Demetri Martin is a smart, busy guy.
The stand-up comedian stars this Friday as a wheelchair-bound Goldman Sachs employee in the '80's-themed comedy 'Take Me Home Tonight' with Topher Grace and Anna Faris, but that doesn't even scratch the surface of what Martin's been up to.
In real life, he has a book coming out ('This Is a Book,' due April 25), he wrote a pilot script for CBS and a film script for DreamWorks, and he's trying to teach himself how to sing, to add to his other random talents.
The comedian, known for his hyper-literal observations and his witty one-liners, talked to Moviefone about what he was up to in the '80s, his crossword-puzzle-making hobby, his favorite Beatles song and the importance of writing your own way into Hollywood.
Moviefone: Since this is an "'80s movie," what's your favorite '80s movie?
Demetri Martin: That's a good question. I watched a lot of movies in the '80s and a lot of them on HBO, so it would probably be a John Hughes movie or Cameron Crowe. It would be down to something like 'Say Anything' or 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.' One of those two.
What were you up to, let's say, in the mid-'80s?
I'm from New Jersey. I'm from the Jersey shore, from the town next to where the show 'Jersey Shore' takes place, so the '80s for me were a lot about skateboarding, and back then skateboards were a little bit wider and the wheels were a little bit bigger. My family used to build those half-pipes, and I'd skate in my backyard with my friends or go down by the Jersey shore and skate a lot. That was, like, a big part of the '80s for me.
I was just telling somebody today that the '84 Olympics -- I was in sixth grade when that happened, when the Summer Olympics were in Los Angeles -- and I just remember that being such a big deal and like the big billboards with Carl Lewis on them and all the promotions and kind of nationalism and stuff. I guess that's what I think of when I think of the '80s.
Your last movie, Ang Lee's 'Taking Woodstock,' was set in the '60s, and now, this one is in the '80s. Is there a reason you like doing "period pieces" and do you have a favorite decade?
I don't know. I'm learning and finding my way into the film world and so far, so good. I've been lucky. I got to work with people who I like. Working with Ang Lee was like going to school, and working with Steven Soderbergh was like going to school, too. I just did a couple of scenes in a Steven Soderbergh movie, but it was really fun.
The thing you end up being grateful for is if you get an opportunity to be around people who are really good at what they do. The movies that end up being period pieces, those are fun, because you get to make believe a little extra because you're in a different time and everything. I don't know if I'm particularly suited to them one way or the other. I do like the '60s. I'm a big Beatles fan. I really love '60s music and culture, so I think the '60s would be my favorite.
What's your favorite Beatles song?
Oh, that's a really tough one. You know, I go back and forth. A lot of times, I really love listening to 'Strawberry Fields Forever.' I find it really emotional, but I also love 'I'm Only Sleeping,' which is another John Lennon song. I can listen to any Beatles album and I'll discover something new in it. The White Album is so awesome and so diverse. I love 'Dig a Pony' on that. There's tons of songs I like.
How important is it, as a stand-up, to also keep writing even as you're taking acting roles?
I'm learning. I carry notebooks all the time. If I get ideas, I really try to write them down and keep track of them. What I've found is, if I'm really disciplined about writing down things that have popped into my head, even if I'm not sure if it's a good idea, I find, then, that I have notebooks that I can go back to, a whole library of ideas that I can go back to, and find stuff that works.
I just wrote this book and the way I started was, I went through my notebooks and said, "Oh that looks like it might work as an essay," and "That could be a short story" and "That could be a list piece." Things just kind of emerged from there. You just fill in the gaps. Like if I wanted to write a screenplay, I might say, "Oh, this might work better as dialogue than as a stand-up joke so maybe I can use that in a movie, and then this could be a good character." It's like a little mosaic, just piecing together little tiles, grouping them in different ways. "Oh, cool. I think pictures are starting to emerge and I get how to use all the different stuff."
Do you have a favorite piece from the book?
No, I don't think so. Just because, there are a few short stories, there are a few kind of first person essays, there are a few list pieces, there's a crossword puzzle in there and some palindromes.
Wait, wait. You make crossword puzzles?
Yeah, I used to make crossword puzzles when I was in college. In law school, I used to make them for the school paper. It's just a total unnecessary extra thing I like to do. Making a crossword puzzle was fun for me. That was the puzzle of it. Okay, what's my theme? How do I get the words to all fit together? And then work backwards and write the clues from there so I put one of those in the book. It's a cool different thing. I'm not going to do that on stage, obviously, so I like having the chance to do a book so I can put that in it.
But it was also fun to write short stories, because it was different from writing sketches for my show ['Important Things With Demetri Martin'] because there, in the show situation, I'd have to think, "Can I produce this? Can we afford this? Who are we going to get? What's the location to shoot this?" Whereas with a short story, you're not limited. There's no production worries. You just write the idea and hope the story holds together and is entertaining and funny and then you've done your work. "Okay, move on to the next thing." So I like the different moves you can employ in a book. And it's, like, 300 pages! I put a lot of stuff in there.
You're the type of person who it seems like is always learning something new. Is there a thing right now that's picking at your brain?
There's a couple things. I've been recording a lot of music at home so I've been trying to get better at guitar and I'm trying to learn how to sing. I don't know if you can just teach yourself how to sing because [Laughs] so far it's not going so well but I'm really ... I have GarageBand and Pro Tools and I'll record stuff at home and just try to learn how to play piano better. I play keyboard at home and I want to learn how to play drums, but I've been busy so I haven't figured out how to make that happen.
