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Demetri Martin tells jokes in cold places: An interview with the stand-up comic

Over the last ten years, New York comedian Demetri Martin has secured a unique place in the comedy landscape, conceiving a one-man show that incorporates the classic delivery of dead-pan one-liners alongside harmonica playing, PowerPoint presentations and a giant pad filled with magic marker drawings.

With a career that began strongly as a writer for Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Daily Show, Martin has since propelled himself into the spotlight, starring for two seasons in his own Comedy Central television series Important Things With Demetri Martin, writing a book, This Is a Book by Demetri Martin, and appearing in critically acclaimed films such as Taking Woodstock and Contagion.

With his current tour, "Telling Jokes In Cold Places," Martin is scheduled to roll through Madison on Friday to perform back-to-back shows at the Barrymore Theatre. He caught up with The Daily PAge from the road last week.

The Daily Page: What do you like to do before a show, to either prepare or relax?
Martin: Usually I eat before I go on, and often I draw out on a large pad the drawings that I'm going to show on stage, because I don't like to travel with all that stuff. So they usually have an art pad for me [at the venue] and I just bring some markers and draw out the jokes I'm going to do. Then I usually go through my set list, because a lot of the time I'm trying new jokes, so I figure out which new ones I'm going to try. So it's pretty simple.

Are there any foods in particular that are a necessity before a show? Madison is a pretty "foodie" kind of town, so I'm sure people would be interested to hear it.
No, not really. I usually eat the same thing. Lately it's just been a cheese sandwich with tomato and a little bit of mustard and a club soda to drink. Sometimes I have brown rice with broccoli. And then I make sure to get a couple dark chocolate bars for after the show.

In Madison, you'll be playing two shows in a row. You said before that you like to incorporate new jokes into your show, so I was curious how/if the material for these back-to-back sets differ from one another?
You know, I don't know if I've ever done the exact same set in all the years that I've been doing stand-up. Because I have short jokes, I try a lot of them to just mix it up, but when I do longer shows in theaters, I have sort of a blueprint there.

There are jokes I know I want to tell, and there's sort of a rough order, but usually I try to change it up every show, to improvise and talk with the audience. I think when you tell jokes, if you're not careful, you can end up telling the whole list of jokes and then that's it. And that can get a little boring.

Both for the audience and you as a performer, I'm sure.
Yeah, and I think as a performer, it can be really great to stand on stage, especially when you have more time, but I do think about the specific people in the audience, how it's hard for them to get up and go to the bathroom, how they chose not to do other things that night and have turned off their phones and everything. So for that reason, I think it's necessary to mix it up and talk to the audience.

Along with the visual component, portions of your show also feature you telling jokes while playing a musical instrument. What do you feel the music element adds to the comedy?
Well, when I do a 90-minute show on the road, it's one of the ways I can break up the show so that it has different pieces to it, a beginning, middle and end, hopefully. Another thing that I like and that's fun for me is to try and talk and play music at the same time, because I feel like I'm learning something. There are these little challenges built into it; it's a way to push myself a little bit more as a performer. And finally, I think I just listen to so much music that I like the role music can play in scoring something. I'm not doing song parodies or funny songs, I'm just adding some music to my words. So it's limited and specific, but as a performer I find it pretty enjoyable.

Did you have any musical aspirations when you were younger? Because you're a pretty talented musician on-stage.
I appreciate that, but no. I started really late. I didn't play an instrument or even try until I was 29. So I just started doing this one-man show, and I wanted to be able to score it, so I bought a guitar, and got a keyboard and got a harmonica. I remember when I started that I didn't understand why a harmonica had different letters on them [Laughs].

Obviously, the letter represented a note, but I didn't understand what 'key' was. So I was thinking a harmonica was just like a piano where all the notes are on it, but most harmonicas aren't like that. One has all the notes in C scale and one has all the notes in G or whatever. So it's kind of nice to know that I went from being what I thought was a non-musical person to someone who can enjoy and play music way more than I ever thought I could.

The name of your current tour is "Telling Jokes in Cold Places." Why choose the cold instead of telling jokes in warm places, like Tahiti or Egypt?
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe I'll do that my next time out. I think it's mostly because my agent and I started putting together a tour based on availability at certain venues, and I realized I hadn't toured Canada. I'd only done a few spots here and there, but this is my first real foray into Canada. I think it ended up being seven shows.

But when I looked at the dates coming together, I had Canada, I had Madison, Rochester was on there early on, and also Ithaca. And I noticed the majority of them were cold places, so I just thought, hey, I'm going to call this tour "Telling Jokes in Cold Places." But of course we added shows in Austin, and I just did a show in West Palm Beach, and at some point we'll be in Louisville, so my naming system kind of broke down [Laughs]. It hasn't remained so consistent.

This article will be appearing right before your show, but also a week or so before Valentine's Day. I was wondering if you can remember the greatest Valentine's Day gift you've ever given or received?
That's a good question. [Pauses] You know, I can't even remember the last Valentine's Day gift I got. [Longer pause When I was in first grade, we got Valentines, everybody had to make them for each other, and I'm sure we had to do it throughout school, but that's the first time I can remember ever getting a Valentine. So that's probably the one that had the greatest impact. The classic construction paper cut-out, really sloppily handwritten, you know, "Be My Valentine" or whatever [Laughs]. So yeah, I don't think I'm a big Valentine recipient. That's going to be a lame answer, but true.

Do you remember ever getting one from someone who was particularly special to you?
No, there wasn't one in particular I can remember. I just remember getting some from girls and being like, "Oh wow, okay!" [Laughs] But I don't think that ever led to anything. I don't remember having a girlfriend until seventh grade or something.

Then maybe this will be an easier question to answer. This is one of those Freudian riddles that's supposed to say something about the kind of person you are. So for Valentine's Day, you're given the option from a mysterious Valentine to either accept a pair of socks made out of cheese or a pair of meat slippers. Which do you choose, and if it's the former, what kind of cheese?
[Thinking] I would say cheese socks. I haven't been eating as much meat lately, and I think old cheese might be better than old meat, because cheese is old already. So I'd probably pick a cheese that's not that aged, but if it keeps aging, it'd be even better. So I guess I would pick aged cheddar socks.

Forgive me, this is Wisconsin, so I felt like I had to get a cheese reference in there somewhere. Have you ever been to Wisconsin?
You know, I don't know. I was trying to figure that out. I don't remember doing a show in Wisconsin but... oh wait! I'm crazy. I've been to Milwaukee a couple times.

But never Madison?
I've never been to Madison, no, but it's been on my list. I've heard such great things about it, that it's a great place to hang out and there's a comedy place, so I'm really excited to do a show there. But yeah, I've been to Milwaukee a couple times. [Pauses] It was cold.

Demetri Martin will be performing at the Barrymore Theatre twice on Friday, February 10. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show are sold out, but seats are still available for the 11 p.m. performance. More information about tickets is provided by the Barrymore.

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