Demetri Martin: “There’s something about trying to make stuff that you admire, even if you can’t pull it off”

In a wide-ranging interview with Molly Ringwald, the comedian/actor/writer/artist shares his wonder of creation

Topics: demetri martin, Books, Interviews, Author Interviews, Comedy, Editor's Picks,

Demetri Martin: "There’s something about trying to make stuff that you admire, even if you can't pull it off"Demetri Martin (Credit: AP/Victoria Will)

A confession: I’ve never much liked stand-up comedians. This is not even remotely personal because, in fact, I know very few of them personally. My aversion lies in the premise of stand-up comedy itself. The whole idea of standing in front of an audience and trying to make everyone laugh has always struck me as desperate, and when I project myself in the scenario, I inevitably find it humiliating.

The likelihood of ever actually having to experience this particular humiliation is nil since I am the first to acknowledge that stand-up is a legitimate skill — and one that should be left to those who possess it. Yet even the prospect of playing a comic fills me with the kind of stuff that nightmares are made of. I realize that this could all be considered a little pot kettle black of me since at its heart being an actor is not altogether unlike being a comic — if they are not blood brothers, certainly kissing cousins. To make a living out of a deep-seated need to perform for other people could be construed as a somewhat childish desire. While I did in fact take up acting as a child, I’m still doing it now, so I have absolutely no excuse. Which I’m sure is why the whole business of stand-up comedy makes me so uncomfortable. Perhaps I recognize exactly that need in myself and isn’t it the qualities that we question in ourselves that exasperate and repel us in others?

Over the years I’ve encountered quite a few people who have had extremely heated responses to what they view as an attack on the form. “Don’t you like people to be happy?” one incredulous guy asked me. Other people have assumed that it points to a deficient sense of humor. It is perfectly ironic then that the one person who has totally gotten my ambivalence to stand-up is my friend, the stand-up comedian Demetri Martin. Over dinner one night I asked him about the decision he made to give up a full ride at NYU law school (with only one year left, to the dismay of his family) to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. “It was liberating for me to stop seeking the approval of my family.” Perfect pause. “And then I realized that I traded it in for the approval of the rest of the world.”

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I saw Demetri perform, by chance, at Royce Hall in Los Angeles when he was on tour with the show “Radiolab” a couple of years ago. My husband and I had taken our then 8-year-old daughter, Mathilda, to the performance since we were all listeners of the science radio show. Demetri was the person doing the in-between bits while they were setting up the new act. With his sly equations and his astounding palindromic abilities, Demetri Martin was the perfect counterpoint to “Radiolab’s” unique perspective on science and philosophy. He was also huge hit with their nerd hipster demographic.

At the party afterward, while everyone stood around mingling awkwardly over white wine and crudités, Mathilda scanned the room for Demetri who lingered in a corner sipping a sparkling water. “Go talk to him,” Mathilda insisted. “He’s funny. And Greek!” Which to me and my Greek-American husband seemed a perfectly good reason to go talk to someone.

So what is it exactly about Demetri Martin that I like? Maybe it’s that when he performs he exudes a sort of confidence. Not the preening kind but the sort of confidence that you would hope to find in a heart surgeon before you go under, knowing that you’re in good hands. Even in his self-deprecation there is still that confidence establishing a kind of trust and ease with an audience. The simplicity with which he treats performing gives the spectators the sense that they could do it themselves. He makes you feel funnier, which is a terrific trait in a comic and dinner party guest. (Which is handy for Demetri since his multitude of food allergies makes him impossible to feed.)

I’ve also always had an affinity for people who do more than one thing, who have effectively transcended their genre. Demetri is a comedian but he is also an actor, illustrator, writer, musician, unicycle rider, palindrome inventor and artist. There are probably things that Demetri is good at that no one even knows about yet.

We met up at the Museum of Modern Art when we were both in New York at the same time. The exhibit “Inventing Abstraction” was one that we were both interested in seeing and since Demetri’s first book of drawings, “Point Your Face at This,” was just coming out I thought it would be fun to get his take on the show. Something you should know about me talking to Demetri Martin? I become profoundly inarticulate. He just makes me laugh.

