An upward spiral
The crowd outside the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York’s Chelsea district buzzes and bulges into the street like an impromptu cocktail party. It’s the kind of scene that happens regularly in New York, primarily for two reasons: there’s a casting call for a hot new reality show or there’s been a serious accident. In this case, the reason is the new show by comedian Demetri Martin who, oddly, seems to regard himself as both of those things.
For example, take the content of his new show, Spiral Bound: a guy chases his ex-high school sweetheart through college, finally wins her back, turns down Harvard Law School to marry her and attend law school in New York, only to realise he hates law school and wants to be a comedian, and ends up divorced and friendless except for three other misfits "who’ve all done something f***ed up in their past and are now comedians, alone". It is a true story.
As comedy material, it’s not an easy sell. Unless the man telling it (and who lived it) is Martin, the 31-year-old rising star whom the New York Times recently called the "current ‘It’ comedian downtown" and the winner of last year’s Perrier award at the Fringe. All five performances of Martin’s Spiral Bound, which he will be performing in Edinburgh from next week, sold out in New York this summer and, thanks to Martin’s magnetic charm, he’s managed to make his quirky and sometimes painful autobiographical show work, even if he knows he’s still honing it with each performance. In fact, that night in Chelsea while the crowd waited outside, Martin was on stage making adjustments until eight minutes before curtain. Given that and his generally compulsive work habits, it’s unclear exactly how the show will play when he arrives to defend his title in Edinburgh. But either way, festival goers will get their chance to see a comic who’s been on such a roll since he last set foot in the country that his future success on a large scale seems a foregone conclusion. A better question, perhaps, is what Demetri Martin will be famous for.
On a humid day in New York last week, Martin rode his collapsible silver bike over to a Ukrainian diner in the East Village. At a glance he appears no different than the relatively unknown comic whose life went into overdrive last August in Scotland: America’s buzzed-about funnyman-on-the-verge is a boyish, lithe, olive-skinned New Jersey shore native with a 1960s-style black Beatles floptop parted and held to one side by a small silver barrette. He wears shorts and a plain grey T-shirt that calls no attention to him.
After depositing himself at a corner table and ordering scrambled eggs and bacon, Martin begins talking about two of his favourite things: comedy and last year in Edinburgh. "There’s something magical about that festival," he says, as only a winner can. "It opens your mind. Over here there’s no surprises after a while. Everyone knows each other. There, nobody’s influenced by each other."
Ironically, it wasn’t actually the Fringe victory itself that most changed his life but the phone call he received from his manager as he stood outside one of the auditorium halls the day before. Martin was told that he’d just been offered a writing gig for NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien. "It made me think, ‘Oh, wow’," he says now. "I forgot I’d applied for that job." He took the deal (a five-year offer renewable in 13-week stints), which enabled him to move out of his Brooklyn apartment and into a bigger pad in fashionable SoHo, where he keeps handy an easel, video equipment, and an array of musical instruments (guitar, mandolin, glockenspiel, keyboard, harmonica), some of which he can play. Less appealingly for Martin, the Late Night writing job took him off the touring circuit right when he seemed poised to make a splash. "It’s strange," he says. "Time is sort of frozen for me since then. Whatever heat I had has probably left."
Struggling artists everywhere would beg to differ. Aside from the writing job, NBC signed Martin up to develop a sitcom in which he would star and Dreamworks Pictures is paying him to write a screenplay with the legendary Ivan Reitman (producer of Animal House) for a feature-length comedy in which Martin would also star. He’s also continued to regularly do the New York circuit, showcasing his self-deprecating stand-up style. ("I bought a cactus and a month later it died. I thought, I’m less nurturing than a desert.") The right people certainly have their eyes on him. Martin tries to forget this however, partly to remind himself that "anonymity is creative power. When the stakes are low it encourages you to do different things."
