Demetri Martin Talks Sexism in the Comedy World and Why He Doesn’t Like Twitter

Credit: Roadside Attractions

One of the most promising attributes of the cast of In a World… is Demetri Martin, a performer known best not for his acting skill but for his standup comedy. Fans of the trade have celebrated Martin’s offbeat style for years, with his endless supply of illustrated gags and his bit on the nonexistent “B batteries” entering the lexicon with quite a force. Martin has a lot to say about the comedy industry, enlightening unto his thoughts on the sexism that is plaguing show business (one of the themes of writer/director Lake Bell’s In a World…), the intricacies to voiceover acting, and the pressures of Twitter.

Looking at your résumé, I don’t know if you’ve had too much experience like with the voice over world. If you have, even tenuously, been involved in that world at all?

I haven’t much. I’ve auditioned for a few things early on I think with a commercial agent. Surprisingly, I didn’t book anything. And then, in the recent years I’ve done a couple of things. I recently did a couple things for pilots. One for some network show, where they had me be the voice of this character that’s unseen. I did something for an animated kid’s show pilot. But in both of those, casting just … knew of me. So they were like, “Okay, just talk, just [be] you.” So, I didn’t know much about it. Doing the movie and meeting some actual real voice over people was interesting, to see what they could do and their range. That is a specific talent.

Were there any things specifically that you learned about the craft that took you by surprise or that you found particularly impressive?

Well, I remember seeing, over the years — I don’t know, maybe Behind the Scenes on HBO — clips from movie promotions, like for Aladdin or something, which show the actor in a booth doing all this performance. I remember, back then, thinking that it seemed like a lot of movement, a lot of performance there, just for a voice thing. I just remember thinking, “Gee, is that really necessary?” But then I realized it is. That’s a real performance. That was surprising to me. I think it’s just acting. It’s just that you’re removing the presentation that is visual. But it is acting, and people have to find a way to get that performance. You know, adjust and stuff.

Speaking of performance, and yours particularly in the movie, I noticed — having been a fan of your comedy for many, many years — that in your standup persona, you have a pretty deliberate character there. You’re delivery has a lot of confidence, a lot of conviction. Your character in the movie is quite a far cry from that. He’s nervous, unsure of himself, especially when involved with Lake’s character. And a lot of times when people look for comedians who are known best for their comedy to do movies I feel they like to take the comedian’s stage persona and use that as the character. But, this is a very different thing here. And I know you’ve done other movies as well, I was wondering if you specifically wanted to do something different than your stage persona, or if they knew that you had the range to do it?

I knew Lake a little bit. My sense was that she was like, “Oh, yeah, Demetri can do this.” And then when I read the script, I thought, “I like this.” I feel lucky that I get to do standup. I’ve done it for a while now. And standup affords you all these luxuries: no one edits you, you get immediate feedback, you can improvise, you can try new jokes, you can do old stuff. You’re really free in a lot of ways. You have to travel, and you can get heckled and there are certainly downsides, but it’s got all these cool advantages to it. It also has its limits, because it’s mostly solitary. I can do stuff on stage with another person but it’s still not the same as the chances I get in film roles to really share a scene with another person. You know, and to really listen and to build some sort of rapport there on screen. One of the things I liked about getting the script was that [I felt I could] make this kinda grounded and make this seem real. And not be too broad with it, or not to be too cartoonish, or anything. It was cool that she thought, “Demetri can do this.” And then the way it came together, I thought, it pretty much was like that. It was that we had a certain chemistry and it seemed pretty realistic. That, to me, is what’s exciting about doing acting roles. And even stuff I write for myself. I want to do something that I can’t do in standup. That’s what’s appealing about it.

I’m trying to work out stuff. I really some of the stuff from the ’70s, where you have movies that are funny, but the story would stand on its own as well. You know what I mean? So you might actually remember [the plot] if someone made you describe the movie. The story was good enough that you can remember some of the twists and turns and you could retell the story to somebody. It’s like you kind of learned the story because it was engaging enough, but still was funny enough along the way. I’m trying to figure out how to do that. I don’t think it’s easy for me, so I’m trying to figure out how to write that.

That’s a feat to have just one of those things exist independently.

It’s true, and there’s so much content now. It’s like so many variations on so many different stories have been done. It’s like, “Damn, everything’s been taken.” I’ve got to figure it out.

Credit: Roadside Attractions

One of things I was really most taken with about this movie is the very idea. It’s a story about sexism, and feminism. In your business —  in the experiences you’ve had in the voice over world, or maybe just in the worlds of comedy and film —  have you experienced or witnessed the kind of sexism that is talked about in this movie?

In standup, I think I learned early on about kind of how profound the double standard. For years, most of my friends have been comedians because I spend most of my time doing standup in clubs, small rooms, and bars, and on the road and everything. So I just remember hanging out with comedians and comediennes, and I remember once it was mostly female comics and a couple guys. And the women were talking about how many of them had been hit on by club owners on the road, and people had made passes at them. There’s a whole other flayer when you start to think about it. Men don’t have to deal with that. There are a million things women have to deal with that men don’t. But in comedy, men don’t have to deal with this thing, every two years or something, where somebody says [that women aren’t funny]. I never hear someone say, “Men aren’t funny.” It’s never a news story that someone says men aren’t funny. I’m sure people say it, but you don’t hear it. It’s not a thing. But women, you know, every two years of something, I feel someone’s like, “Women aren’t funny.” It just seems kind of crazy to me. Why is that even newsworthy? I know a lot of funny women.