Do you have any dreams about being in a museum? Is that any kind of a goal for you?

It never was, and I don’t know for you, but what I think is interesting about this stuff is when you think about the idea of a show, at least as a comic, a show’s made up of a lot of little reveals. You know, the punch lines are … there’s always a turn, and it’s like a gestalt happens when you get to the punch line or a certain word or a specific spot, where, hopefully it works, there’s a laugh or a joke, you know something happens there. So I like thinking about a space that way. If someone said, “You have to do a show,” it’s cool to think about the reveals that happen in a physical space as you turn the corner. So, I’ve made little things, paintings and drawings. Two years ago, I was going to do a show.


There was a pop-up. A chance for a pop-up thing somewhere in Chelsea … Somebody bought the building. You might know where it was … it was like a garage.

Mmmm-hmmm.  (I didn’t know where it was.)

I went to see a show in there; it was really cool. You could build all these little walls and do all this stuff. Like one of the things I did was a baseball and I signed it, and I just wrote “baseball sucks” on it –

And it was like … at the end of the hallway, when you come in the show, you turn this corner, and it’s like, “Oh my god, who signed this baseball?” and you walk all the way up to it and you see “baseball sucks.” They’re all stupid things like that. I started making stuff, you know those wooden art dolls that you pose?

Oh yeah, Mathilda has a few of those.

Yeah, I unscrewed one of the legs and I sanded it down to a peg-leg, and I put it back on the doll, so it was “Man With a Wooden Leg.”

(laughs) That’s really good.

I was just trying to think of how to do bits, and play with the idea of a reveal. And even some of them … I had some ideas where the joke is in the little thing. Like, what are those called? Whatever these descriptions are called next to the painting?

Wall label?

The wall label. So you can do a big painting that’s just like a couple letters, and it’s just the beginning of the paragraph that’s on the wall label. So if somebody ever bought it, they’d have to buy … that’s part of the work.

(laughing) I love that, that’s very … What period was that, with you know “Ceci n’est pas une pipe?” Dada? It seems very Dada …

Yeah, I love Magritte. Steven Wright’s one of my favorite comics and he has this joke that’s basically a description of a Magritte painting. He has a joke where he’s like, “I saw this guy walking on the street. He had wooden legs and real feet.” And you know that there’s a Magritte painting, when you look on the ground it’s feet and grass, and as your eye moves up, the feet, they turn into boots … And I think in one of Steven Wright’s specials, that painting is on the wall in this house in the ’80s. And then, (I mean I was reaching), but I was like, “Oh I betcha that joke … there’s some relationship, because if you had wooden legs, you could put them in those Magritte shoes and it would look like you had real feet … If you just laced ‘em up.”

Some connection.

There’s some connection there; I don’t know.

(We come to “Les Trois Fenêtres” by the artist Robert Delaunay.)

I wonder if there’s anything by his wife … or is it just Robert Delaunay. Oh wait, there we go, Sonia … “Prismes électriques” by Sonia Delaunay.

Oh, that’s cool.

I have a lithograph of hers that I got in Paris when I lived there. It’s one of the only pieces of art that I own — other than work by friends.

When you moved to France, did that change your relationship to art in unexpected ways? I imagine if I moved there, I would be more aware of it, and I would probably consume a lot.

Well, it was just, you know, so available. But kind of in the way that it is here in New York, you know? I mean just everything is so … so culturally rich — and not to say that we don’t have that in California, but it’s always a destination. I think I went to museums a lot more when I lived in Paris.

The times I went to Paris — I’ve only been there a couple times, but I guess I’m just really impressionable or something, but I totally wanted to draw. It felt like, “Oh I want to be an artist.”

Do you feel that in New York?

Yeah, way more than L.A. I like L.A. a lot more than I thought I would, but in New York it does seem easier. I remember once when I was in L.A., I saw a guy who was really like a tough guy.  He had piercings, and this leather jacket, and, you know, fucked-up jeans and everything, and he was walking on the street and he looked kind of hung over, and then he went like [sound effect] “beep beep,” and he got into a Nissan that was parked at a meter, and got in and pulled away.


