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Interview: Demetri Martin on Dean and Coping with Tragedy Through Comedy

Interview: Demetri Martin on Dean and Coping with Tragedy Through Comedy


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For Dean, Demetri Martin, comedian and star of the popular Comedy Central series Important Things with Demetri Martin, steps behind the camera for the first time in his young career. The film feels familiar but stands out from other modern indie comedies by dint of Martin’s particularly wry sense of humor and gift for human observation. It’s also very personal, as much of its details are derived from his own encounters and experiences with death. Martin will tell you, without reservation, about losing his father at a young age, and that early confrontation with mortality gives Dean its shape and resonance.

Recently, Martin toured through Boston for the 15th annual Independent Film Festival Boston, where both he and the film met with enthusiastic applause at its screening. Maybe he’s less introverted than he describes himself as, or maybe the positive response helped open him up, but either way, he was lively and thoughtful throughout our discussion of the film.

I remember reading interviews with you about Dean, last year around this time, specifically during the Tribeca Film Festival. How does it feel to be this close to the film actually coming out in theaters?

I’m excited. I’m really mostly grateful, because I do feel like in some ways I beat the odds. In today’s day and age, to get a theatrical release—that was one of my goals, but I wasn’t holding my breath. I was like, “Oh, jeez, am I going to go straight online or something?” Which seems like it can be fine too. If you get onto Netflix or something, people will be able to see your movie. But you know, growing up, I saw movies in movie theaters, so it’s part of the fantasy for me. It’s been a bit of a long haul for such a small movie, but I’m hopeful. I’m cautiously hopeful that it’ll find its audience.

How has it been for you, having this on your mind for such a long time?

Yeah, that’s been something I anticipated a little bit, but it was kind of an interesting process. It was at first, I guess, a little therapeutic, because it’s based in real experience. It’s all fictional, but I did lose a parent pretty young. I was 20 when my dad died, actually. His name was Dean, so I named the movie after him. So, at first it was like, “Okay, cool, I’m dealing with it in a sense here. It’s been many years, but still, I’m trying to work through it a little bit, at least narratively.” Even though the film is a comedy, it’s somewhat dramatic, so it was exhausting in a very specific way. And it’s hard for anybody to look at themselves in the edit and everything. I mean, I asked for it. I wanted to make the movie. But after a while I was sick of myself, sick of the character. Now it’s been enough time that it’s kind of come around again, and I’m happy that it exists, and I’m excited that I get to share it with people.

You seem like the kind of comedian who feels like he has to stay busy.

I think so, yeah. For me, rotating the crops is very helpful, where I can work on stand-up, try to work on films. If I get acting work, great. Or I work on screenwriting. I like to draw, and I’ve managed to do one book, and I’m going to have another one come out in the fall. On this trip, I did a show in Portland, Maine, and then I drove down to Boston. So it’s about trying to develop different legs to stand on. If something’s not really working in one arena, or I’m not going fast enough, I can switch and take a break, leave it to marinate or percolate a little bit. I can say, “Okay, let’s give stand-up a break here. I’m a little tired. I’ll just work on a story, or screenwriting.”

I’m trying to write this book of stories of short fiction, but I’m a procrastinator, and kind of like with the movie, I’m trying to learn how to do it. It’s my first go-round writing longer stories. I like reading stories, just like I like watching movies, but it doesn’t mean I know how to do it. It’s humbling. I think it’s cool, though, to have the opportunity, because whether it’s healthy or not, I often use the threat of public embarrassment to force myself to get better at the thing because I’m so afraid. I’m like, “I’ve gotta figure this out!” It’s painful, a little bit, but I do feel like, “Cool, I learned something. I got better.” Stand-up, of course, is a great, literal incarnation of that, because every night you’re publicly up there front of people.

So you feel as though that segues nicely into things like storytelling, whether on the page or on the screen?

I think so, at least insofar as I have a live feedback laboratory that tells me about what’s working or not for my sensibility. Applying it is another matter. It felt, making the movie, almost like working in a vacuum compared to what I’m used to with stand-up, but over the years, I do feel that audiences have told me, very directly, “We like that from you, we don’t like that, that works, we don’t buy that.” I think, even if it’s kind of unconscious, over time you start to get a sense of, “Okay, I understand how I’m perceived.” So if you’re going to create a character or something…I’m not going to make myself a quarterback. I mean, unless I went into a serious workout regimen and became more coordinated somehow, I’m probably not going to write myself that part.

But I like to draw, so fair enough. I can be that guy. And I’m kind of introverted, not as much as my character here in the movie, but as you can guess, my range is going to be what it is. It’s like some version of me. And doing little, anonymous screenings along the way, where we played early cuts of the movie, helped me to see if what I thought was working was working. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong, so then I could go back to the edit and rework certain areas, and say, “Yeah, that just fell flat. We need to fix that. I need to figure this out.” That was cool. I read, for example, that the Marx brothers would actually tour. They would do theater. They would put their bits, or sequences from movies, up on stage and see how they played before they even shot stuff. I was like, “Wow, that’s interesting.”


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