That’s the thing. Even people who are on the good side of it, bringing up examples. Like, “Here, women are funny.” That shouldn’t have to be the case.

Yeah, It’s kind of a bummer that things had to get to that.

Like, for instance, Geena Davis’ character in the movie. She sort of objectifies Lake, but for the greater good. I was wondering your take on that. If you had any thoughts basically on what her character did.

I thought that was kind of a cool move. That was a little more nuanced than not having that in there. That there is something that’s maybe a little more world weary, or mature there, than just saying, “Hey, great! The woman gets the part.” There’s a layer to this that’s complicated. And women are trying to operate here in this kind of old boy’s club. Just because a woman is making a decision, it does not mean she’s going to help out another woman. Or maybe her motives… again, maybe it’s a little more complicated than we’d like to think. But I don’t know. It’s interesting, anyway, as a man, to be part of a project like this. To say, “Hey, cool, there are women who get to be funny in this.” And there are also scenes between women that don’t really have to do directly with any guy or boyfriend or any of that stuff, which is kind of cool.

Do you think that conclusion, that reveal, do you think that’s more just highlighting the problem that stands? Do you think it is says, “Well, if we do continue heading in this direction, maybe this will provide a solution”? Do you have any ideas on that?

I don’t know. You know, Lake said she doesn’t like being preached to. I mean, she didn’t want to intentionally make the movie preachy, but she did want to say something. I think she was just trying to layer it a little bit. I’m speaking for her here, but I think she was trying to be realistic. Even with like the “sexy baby” stuff, that’s something that she genuinely finds irritating. That was kind of cool to point that out, because it makes you aware of about how often you hear that. Does that exist? Like, 20 years ago, or whenever, [there was] the valley girl thing. It seems like some sort of offspring from that.

Yeah, like some sort of devolution of some kind.

Yeah, but theres something very artificial about it. So, I thought it was cool that she called that out.

I think that is one of the best parts of the movie, when it gets away from the comedy a bit. This real issue, this real world that is suffering from this problem. I know I also like Lake’s take of how to be a voice over actor, and how to be a comedian. And following people around with her tape recorder. Is that something that you’ve ever done with your comedy? Following people or doing anything sort of idiosyncratic like that in everyday life?

When I realized that I wanted to do standup, it was shortly after that that I learned that I need to have a notebook with me. Because I would think of a bit, or something, and say, ‘Oh, I’ll remember that. I’ll write it down later.” And of course it would just disappear. I’d forget it. “How’d I forget that? I remembered liking the idea.” I’ve learned that I needed to humbly accept this pen and notebook with me at all times. It’s also nice [because] I draw a lot. Even if it’s just useless, doodling like a kid, or something. But man, that just really transforms waiting at your gate for your plane when they tell you you have to wait for another 20 minutes. “All right, I’ll draw for 20 more minutes.”

Yeah, much better than just sitting.

Yeah. It’s just all about directed daydreaming for me. But I never did a primary source thing, where I recorded somebody. Sometimes I overhear things, but even there I’m trying to write a joke about a dog or something. I’m not listening to other people’s conversations.

I guess you wouldn’t call a lot of your comedy observational.

No, I mean, maybe it’s in that area. I like great observational comedy. I like great story telling. I love great jokes. But, like a lot of people in comedy, I’ve probably overexposed myself to a lot of comedy. You’re just waiting to get on stage, and there’s just more standup. Another guy with a perspective, and another woman with a thing, and another guy with this bit, and another topical joke. Whoa, if you’re not careful, your whole life is just in this bubble of comedy and trying to be funny. So, I like observational stuff, and one man shows, where I tell stories. But for whatever reason, I’m just drawn to short jokes. Which I think was more fun before Twitter existed, but it’s still probably where I naturally gravitate.

Oh, is Twitter something that you kind of resent in that way? Or are just not a fan of?

You know, I find it coercive. I wasn’t on Twitter, and then there was an impersonator who had like 15,000 followers a few years ago and I had to beg them to take that page down. And eventually they did, but in the meantime that was like my store front without me having any control of it. And this guy was just tweeting terrible jokes. So it was like, “I guess I have to be on Twitter to prevent the next person who impersonates me from seeming like its me.” So I had to go on there to get enough followers to get the verified account, which I got. But then once you have the account, there’s a feeling like, “I guess I better put content up.” Then it’s like the critiques and stuff. Like, to me, a coercive, slippery slope that just leads to more self-involvement. For me, personally, it doesn’t really make my life any better.

That’s funny to hear that perspective of it. I know that a lot of comedians have been really engaging with Twitter, but there’s obviously this other side of it.

I mean, yeah, I do it. But it’s like taking this vitamin everyday that I don’t really like. But sure, I’ll take the vitamin.

I do want to ask about the climactic karaoke scene in the movie. Karaoke is probably one of the most powerful tools of bridging the gap from friendship to love. I just wanted to know, what do you think makes karaoke so special?

I remember we did that very quickly, in between shooting some other stuff. and they just set up the corner of this room and made it look like a karaoke room. We just blew through this song list because we didn’t know what they would get the rights to. So it’s kind of a breakneck pace. Though maybe the answer is that karaoke has a weird mix of vulnerability and skill. Some people, they can actually show off. And for other people, in spite of themselves, they can at least open themselves up even if they’re not trying to. And it makes you kind of more porous, so there’s a chance there to connect. It’s like being drunk without drinking, or something. But often, people are drunk when they do it, so that enhances that experience. For me, I wish I could sing. But I just can’t. And I’m old enough to know that. But I’m like “All right, I’ll play this as real as I can.” And that’s what happened.

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