It was just so funny to me that it just ruined, it deflated the whole thing he had going on. It’s like, he’s at a meter, he’s responsible, he’s parked it correctly, he paid the meter. In New York, you don’t have to interrupt that vibe, you know? To be that guy, that reality doesn’t have to get pierced. Somehow that seems to relate to art in a way. In New York you can just be like, “Ah, I’m fucked up, I’ll just get on the subway and throw up on the trains.” That was a great encapsulation of one of the essential differences between moving out of the city and being in the city.

(We come to a picture of  of Sonia Delaunay standing next to a car.)

That’s Sonia.

That’s so cool. When you lived in France, did people treat you as an American before you even spoke, often?

No, they didn’t know that I was an American until I opened my mouth.

So even when you first got there … there was no style thing … you kind of blended in?

I feel like I blended in. Maybe I was wrong …

That’s cool, because when I was visiting once, a guy talked to me in French before I spoke, and I was like –

Yeah, well you totally could pass … you got the nose.

Yeah, I’m swarthy enough. And if I don’t shave …

The first thing I did when I moved to France was I dyed my hair dark.

Did you?

Yeah, for the first few years, because I just wanted to blend in.

Was it brown? Or dark red?

Dark brown. Eventually, I went back to red, but for a while, I just, you know, I just wanted to blend.

In the beginning, of course, people responded to you in English. By the time you left, would they give you that respect and speak French to you?

It depended on where I was, and as my confidence grew in French it happened more.  But I really found that I did best when I came back. Years had passed and I hadn’t even studied French for years, but I didn’t care in the same way as I did when I lived there. I was so timid because I cared so much.

That’s funny.

You know, I wanted to have the perfect accent and not make any mistakes, and then when I came back 15 years later, I could just give a fuck, you know.  I found that my French was a lot better.

It’s the same thing with everything, isn’t it?

What about Greek? How is your Greek?


But can you get by?

Kind of, nah, not really.

Not like [my husband] Panio?

No, not like Panio. What I could do is answer in English. That was the best thing.

Like “Ti kanis?” (“How are you doing?”)

Yeah, like “How you doing?” or “Food!” or “Relax” or “Come on!”

Or “malakas.” (“Piece of shit.”)

Yeah, exactly! Some curses and stuff. We went to Greek school as kids – they called it Greek school at my church, and somebody’s mom from church taught the class once a week or something.  We had to go sit there after school and learn Greek. I also had to learn to do Greek folk dancing.

Have you ever done any of that in any of your shows? Any Greek dancing?

No, and I know a lot of Greek dancers because every church in the state of New Jersey has this Greek folk dancing program to teach the kids the culture and everything. And then the best dancer or dancers from each church get tapped to be in the Hellenic dancers of New Jersey – it’s like the touring group of teenage …

And were you one of those?

Yeah, so I was chosen for that because I was one of the best. Sounds braggy, but objectively I was one of the best …

Can you do any of it now?


Yeah! Could you do the thing where you go down on your knees and come up?

Yeah, double kicks! One of my tricks was I’d flip over on one hand, ’cause I like skateboarding, so it’s actually a skateboarding trick, and it worked out for the Greek dancing too. I know over 40 different folk dancers from different regions of Greece. We would play different festivals. There’s not a lot of venues where they want a folk dancing group, but there were like 60 people in the group – 30 guys, 30 girls and we did costume changes and the whole thing.

That’s so impressive!

In a very specific way.

I can’t believe you didn’t have a Greek dance at your wedding!

We debated it.

I’m apparently a natural, or so my mother-in-law says. I just kind of follow along and do whatever. I just kind of copy them.

Yeah, it’s a weird thing, Greek culture in America — which you would know a lot about now — There’s something charming about it and there’s a double edge to that, which can be very … I don’t want to say pushy, but there’s something strong-headed about it, where it’s like, “Hey, this is our thing, come on and dance.” It’s inclusive like, “Come,” but also, “No, no, no you’re going to dance, we’re going to do this.” So if you’re in the right mood it’s great, and if you’re not, it’s like, “Hey, I’m fine, just back off, you know — easy does it, Greece.”

