If things had gone differently for comedian Demetri Martin, he might have finished law school and ended up standing up in front of juries instead of focusing on his stand-up act, making appearances on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," landing starring roles in movies like last year's "Taking Woodstock" (which happened to be directed by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee) and headlining his own Comedy Central series, "Important Things with Demetri Martin," which returns for season two tonight. Thankfully, Martin didn't last long among the legal types and now has a successful career doing what he does best - talking about his unique observations of everyday life and making audiences laugh. Our Jim Halterman talked to the New York native recently about strange happenings on his Wikipedia page, filling dead space and whether he spends a lot of time worrying about being politically correct.
Jim Halterman: Wikipedia calls you comedian, actor, artist, musician, writer, humorist and unconventional. Did they leave anything out?
Demetri Martin: Unconventional. Wow. That's nice. I seem to suffer from Googling myself. Last year when the show came out was my last run at Googling myself. When I used to go on the Wikipedia page, and I haven't gone on the page in a while, there used to be some guy who was doing my page and he would say that he was my cousin and I was going to be doing projects with him. I don't know who this person is and I don't have a cousin by this name and this person keeps saying that they're doing projects with me. It's so weird. They've also called me a prop comedian on there. I am a comedian but it's usually not a compliment to be called a prop comedian but I guess I sometimes use props. And I always confuse humorist with comedian. That's strange.
JH: Between the first season of 'Important Things' and this new season, what have you learned about doing the show?
DM: I feel like I've learned a lot. I started doing stand-up in '97 and when I started it was really because I wanted to be a comedian exclusively so I was trying to do stand-up just to see if I could do that and I could turn around and make a living at that someday. By the time I got to do the pilot for the show I suddenly found myself doing a sketch show. I had never done sketch comedy. It was never a goal of mine or anything so I had not done much scene work. I just tell jokes. So I learned a lot about doing scenes and trying different types so in the 21 minutes that I have to do the episode I can do a bunch of different things and different jokes. I think the area I learned the most in was production. I think a lot of people who watch TV don't realize when they're watch TV shows and it says 'produced by' and producer, producer... there are all these producers. What the hell does a producer do? It's funny how much you have to worry about as a producer. I'm a producer on my show, which is great, but it's also kind of a mixed blessing because there's so much responsibility. Everything is a decision. You have to worry about the money, you have to worry about daylight, who we're going to cast and if this location doesn't work out, what are we going to do? So all that stuff last year, those are the hard and important lessons because any idea I have as a comedian, I can do anything I want to do and it's fun to write it or daydream about it but I had to produce it and that's a whole different story. For stand-up, I don't have to produce my stand-up. I just come up with the jokes and then I tell them.
JH: In doing the second season, was it easier for you than the first?
DM: It's a little bit easier. Knowing a little bit more about the format helped a lot and changing locations was much easier. We did the show in New York last year and we did it in Culver City or Los Angeles this year. Out here, it's easier to get locations, there are more actors... you know, for every department there are more people available to cover those jobs. It hardly rained for a long time while we were here so most of our shoot dates we didn't have to worry about it raining. Just practically, it was a lot easier. At the same time, even though I did everything on time [this year] and had all the moving parts, that was almost as hard as last year because you have to pick these topics, figure out if they're different enough from each other and then 'do I have anything to say about the topic?' and then 'do I have different kinds of stories I can tell?' Each little sketch is like making its own film so it's not like a sitcom where a location is established so that makes it a challenging show.
JH: 'The Henchman' skit in the season premiere is hilarious and made me wonder if when you're just watching something as a viewer - say, '24' or an intense action movie - are you thinking of a punch line or something funny to throw in the mix?
DM: Yeah, when I'm watching stuff and when there's a dead space I'll just add a line. Even with commercials I might come up with something as it's happening. It's funny that some things that are intended to be dramatic or have a certain intensity... it's easy to just step right into doing a bit. It's really hard to pull that stuff off. I have a lot of respect for people who can do it for real.
JH: The set of the show is a very no-frills, basement style set. Was it important to you to keep the set simple?
DM: Yeah, I like the idea of the feeling of natural material like wood and a rug; things that you might find in older television shows without so much green screen. I like to keep it very simple. There's something cozy about a sunk-in living room or basement where I think you have a little bit extra intimacy maybe.
JH: Getting back to your comedy, because there are always so many watchdog groups, do you think about being politically correct or do you just let whatever comes out, come out?
DM: I try not to think about that stuff too much but I will say I never want to be embarrassed by something that I made. I never want to make something and then be afraid to show it to a certain person or a certain kind of person after I told a joke or did a show or something. It's probably just because I was a nerd growing up and maybe I'm not the edgiest person but I'm not too careful. I try to be honest with myself and my material and I don't usually end up in that area not so much on purpose but it's more like... there's this quote I love where Woody Allen says 'Your audience teaches you how to be funny.' When I was coming up - and I'm not far into being a stand-up - but I've been doing it over 12 years now and in those 12 years so far, I think I tried to pay attention. The audience gives you these signals along the way. If I think of a joke that's really dirty and I think it's funny I'll try it but what I've found over the years is they just don't laugh. It doesn't work coming out of my mouth so it's like they taught me 'don't do that. Don't go that way or you'll lose me.' It's really subtle but you don't really realize it but you kind of get shaped by that and you learn as you go.
"Important Things With Demetri Martin" airs tonight on Comedy Central at 10:00/9:00c.