Demetri Martin Pushes the Stand-up Special by Looking Within

Comedy Features Demetri Martin
Demetri Martin Pushes the Stand-up Special by Looking Within

Demetri Martin fans already know that he likes his comedy on the neurotic side. In all his prior specials, he’s taken to the stage with a slight deer-in-headlights expression, cautious eyes, and a mass of hair, delivering off-kilter jokes with pinpointed absurdity, and there’s been a clear throughline of riffing on insecurity and overthinking. (See the title of his 2018 Netflix hour, The Overthinker.) For the third time, Martin has launched a Netflix special, but Demetri Deconstructed (the first in a comedy triptych) is a little bit different—a smaller crowd, black-and-white, and featuring self-critical narration from Martin, playing with the footage of his set from the editor’s chair.

It’s a bold move for Martin—expanding the streaming special format by primarily looking inwards—but as the tension grows between the Demetri that produced the special and the Demetri that perform it, it’s clear he’s moving towards the freer and more subversive work that won him a coveted Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe 20 years ago. Paste spoke to Martin about what makes his latest work different, and why it had to look and feel the way it does.

Paste Magazine: You’ve done Netflix specials for the best part of a decade now. What about those two pushed Demitri Deconstructed in a different direction?

Demetri Martin: The first Netflix one, Live (At the Time), I guess I was trying to be a little more mainstream or palatable to a bigger audience. And then by the time I did The Overthinker, I thought, let me try something a little different here. But I don’t feel like I fully got to execute it. I didn’t have time, I didn’t have access to the venue. I learned more about production by the time I did this one. So I said, okay, I have to shoot more shows and spend more time in post production so I can execute these jokes editorially, I guess you’d say?

I went through a stretch of trying to be something to more people. Now I’m older and more tired, so in a way, I don’t have the energy to chase it. I just thought, you know what, let me just do what I’m excited about. And that’s where this one came from.

Paste: I’d love to ask specifics about the stylistic choices—the editing, the voiceover, the text—it feels like we’re stripping back, but also layers are being added. Were you trying to find a balance? Was it found in the edit or was it pre-planned?

Martin: I did try to work it out on paper. Then when I got to post-production, that was the fun of it, trying to make jokes that didn’t happen live. That was my intention before I shot the live bit, so there was a little bit of a weirdness shooting it. Traditionally what we do is, you tour your show, you’re essentially rehearsing it, and then you get to film it near the end of the tour. Most stand-up specials over the years have been just documenting that—let’s point a camera at the live show, and now someone watching it on a screen has some version of what the live show was. I thought, jeez, there’s opportunity here. It seems like there’s some room to play with the form. So that was the tension the whole time in the edit, I don’t want to move too far from a live stand-up show because that’s what it is, but it’s also not a live stand-up show because it already happened. How can I get the right mixture of those two? To me, it’s sort of proof of concept: Can I do it? Can you do a special this way?

Paste: Compared to your other Netflix specials, the location and audience feels markedly different. Did you intentionally want a different type of theater for these specials?

Martin: So [it’s] a smaller audience than the ones I’ve had for other specials, but I shot more shows. I sort of divvied up my people into smaller groups, which also felt like a bit of a risk because, I don’t know, I always feel like a stand-up audience is like, a bunch of pigeons or something. When I lived in New York, if there were a bunch of pigeons, and you wanted to scare them away—why I wanted to scare them away, I don’t know, this is another issue, I guess—but I just remember all those years I lived in the city, sometimes I walk by pigeons, and I want to see if I can get them to fly away or whatever. I wouldn’t chase them or anything. But somebody told me this thing once, that if you raise one arm at a pigeon, they usually don’t care. They won’t fly away. But for some reason, if you raise both your arms, like [he raises both arms] touchdown, then they get scared and they fly away. For some reason two arms does it but one arm doesn’t.

So I used to always test it to see, is this true? And a lot of times it was. But what I found was, if there were only four or five pigeons, they might be hardened, and just like, “I don’t care.” But if there are 30, they would almost always get scared and fly away because you only have to scare a couple of the pigeons and they scare the other ones. They respond to that cue. So audiences—I always felt like [with] a bigger audience, you have a better chance of having those pigeons who will laugh and the other ones will laugh more, whereas the smaller audience they can just be a quieter group. This is a very long convoluted metaphor to say a bigger crowd is easier. When I went into shooting it, I was like, “Oh, I might not get the response that I get in a bigger room.” But then I was also thinking, “Yeah, this will be right for this one though.”

Paste: You’re known for shorter, simplified jokes, and I really responded to the ones in this special were purposely elaborated and complicated jokes—like the ones using your flipchart. Is there a science to how you structure and pace bits?

Martin: I wish I could just do the shortest jokes possible in a row, but I see that that’s repetitive, especially when I do longer shows on the road. I think it’s not that considerate to the audience. But I can pick some and I can do them in shorter sets. I’m still trying to write three word jokes and my fantasy is a two word joke. I haven’t really pulled [it] off. But I realized there are other ways to play with this. I’m always just trying to play games for myself. It’s like that idea where constraints can surprisingly free you up. Palindromes were such a gateway for me because they’re so constrained. The rules are simple, yet very austere. Somehow it opens up all these opportunities to move freely.

Demetri Deconstructed is streaming now on Netflix.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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