I’ve never been able to go to a party with Panio and his family and not dance. You have to do it. They will not take no for an answer.

Right, it’s that kind of thing. I think as someone who grew up Greek-American — it’s weird if you drift out of it.

Do you feel identified with the culture? When people ask you to go to Greek-American film festivals do you identify as a Greek American?

Yeah, but I don’t lead with it.

I think you and Panio are very similar.

I do think we’re very similar. I think he and I are kindred spirits, and the night I met you guys, there was an immediate connection like, “Hey, I don’t know that many guys like you.” We had a very similar experience. I think he’s better at being a Greek-American than I am because he speaks Greek well and he has such a strong tie to Greece and goes back there.

Yeah, ’cause he has family there.

I’m much more watered down.

(We come to another painting, “Conception” by Stanton Macdonald-Wright.)

Do you ever feel … When I’m in museums and I see all this art, I’m just full of … envy. I’m like, “Why is this here? Why isn’t it on my wall at home?” I just want to hoard everything.

Totally. Something happened for me where, as soon as I did comedy, and tried to do something creative, then I was like, “I want to do everything, I want to learn how to do all this stuff.”

You do a lot!

But I think there’s a misguided kind of challenge or gauntlet that’s thrown down when you go to places like this. Cause I want this stuff on my wall, but I also think, “Ooh, I want to do that, how do I get to do that?” And then it’s impossible because these are people who are geniuses, you know?

But it’s not impossible for you because you have a lot of artistic ability with drawing, I mean you’re an artist and I’m not, so …

You don’t draw?

Not really, no, it’s not one of my talents. So for me I just look at it and I just want it. It doesn’t make me feel more creative.

So you must enjoy it more, I think.

Maybe …

I do think there’s something cool about engaging in the work or attempting it … There’s something about trying to make stuff that you admire, even if you can’t pull it off. I never tried to paint or anything until I was in my mid-20s. I liked to draw as a kid, but I stopped by sixth grade and I just didn’t do it again and I never painted or anything. So then I developed an interest in art, but I hadn’t tried to do it. Once you try to paint and you come and look at things, I do think you see it with different eyes, where it’s pretty humbling and pretty awesome. Especially a lot of the modern stuff. I think the usual take is, “Oh, god, what is this stuff? Someone just put a blue line on a canvas …”

I know, I can’t stand when people say that. It’s like, “No, they knew where to put that line.” There’s a reason why that’s there.

Yeah, and also there’s something beyond the work itself, and I think the conversation it generates. You know the history it kind of represents or there’s a historiography, there’s all sorts of stuff that goes on, but people … I think it’s funny when people say, “That doesn’t really look like a guitar.” Good one, nice, yeah I agree, it doesn’t really look like a guitar. You nailed it. Anything else, or is that it? Everything has to just look like what it’s supposed to look like …

You might know this better than I do – there’s a Picasso story where some woman comes up to him and goes, “I don’t like the way you represent people, it’s not accurate.” Do you know this story? And then he says, “Oh yeah?” She’s like, “I think photographs are better, or something.” He asks, “So do you have any photographs or anything?” and she says, “Yeah, I have a photograph of my daughter,” and she shows him a photograph of her daughter and he looks at it and says, “She’s very small.” Now I know I just butchered the story, but I like the essence of it. I heard another story about an artist that’s probably apocryphal, but it was about someone asking this guy, “Oh are you an artist?” And they said, “How do I know you’re an artist?” And he drew a perfect circle. He just took a pen or pencil and just went [makes whooshing noise], a perfect circle — and they were like, “Wow.”

It’s hard.

It’s really hard. I draw a circle every day in the shower, cause I have a glass — we have a sliding shower door — so it steams up, and I usually just spend most of the shower standing there drawing, and every day I just practice drawing circles to see if I can get one.

And how long are your showers?

They’re too long.

Till the hot water runs out long?

I’m there for 15 minutes. But I write a lot of jokes in the shower and I get a lot of story ideas.

How do you remember them?

We’ve got waterproof paper.

Of course you do.

(excited) I looked it up online and found waterproof paper.

You have a treadmill desk, and waterproof paper.

