Demetri Martin is a wordsmith, as fans of the comedian’s work on The Daily Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, as well as his album These Are Jokes and Comedy Central series Important Things with Demetri Martin, will tell you. Now he’s given his linguistic curiosities room to run in his first book, aptly titled This is a Book. Martin created new material specifically for the project, with a few adaptations and elaborations of some of his standup jokes. Here he talks to us about figuring out how to write a book, the importance of daydreaming and doodling and why, despite his enjoyment of humorists such as Woody Allen, Saul Steinberg and David Sedaris, his earliest influence is The Far Side.
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What humor writers have influenced you?
I grew up in New Jersey, and the town I’m from is called Toms River, and that’s next to, right next to, where Jersey Shore takes place. It’s probably not the same as growing up in Boston or another place where there’s a lot of colleges and bookstores and more of a literary bent. Mine was kind of what you see on TV, more or less. It’s a different time, but it’s that kind of a vibe. A lot of tough guys. Having the Little League world champions in 1998 was my town’s claim to fame for a while. So I didn’t grow up around a lot of books and my particular family, when I look back, I realize, wow, we didn’t really have any books in the house. So I came to reading and everything a lot later and had to discover it on my own. I didn’t have really any influences as a kid that way, except for what I found in the mall, at B. Dalton. I’d go there, find the Gary Larsen books and just flip through and look at those cartoons. They were really funny and simple and economical.
It’s really interesting, though, when you try to write a book and you haven’t done it, you try to figure out, well, what do I do? What’s natural to me? How does this work? So that’s what this was, trying to find that.
Did you figure it out?
Yeah, I think I started to. I think the next book I write would probably be focused more on telling stories. A couple of those longer stories in there, those ended up being more fun than I thought they would be, and it was fun to get into a story and be surprised with it as you’re writing it, to try to figure out where it goes. Lately, I like things that might be a little more absurd or fantastic but still deal with very relatable, real human nature, or human behavior in a sense.
You use a lot of wordplay in your comedy. Was the book a natural extension of that?
For me, my notebooks are probably the best generator I have for the work that I want to do, or the work that I want to get. So, I don’t know how many years ago but a great number of years ago, I learned to respect my notebooks and write as much as I could into them and draw as much as I could and not worry about any specific application for that material but just to keep putting it in there and then keep it organized enough so that when I want to make something, I can look back and pick up little morsels or pieces that might blossom into short stories or a movie idea or standup jokes or a collection of drawings. So while I’m making this stuff, I’m not so worried, “Oh, this isn’t good enough. I shouldn’t even write this.” I just think, “All right. You know, that could be useful for something. Just put that in there..."
Once I released myself of “this all has to be so great,” much more started to come out. And then within that is just a job of sifting. So even in the book itself, you see it’s a grab bag. It’s different kinds of things. It’s like a tester. Like, OK, cool, what happens if I try to make a crossword puzzle? What happens if I do a short story, some lists? Try to mix it up.
For your illustrations, do you take the sketches directly out of your notebooks or do you do a polished version from the rough sketch?
I do the rough sketch, and for me that’s a polished version. I haven’t been drawing for a long time. I used to like drawing as a kid and then I never pursued it. It wasn’t really encouraged, so I just stopped. And then years later, when I found myself trying to write jokes, I’d often end up drawing the ideas, but I was drawing the way I did when I was 12, so there you have it. At the same time, it often serves the jokes because I want to do it with the fewest lines possible, just the simplest suggestion.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on ideas for my next book. And I’m going to write a movie. I have some ideas for that. And I’m hoping to shoot a standup special next year. So I have a backlog of jokes, but over the years I’ve learned that I like to have enough material to put in a TV special, but then another batch of material to tour with so that I’m not really repeating the jokes that people might have seen. I always feel like you need to have double, you need to have two batches; one to use to promote your stuff and then one to deliver your stuff when you show up in the town. That leads, of course, right back to the notebooks. I’m pretty much just waking up every day, walking around, going to libraries, whatever, writing down whatever I can. It’s like being a weird detective. Investigating everything. I’m like, “Hmm, there’s a fat guy on a bench over there. I wonder what this is about.”