Which is why it’s interesting that Martin has chosen as his second one-man show a programme based primarily on the sometimes heartbreaking disintegration of his marriage and his subsequent entre into comedy. Spiral Bound, which he also plans to use as the basis for his TV concept, will be a gauge of how far and how fast he can tap our ever-growing fetish for reality. But what’s different about Martin is that he is proposing to do so by going against the tide. In a politically charged era, he doesn’t do topical humour. And in a world of shtick and cynicism, he is all sincerity and innocence. Martin seems to regard his latest foray as a challenge. "When you look at Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, I don’t even know in recent years who comes close to those guys," he says. "Most people now are so detached. The difference with them was that they were so emotional. The comedy turned on how they felt."
Given how intimate and personal Spiral Bound is, and as much as it attempts to chronicle Martin’s metamorphosis into a comedian, the show notably skips over the event that catapulted Martin into the profession in the first place: the death of his father, a Greek orthodox priest named Dean Martin, from kidney cancer in 1994. "I haven’t figured out how to work with that one yet," he says.
Martin was a junior at Yale at the time, and his first reaction to his father’s death was to throw himself into his studies and his pursuit of his ex-high school girlfriend Jen, who had also lost her father to cancer. Partly because of that intense bond, Martin decided to forgo his admission to Harvard Law after graduation to attend New York University law school in downtown Manhattan, where Jen was going to enter medical school. Soon afterward, Martin and Jen were married. But two years later Martin hit a wall. He couldn’t take another year of law school. He tried an amateur night at a nearby comedy club, and enjoyed it so much he promptly announced that he was dropping out to go into comedy.
"My family thought I was having some kind of crazy crisis," he says, picking at his bacon. And in a sense, he was. "I never did anything deliberately creative before my dad died. And in law school I finally started coming out of the fog" that had set in with his death.
Martin’s wife supported his decision and in 1997 he began doing stand-up at small New York clubs, usually for free, and working days as a freelance copywriter for an advertising company. After a couple of rough years that are discussed in Spiral Bound, his marriage ended. The transition also augured the arrival of some lighter material, mostly in the form of Martin’s three new comic wannabe friends who became so attached to one another that they couldn’t get any work done. Finally they decided they could no longer see each other and, during a "farewell brunch", drafted a set of rules stipulating that they could communicate with each other only by letter. "We left the restaurant and I’m like, ‘We’re so quirky, this is f***ing great’," Martin says in his show.
Martin’s more recent rise to prominence is not part of the show. He got his first big break at a comedy festival in Montreal in the summer of 2001. Spotted by some television industry people, he became the subject of a bidding war between Fox and NBC for a TV development deal, which NBC won for the sum of $300,000. Martin invested the money, kept his day job at the ad agency, and continued to live a bohemian life, skateboarding around the city on a long board, winning spots at bigger clubs in the city, and scoring a couple of appearances on late night network shows like Conan O’Brien and David Letterman.
Martin’s TV deal, as with 90 per cent of them, died before getting on the air and in January 2003 he decided that if he was going to get to the next step he had to do a one-man show. He quit his job at the ad agency and began writing If, I, based in part on To Do lists he never got through. He devoted himself so completely to the show that he insisted on doing everything himself, including writing the music (despite the fact that he then barely knew how to play any instrument), doing the drawings and even cutting and sewing his clothes from whole cloth. The show won the Jury Prize at the Aspen Comedy Festival in the winter and an expanded version took top honours at the Fringe in August. A few months later he did a solo show on American cable’s popular Comedy Central network and, in a classic endearing Martin moment, he used some of his 30 minutes to call his mother and grandmother to the stage. While strumming a guitar, he said to them: "I’m not going back to law school. I’m a comedian now. I’m following my heart".
Indeed, in comedy Martin seems to have found his new love and he’s nothing if not committed. Normally he works at the Conan show from 11am to 11pm each day, and even though the show is off this week, he’s going in after breakfast to write some new bits for a gig he’s doing in a small club tomorrow night. From a backpack he produces an orange spiral mini-notebook that contains ideas and words he hopes to develop (globe ... dog with necklace … old twin). If those aren’t working, he says he’ll just open a dictionary. "I’ll just keep thinking about a word until I crack it and figure out what’s funny about it," he says. "Sometimes it takes a while."
Demetri Martin is at the Assembly Rooms, 15-29 August
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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