Demetri Martin: The joker in the pack

Demetri Martin's routine revolves around his broken marriage, his allergies and his geeky personality. Giles Brody meets the gag-telling son of a preacher man
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The Independent Culture

"He has really struggled to overcome impotence," says Dan, a New York TV-channel staff writer, when asked about his fellow scribe Demetri Martin. "His right foot is webbed, and his left has six toes - two classic signs of incest. But he's done well despite that, I guess."

"He has really struggled to overcome impotence," says Dan, a New York TV-channel staff writer, when asked about his fellow scribe Demetri Martin. "His right foot is webbed, and his left has six toes - two classic signs of incest. But he's done well despite that, I guess."

It's easy to see why Martin inspires grudging affection in his workmates. He is, undoubtedly, doing very well for himself. Seven years ago, he dropped out of law school to pursue a career in stand-up. There followed a thousand nights of honing his craft and days working at mind-numbing jobs. Eighteen months ago, he was a proof-reader for an online advertising agency. Last year he won the Perrier award at Edinburgh for his one-man show If I.... Just 24 hours earlier, he learned that he'd landed a writing job at NBC's hip Late Night with Conan O'Brien comedy chat show, on which he occasionally appears as oddball characters - like Tabulus, a mythical creature with the upper body of a man and the legs of a table. He's currently juggling the script writing, the stand-up, his job on Late Night and numerous television appearances. And this week he's back in Edinburgh with a new one-man show, Spiral Bound.

The night before our meeting he's performing on TV. He claimed to have lost his voice but, not wanting to pull out, got his two grandmothers to help him out. One read his jokes from a clipboard and the other flipped a chart of illustrations while their grandson accompanied them on his guitar.

Martin's humour is genuinely original. He doesn't tell soon-to-be-obsolete topical jokes, take shots at anyone or rely on banter with the audience. Freakishly, for a comedian, he rarely swears. His comedy isn't esoteric - after his appearance on the US cable channel Comedy Central he received over 1500 e-mails, from 12-year-old school kids to 60-year-old professors.

Some of his musings border on the philosophical ("Employee of the month is a good example of how somebody can be both a winner and a loser at the same time") without losing their warm humour. And where most comedians put up defences to stop anyone getting wind of their weaknesses, Martin makes no attempt to hide his geeky persona, or the fact that a Snickers bar would probably kill him because of his allergies. Such vulnerability should make him a club heckler's dream, were it not for the fact that Martin is extremely good at what he does. "The trick is to be personal but somehow say things that people can relate to. To be unique to yourself but yet somehow universal."

He talks in a laid-back New Jersey drawl. Despite his long hair, his third-year-art-student appearance and the fact that a skateboard is his preferred mode of transport, he doesn't consider himself a slacker comedian. "I work very hard and I love what I'm doing. What I'm doing happens to be childish and mildly retarded, and if that makes me a slacker, then maybe..."

Spiral Bound charts the ups and downs of his marriage, which ended in divorce when he was 27. Comedians who talk about their ex-wives tend to deal in a cavalcade of cheap shots. Martin is different. He paints a vivid picture of a compassionate and patient partner and never succumbs to the temptation of ripping into her for laughs. He's not in the business of making fun of others. Just himself.

Had he kept on studying law, he says that he'd be damned to a life as "the funny guy in the office cracking jokes by the water-cooler". Turning to stand-up made him feel like "a more balanced person". His first gig was a "bringer show" in New York, in which aspiring comedians bring five paying customers in return for five minutes on stage. For his debut, Martin's goal was to get one laugh. Of the 12 or so jokes he told, he got laughs on seven, with an applause break for one. Exhilarated, he set out the following night to a different comedy club, with a new-found confidence and the same set of jokes. "I totally bombed," he admits. "The six minutes the first night felt like 30 seconds; the six minutes the second night felt like 30 hours. I'd just left law school. I thought, 'What have I gotten myself into?'"