It’s for scuba divers. When someone visits us and they take a shower, they see this weird list with like, “Pogo stick,” you know?

And you know what it means?


(We stop at “Les disques” by Fernand Léger.)

Do you like Fernand Léger?


I love all of this stuff. I wonder how the colors have changed over the years. Do you think the colors have faded?

I remember somebody talking about van Gogh, because those colors, I guess the paint was just so thick or something that it’s so bright still, that it must have been insane when they first showed those paintings — how bright they were. Especially before television and video and all that stuff. To just go in a place and see such a brilliant thing. I love hearing those stories about how this opera debuted and there was a riot afterwards. Like at the Impressionist shows and how people were outraged.

Who cares now? I would be so happy if people — if we could create polemics with art. It’s so hard, I feel like we’ve gone too far.

I know, you have to try to outrage people and even then people usually don’t pay attention. But then they might find something in someone’s Twitter feed and then the outrage machine kicks into gear.

(Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Grey Line With Lavender” catches my eye.)

Now what do you think of Georgia O’Keeffe and her labias? Cause that’s all I see …

Same here. Once somebody tells you that, I feel like you can’t not see it, and then even something that might not look like it …

(We stare at the painting.)

I mean that is so …

That seems pretty spot on.

(The docent who has been remarkably silent throughout this conversation interjects.)

Docent:  So you’re saying these aren’t really abstract at all.

I’m saying if you glued pubes to these, it would not change my impression.


You know, I have a joke about museum security guards … One of my old jokes is if I ever got a show, I would do only portraits of museum security guards because when they come to work they’d be like, “That’s what I’m talking about, I’m going to protect the shit out of these paintings.”

They’d have ownership.

Did you ever see those David Hockney drawings? He did all these portraits of museum security guards … everything has been done, even as a joke.

This is amazing [looking at a 13-foot wood and metal model by Vladimir Tatlin], who did this? It’s beautiful … very cathedral-like. What is it supposed to be?

[joking] This is actually a closet. It just went wrong, so he just went, “It’s all right …” Wouldn’t it be funny if by some weird twist of fate your daily garbage, your receipts and stuff became … people thought you were a genius and loved your garbage and thought it was art, but you thought it was garbage? But the thing you were known most for was your own waste. So I guess the universe just plays a trick on you, and whenever people interview you or anything, they like you for the thing that is the least valuable to yourself. But in the process you’re trying to make stuff that you think is really good and everybody’s just like, “Oh god, that’s ridiculous.”

(We stop in front of “Aufstieg und Ruhepunkt,” a painting by Johannes Itten.)

I would love to have that in my house. God, I sound so bourgeois … “I want it in my house, above my bed.” It must be cool for you to have your drawings — to think that one day you might create something that might end up in a museum. I don’t have anything like that. I can’t imagine anything I’ve done will ever be in a museum. I mean, unless I guess it’s a scene from a movie.

But has there never been a retrospective on any of the kind of ’80s stuff for the body of work at that time?

I think there might have been, but I don’t really consider that my creation.

I think it is also strange when, if you get to have a creative career, you know you get that whiff of someone, “Oh, I’m going to do this too.” It’s like a delicate dance, like when a comedian wants to be a rock star or something —

What comedian wanted to be a rock star?

I don’t know if Eddie Murphy wanted to be a rock star, and I’m certainly not going to malign Eddie Murphy …

But he kind of did, didn’t he?

He did some albums … I’m just saying it’s a difficult move, ’cause people are like …

Yeah, well in our society it’s very difficult, I mean I’m experiencing that because I do two other things other than just act and people just don’t know what box to put you in.

It’s a way of people starting with their arms folded. Like you write a book, and, “No, you’re that actress, no you don’t get to write a book, what is this?”

Yeah …

I guess in a way it’s a good challenge, because you just raised your game. You have to earn it. And if it works, it feels good.

Molly Ringwald is the author of the novel in stories "When It Happens To You." She is also the author of "Getting The Pretty Back." Molly's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Parade, Esquire and the Hartford Courant. Throughout her extensive career, she has worked with such directors as Paul Mazursky, John Hughes, Cindy Sherman and Jean-Luc Godard.

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