Playing alongside dreams of break-dancing, skateboarding and slam-dunking a basketball were Demetri Martin’s plans to become an attorney.
But after two years on a full-ride scholarship at the New York University School of Law – he had already received a four-year degree from Yale University – Martin had had enough.
“I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” Martin said. “Maybe I’d be in politics or litigation or something. But I got to law school and within the first month, I realized I made a huge mistake: ‘I don’t belong here. I’m not passionate about this. There’s got to be something else.’”
Fortunately, there was comedy. But there also were doubts. Was he funny enough to make a living in comedy? After all, he’d never even performed at an open mic.
“My father was really funny, though,” Martin said. “I think there’s something natural about it. Seeing my dad make people laugh so much … but at the same time, I’m a pretty serious person, so when people in my family found out I was doing stand-up, some of them said, ‘but you’re not funny.’”
Undeterred, Martin began writing down the endless random thoughts that ran through his mind like cars on a busy highway. For example: “Pets are animals that are not delicious.” “Stuffed animals are cute – unless they once lived.” “Saying, ‘I’m sorry’ is the same as saying, ‘I apologize.’ Except at a funeral.”
Those pithy jokes – representative of Martin’s somewhat dry, one-liner style of joke-telling – are from his successful Netflix special, “Demetri Martin Live (At the Time).”
Fresh off a one-month tour of college campuses in the U.S., Martin will bring an entirely new stand-up routine April 23 to the Silver Legacy Resort Casino’s Grande Exposition Hall.
Martin, who has worked as a staff writer for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and creator of the series “Important Things with Demetri Martin” on Comedy Central, is now a recognizable comedic star.
During the recent college tour, Martin, 42, was genuinely surprised at how many jokes were known by audience members – primarily because they had seen his Netflix special.
“It was the moment I realized ‘this is a different beast,’” he said. “I’ve done Comedy Central specials over the years and certainly people saw them, but they’re not accessible in the way Netflix is. So I was like, ‘Wow! I really need to write a new act faster than I usually do.’”
Retired from his repertoire are jokes about prune juice, soap scum, hairless cats and signs that give orders, as well as these ditties from his special. For example: “Sometimes instead of saying ‘For example,’ I'll say something such as ‘Such as,’ for example.” “When I was in high school, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be on the debate team or not, and that was frustrating.” “Saying, 'I'm sorry' is the same as saying, ' I apologize.' Except at a funeral.”
With an emphasis on observational and ironic line-liners reminiscent of fellow comedian Steven Wright, Martin’s comedic star is as bright as it’s ever been.
“My approach to stand-up is I want to write some jokes and say it in as few words as possible,” he said. “There’s something very artistic about it to me. I like to tell a lot of jokes and certainly, that’s where Steven Wright is so important to me.”
Although he never set out to emulate the veteran comedian, Martin watched Wright perform comedy any time he had the chance.
“He’s one of my real inspirations,” Martin said. “I’m a huge fan of his. I don’t know if I consciously studied his style. I was in high school when I first saw him. Being older now, I realize how impressionable that real estate is. Whoever gets in your head when you’re kind of forming, they get a special spot.
“There wasn’t anyone quite like Steven Wright. And I was like ‘Wow! I can’t really predict this guy’s jokes. This is so interesting to me.’ And it definitely made me laugh but it also made me curious.”
It also inspired laconic jokes such as these: “The digital camera is a great invention because it allows us to reminisce. Instantly.” “I find that it's a lot less creepy to ask a woman to dance with you than for you." “One restaurant that doesn't deliver but should is a food truck.”
Similar to Wright, Martin also has acted, appearing in such films as Ang Lee’s 2009 film “Taking Woodstock” and 2011’s “Contagion,” among others. He’s also tossing his hat into the director’s ring with the film “Dean,” which Martin wrote, stars in and directed. The low-budget, independent film is about an illustrator (played by Martin) who falls for a woman while trying to keep his father from selling the family home in the wake of his mother’s death.
“It’s a comedy but it’s about coming out of grief,” Martin said. “I tried to do something that’s quite different from what I do on stage, but it’s still my tone and my kind of humor in it.”
The film also features well-known performers such as Kevin Kline and Mary Steenburgen and will have its first major screening in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
“I’m excited and nervous about it,” Martin said. “This is a dangerous game to play because there’s a lot of hubris involved in it. “You’re putting it all on the table there. If it does well, I come out on the other side and maybe get to do another one. But if people don’t like it, I certainly have no one to blame. My name is all over it. It would be a huge coup if somehow it broke through and got a wider audience. I would be delighted, but I’m not holding my breath.”
Of course, Martin had similar thoughts when he chose comedy over law and look where he’s at now.
“Growing up in New Jersey, my first obsession was break-dancing,” Martin said. “Skateboarding was the next one. That carried me through most of high school. Then I became obsessed with dunking the basketball. I wasn’t athletic, but I wasn’t socially inept or a comedy nerd, either. I certainly made the right choice. I love stand-up. There’s still such a mystery to it for me, inasmuch as you can’t really predict what other groups of people are going to find funny. It makes it imminently interesting, but it’s pretty difficult to master it, if you ever can. And there’s so much to write about. It’s great. I don’t feel like I’m ever going to run out.”
As for his lifelong ambition to slam-dunk a basketball, well, that didn’t quite pan out.
“I got it to where I could dunk a kickball, which for me was a great achievement,” he said. “But I could never palm a basketball, and I think I’ve certainly missed my window on that one.”