While growing up, Martin loved Peter Sellers and the drawings of Gary Larsen. Coming from an American-Greek family with a strong work ethic, he didn't see comedy as a viable career, but one member of his family proved an inspiration. "My dad was really funny. He loved Peter Sellers and Saturday Night Live - he had really good taste. He was a priest and I realise now that, in his sermons, he was basically doing stand-up. Before the sermons, I'd see him go behind the altar and write three little ideas on a napkin, then just go up there with his bullet points and just talk for half an hour. And he'd get laughs. He just knew how to talk to people. So I guess it was built-in."

I ask him which style he prefers - one-liners or funny stories. "I love jokes," he says. "I think I'll always write short jokes because it's very satisfying to break down ideas into short pieces. They're like math. They're almost like poems when they're done well. There's an elegance about doing something short and truthful and simple."

His TV job hasn't allowed him to take full advantage of the opportunities available to previous Perrier award-winners, such as Dylan Moran and The League of Gentlemen. But Martin is branching out. He can now add "film-maker" to his ever-expanding CV. Together with James Brobin, who writes for Ali G, Martin made a trippy short film called 12.21 for Channel 4's Comedy Lab earlier this year. It portrays a minute in a comedian's life, told from multiple viewpoints. "Most shows contract time, so I thought it would be fun to protract it, to take one minute and see if you can get a lot out of it. I got to write it, act in it, and I did paintings in it, too. It was a low-fi, multi-disciplinary attempt at telling a story."

He sees acting as a way of "expanding your options for communicating your sensibility". In elementary school he played Scrooge and Dr Seuss's The Grinch, but his inability to sing saw him retire at 13. He re-emerged 18 years later for a 20-second role in Robert De Niro's ill-fated comedy sequel, Analyse That. Since then he's auditioned for Woody Allen but didn't get the part.

Sticking closely to Woody's career trajectory (university-drop-out-turned-comedian-turned-film-maker), Martin now wants to make movies."I want to write and direct films for my friends and for people I think are funny, and for me to be in them to some degree." He has a script in the works with Ivan ( Ghost Busters) Reitman's company, a fusion of the themes addressed in If I... and Spiral Bound. "It's autobiographical. It was initially about my marriage, but now it's about a guy who is single for the first time in ages. I missed the whole window between 19 and 27 because I was with one person the whole time. I think it's going to be about a guy who gets divorced really young and re-enters the dating world and tries to figure out what's going on with a bunch of friends."

He is sharing a flat in Edinburgh with the New Zealand musical comedy duo The Flight of the Conchords, and seeing his friends Jimmy Carr and Daniel Kitson. Martin sees himself as like "a baton being passed between two brilliant groups of people", his New York comedian friends and the Edinburgh class of 2003. He likens the festival's diverse collection of comics to a summer camp, but, after the glowing reviews from last year's press, he is preparing for the inevitable backlash. "I feel like I'm going to be held to a different standard, which is good for someone who's trying to get better at what he does but it definitely adds pressure. I wrote the If I... show while I was there, not even knowing that I'd do it at the festival. Then one thing led to the next, and I found myself performing the show 25 nights in a row. It was kinda nice that I didn't know what I was doing over there."

He returned to America as the star of the festival but is still relatively unknown at home, despite appearing at number 21 in Entertainment Weekly's "30 Funniest People In America" list. Still, he doesn't seem to mind. "The one thing I've learned is that the slow rise is better. I want to do comedy for the rest of my life, so if I live long enough I'm going to be performing as an old man. You know, spending a couple of years trying to develop correctly might be better then saying, 'Just get me on TV, I wanna be famous!' In a way it's kind of fortunate I didn't get to tour so much after winning the Perrier, because the awards buzz tends to fizzle. If people like me now, it'll be on the merit of my work and not on the fact that I won the Perrier a year ago. Anonymity is power, creatively speaking. When people don't know who you are, especially as a comedian, it's great because there are no expectations - you have a free canvas."

I'm surprised to hear that his most pressing non-Edinburgh engagement is to write a sitcom pilot for NBC. Its hard to think that the network that made garbage like My Two Dads will have the nous to take advantage of Martin's unique comic brain. Or will he be selling out? Will we be seeing him soon as a grumpy-yet-lovable foster father in charge of a house of wise-cracking, multiracial orphans? "I don't think I'll be that strategic," he grins.

'Spiral Bound' is at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh, from August 15 to 29 (0131-226 2428)