Demetri Martin Discusses ‘Dean,’ Comedians Taking Over Hollywood

Demetri Martin was making his festival rounds with his brand new film entitled Dean, and I was lucky enough to sit down with him and talk about it! The entire interview has been transcribed below:

Justin Lyons: Could you tell us a little bit about Dean?

Demetri Martin: It’s a comedy, but it’s kind of dramatic, so it’s one of those that’s kind of in between, and it’s mostly a story about a guy and his dad and how they’re dealing with losing the same person which is my character’s mom. The story starts about a year or so after the mom has passed away, so it’s a comedy about grief, I guess you could say. I don’t think it’s particularly dramatic, but it’s not an all-out comedy, so maybe you could call it a heart-felt comedy. I tried to make a movie that’s really emotionally grounded and real, I guess. But I still wanted it to be kind of inventive and funny and surprising.

Justin Lyons: It seems like you, as well as everybody in the cast, is really emotionally tied to this movie. Is it autobiographical in any way?

Demetri Martin: Yeah. For me, it’s autobiographical. In my life I lost a parent when I was young. I lost my dad, actually, when I was 20, and his name was Dean, and that’s why I named the movie Dean, but the movie is all fiction. There’s no stuff that actually happened in my life. It’s a made-up story, but it’s emotionally very much what I went through. In my real life I have siblings, like I said I lost my dad, and I’m not an illustrator. I’m a comedian. So I wanted to kind of change some elements to service this emotional story, but not just poach from my life.

Justin Lyons: You play pretty much every role in the creative process from writing to directing to even starring in it. What was your favorite part of making the movie?

Demetri Martin: I think directing was my favorite part because I had not done that before, and I was relieved and pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t lost. I had a sense of what I wanted to do. I couldn’t execute all of it because we didn’t really have money or time, so the reality of “Oh jeez. We can’t shoot what I thought we could here.” Like, I had an idea to shoot this car accident, and we tried to shoot it, like a small one, but it was like “No way.” I got to the edit, and when I saw the footage I was like, “Oh crap. This looks terrible.” So I learned a lot pretty fast. Writing always feels like homework, but I really respect writing because it’s kind of my ticket to be able to do this stuff. Just to learn how to write my own projects, and acting I have a lot to learn, but yeah. Directing was the most fun.

Justin Lyons: I know that you mentioned earlier that it’s a really emotionally grounded narrative as well as a comedy, and I’m a big fan of your stand-up comedy-

Demetri Martin: Thanks man!

Justin Lyons: No problem! I know on one of your tracks you actually talk about “laughs-per-minute.” It seems like the screenplay follows a little bit of the same structure. How does writing a stand-up set differ and compare to writing a screenplay?

Demetri Martin: Yeah, to me, this is an interesting time because I’ve been doing stand-up for a while. I’ve done a few specials and a couple of albums, so I have a lot of material behind me. I love jokes. I love one-liners. That’s what I gravitate to, but making this movie, and now moving forward in stand-up, I’m trying to learn how to talk about things that I feel a little bit more. I guess I never really feel entitled to that. I always think about ideas and sharing comedic ideas, but as a fan and a viewer of stand-up and movies, when something is authentic and emotional and funny, I do respond to it. I do like it, so I’m trying to learn how to make things that are more like that. So in structuring a movie, it’s now kind of influencing my stand-up. It’s kind of come back full circle where I’m thinking about my stand-up show— my headlining set— a little differently because I usually improvise, and I talk, and sometimes I tell little stories, but usually I have like a list of jokes that I want to get through, and if I go on the road I’ll do like 100 jokes or something. So I still like jokes. But yeah. Like the movie, I’m trying now to say, “Alright. Maybe I can ease-up on the laughs per minute.” It doesn’t have to be back-to-back punchlines, and there can be stretches of more storytelling and be a little more vulnerable.

Justin Lyons: And, of course, you’re a stand up comedian, so how has that prepared you as far as the creative aspect, as far as creating art, and even down to touring—how did that prepare you for really your first breakout role as someone behind and in front of the camera?

Demetri Martin: I think, and you’d probably find this from other comics, maybe you’ve talked to other stand-ups, but the one great thing about stand-up is that it’s like a really immediate, honest, live laboratory wherever you go. Whatever size that audience is, people tend to be pretty honest when they’re sitting there listening to you. They don’t fake laugh. They’re usually not quiet on purpose. You’re just not making them laugh. So they’re teaching you. They’re really showing you, “Oh that works. We respond to that. We don’t buy that. Too dirty.” Like I’ve learned over the years that I don’t think of tons of dirty material, but if I do, I try it sometimes, and the crowd just doesn’t want it from me. They just teach me like “Not you.” Like okay, I’ve got it. I just won’t do it. Unless you’re a lunatic, if you’re a comic and you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve had the benefit of groups of people— samples of people—from all over the country telling you how you are received. That kind of cumulative knowledge was helpful going into making a film, so it’s like, “Cool, cool. I think I get kind of my characters here and stuff.”

Justin Lyons: You just touched on other comics, so we’re starting to see, like, Louis C.K. had his TV series, we just saw Mike Birbiglia release Don’t Think Twice, and Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick is making its festival rounds right now. How do you see the movement for stand-up comedians into other media of entertainment affecting both the comedy genre as well as standup?

Demetri Martin: I think the nice thing about stand-up is that it teaches you self-reliance, and it helps you hone your voice. It’s a full-time job, so it is tricky. For Louis, for Mike, for people trying to do both, I feel for those guys. I think Louis has really figured it out. He’s really prolific. He’s really cracked the code. I’m trying to learn how to do my version of that stuff, I guess. I think, generally, it’s a good and challenging time for comedians because there’s so much content, and content is devoured so quickly, and people can so easily film, record, Tweet, your material, that it forces you to find other ways. Like I just like jokes like I said, but I find that I can’t just do my little jokes because they’re devoured very quickly. So I’m trying to learn other ways and other media to present my material through. But yeah. I think it’s a cool time. I think there are a lot of people in comedy who are finding different ways to express themselves beyond stand-up. Stand-up is awesome in itself, but it’s fun to get to do something like a movie where you have a different kind of relationship with the audience. It’s a different kind of intimacy, so it’s cool.

Dean hits theaters today and is opening exclusively at Harkins Camelview! To see the full review you can click right HERE!

Justin Lyons

Hey, it's Justin Lyons! I am the Chief Film Critic for The Pulse. Have any questions for me? Please feel free to email me at [email protected]
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