Demetri Martin on Woody Guthrie, prop-comedy and not being a hipster
Demetri Martin's polished micro-jokes, nervous stare and intense appreciation of aesthetics have made him a welcome antidote to the wave of loud and sloppy comedians who have dominated the scene over the last decade. In advance of Martin's visit to Comedy Works South this Sunday for two shows (one is sold-out), we caught up with the floppy-haired emodian (emo + comedian = emodian) to get his thoughts on music in standup, whether hipsters will die out, and what it was like being a 34-year-old "Senior Youth Correspondent" for The Daily Show.
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Westword: You incorporate so much live music into your act -- have you done many shows on the same bill with a band? I hear that can be pretty tricky for a comic.
Demetri Martin: I've done a few shows with bands, and it's usually not a good recipe for comedy. Especially if people aren't there specifically to see comedy. If they're there to see a band or something else, comedy is usually an unwelcome surprise, and the comedian gets the brunt of it.
I can imagine, especially considering your style requires an audience to be drawn in, as opposed to a more loud, hysterical comic like Russell Brand.
Yeah, those situations usually didn't go too well for me. I've done music festivals in the comedy tent. And that usually goes pretty well, but it still has that feeling to it where it's like: We're at a music festival -- oh, and there are some comedians here.
And yet there's been such a huge cultural overlap between music and comedy in the last twenty years.
And I'm grateful for that. It's been cool to have a comedy audience in some unconventional rooms -- the comedy club scene is a late-'70s or '80s invention. There are other ways to do comedy. I was talking to Albert Brooks once -- who's one of my favorite comedians -- and he told me how he used to open for Neil Diamond. I thought that was cool.
The way you utilize an instrumental guitar to complement your jokes and stories reminds me a lot of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger performances. The way they used to do comedy banter between songs while still absently plucking the guitar.
That's funny: I have this friend Marcellus Hall who was in a band called Railroad Jerk, and he gave me a cassette of Woody Guthrie's Talking Blues after he first saw me perform. I listened to it, and I was like, "oh yeah, I can totally see the similarity." It was cool, because there was a musicality to it, but he was also just in and out of the meter.
For me, [playing guitar during comedy] comes out of the idea of scoring what I was saying. Not doing a song parody, or even a song. Because as much as I wish I could, I really can't seem to pull off singing. But I do like playing music, and listening to it. And what I feel like music can do to a scene, or an idea, as an accompaniment, is just amazing.
It's like the soundtrack to a film: It can't dominate the scene, only season it.
Yeah, it's amazing how, if you make some interesting choices, you don't even have to be a great musician. Just with some simple chord changes, it can have a real affect.