feels lucky having a “normal” mental health profile, especially after hearing about some of the struggles other comedians have shared.

“It’s weird as a comic, you’re lucky, but it’s also a liability to be not one of the people who has to struggle so much with that stuff,” he said when asked about the connection between humor and health. “Having said that, I feel a lot better when I’m doing comedy, or enjoying comedy, certainly when I’m laughing and just connecting with other people. It just seems like a really important thing.”

“I think crying’s a better decongestant,” he added. “But I think generally laughter is a good medicine.” 

LaughFest: Demetri Martin
Presented by Gun Lake Casino
Fountain Street Church, 24 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
March 9, 7 p.m., $35-45,