I've been doing some, kind of, weird puzzle websites where you do memory tests and I've been drawing and writing a lot with my left hand, which I've done before, but it kind of goes through phases. When I feel like I can focus and remember to do it, those kinds of things, for some reason, they entertain me. And as a comedian, you spend a lot of time traveling and you're alone in airports and airplanes and so playing those kind of weird, little games, they occupy and entertain me more than just sitting around. I bring books and stuff and I read, but I'm restless so I like to mix it up and do different stuff.
Do you read fiction or non-fiction?
Mostly non-fiction. I do read some fiction and I want to read more fiction, but I always end up reading non-fiction books. Like, I just bought this one book, 'The Upside of Irrationality,' and it was pretty interesting. It was just about people's behavior and how making supposedly irrational choices can sometimes be very advantageous. It's kind of like a psychology, behavior book.
I've been reading a lot of design books. I was reading a book about Paul Rand, this graphic designer who was just such a great, visionary graphic designer who still influences a lot. I don't know a lot about design. I'm kind of just piecemeal learning, but it's interesting. You can go online and it's very easy to quickly learn about a subject. He designed the original UPS logo and the ABC logo and the IBM logo. In addition to doing a lot of print design stuff, he did a lot of corporate design, so it's just kind of interesting to think about, "Oh, I just assumed those logos just existed, but some guy sat there and drew it. He figured it out."
It's psychology, too, because he had to know what people would like, right?
Yeah, I think that's something I find in a lot of the things that I like, whether it's movies, jokes, cartoons or drawings, graphic design, maybe even industrial design, there's a simplicity and a removal of the unnecessary, so that it gets down to the very basic thing.
Do you have any updates on the pilot you wrote for CBS?
I wrote a pilot script and they're reviewing it now. I handed it in, the last draft I handed in was Sunday night, so I think this week I find out if they want to shoot it or not. Because, you know, they order a lot of scripts and then you write it and they give you notes like, "Oh hey, what about this?" and "Can you change that?" and you say, "Sure" and they say, "All right. Cool. We'll shoot it." Then, if you get to that stage, we film it and test that. Then, if it tests well then it could be a new series. I'm kind of in the early stages of the process. So maybe. Maybe they'll like it. If not, it was cool to do something different and to write a sitcom so that's what I did.
Do you star in it?
It's an ensemble. I would be one of the people in it. But I decided after doing my show, I wanted to do something different, where I can be more of a minor or secondary character or you know, I'd be part of a group. It wouldn't be like, "Hey! The Demetri Martin Show! And then these people." It'd be like, "These people! And also Demetri Martin."
After you finish an acting role, are you itching to get back on stage and do a live performance?
Yeah, it kind of goes that way for me. I like to go back and forth. The dream is to have it so that your schedule just works out like, "Cool, cool. I can go do this movie. Okay, now that's done. Now I can do a tour. Okay, I'm going to work on this book now for a while. Then, I'll do this other thing." Just to keep cycling around, because then everything remains interesting and feels new when you go back to it. Even though I think they're all clearly challenging. It's not like doing one isn't enough, it's more that there's a cross-fertilization that happens when you can move between them because you learn stuff and you can bring it from one arena to the other.
In your stand-up, you're very much "you," so do you try to take acting roles that are different from that stage persona?
Yeah, yeah. I think that's right. I think in stand-up for me, the journey is like, "Okay, how can I just get to a point where it'd just be like I'm hanging out with my friends?" And then just being myself. I mean, I have jokes, but just having a conversation with the audience. I think that would be the best. There's plenty of material there but it's more about having that performance and being there and connecting with an audience and improvising a little bit and trying different stuff. So yes, being myself.
And then, when it comes to acting, to be whatever kind of character I can be in someone else's movie, but then eventually, I'd want to make my own movies and figure out what kind of characters I want to portray. I really like Albert Brooks, movies like 'Modern Romance' and 'Defending Your Life' and a lot of the early Woody Allen movies. There's something really great about those, where in both cases it's a guy who has a take on things and has a perspective and puts it into stories and tries to build a little world. I love that. Eventually, I hope I can pull that off.
Do you have any updates on the script you sold to DreamWorks, 'Will'?
No, I met with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris ('Little Miss Sunshine') who are signed on to direct it and Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis are attached to it and I'd be one of the characters too. They were just trying to sort out people's schedules and financing everything. I guess if we're lucky, we'll shoot it this summer, and if not, then maybe next winter. Who knows? Hopefully, it'll happen, but I'm definitely learning a lot about Hollywood and how much needs to come together for a movie to get made. I'm pretty happy with the script. I worked hard on it. I think it's worth being shot at least so we'll see.
What is it about?
It's about a guy on Earth -- who is sort of ordinary -- and the guy in the beyond, which is not really Heaven, it's kind of like an above or production level where they produce the whole world. There's a guy who's a life-writer up there who wrote the Earth guy's life, and it's kind of about how faith intertwines. It's a comedy but I tried to give it a real story and write characters to feel real things, but maybe couched in a larger concept.
I think it could be a really cool movie and if not, if that takes a while to get made, I'm certainly going to write other stuff in the meantime and find my way in. It's all about writing a lot of stuff. I think you have a better chance of controlling your fate in the business if you focus and write your own path into it. It doesn't always work, but maybe you have a better chance.
Check out this 'Take Me Home Tonight' Behind The Scenes Feature.