Demetri Martin writes jokes that are comedy gold

Demetri Martin “Important Things”
Demetri Martin “Important Things”

Comedian Demetri Martin writes jokes. Jokes about vests and tree houses and rainbows. Jokes about taxes and oranges and vitamins. Jokes about pajamas and Christmas and ice and pancakes and heart attacks.

Martin has written literally thousands of jokes, collected in a series of notebooks over the last 20 years, as he’s ascended to the top tier of working comics today. He’s also appeared in TV and movies, authored three books, and directed his own indie film (“Dean,” released in 2017).

But it’s Martin’s incredible joke-writing proficiency that continues to astound. His one-liners are like little haiku of comedy gold (“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is the same as saying ‘I apologize.’ Except at a funeral.”) His style is often associated with other masters of the one-liner — Mitch Hedberg, Steven Wright, even Henny Youngman — but Martin has also pushed forward by innovating new ways to deliver jokes onstage, often incorporating drawings, musical instruments and weird surprises.

Martin returns to the Triangle this weekend, playing the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Feb. 17. For hardcore fans, this should be a good time: Martin is assembling a new hour of original material, mixing his traditional rapid-fire jokes with some new narrative and storytelling elements. He spoke to The News & Observer about new formats, old callbacks and extemporaneous joke writing.

Q: Have you spent much time in North Carolina?

Martin: Way back in the 1990s, I was in college, my girlfriend at the time was a student at Duke. One summer we both worked as counselors at a summer camp program for at-risk kids. It was really interesting. I got to spend the summer down there as part of this long-distance relationship.

In my touring I’ve been there a few times. A lot of comics can tell you, when you do so many shows, and you’re on the road for years, there are certain places you return to and it’s like time travel – you remember how you felt the last time. It’s the same crew, the same green room, but it’s four years later, it’s six years later. So yeah, Durham, the Carolina Theatre, I remember that it was a nice crowd, I felt pretty encouraged. I felt my people there.

Q: You’re known for your joke writing, and especially for those really tight one-liners. When you write those quick jokes, do you actively try to craft them like that? Do they occur to you fully formed or do you work them out onstage?

Martin: Usually it arrives pretty fully formed. But the percentage of those is actually coming down for me. When I started, I had so much material ahead of me. I didn’t know how long I’d be doing comedy. So things just arrived and I’d write them down.

Now, developing my fifth or sixth hour of material, a lot of times I’ll realize – oh right, I’ve already gone down this road. I’ve already written that joke. So sometimes when the new stuff isn’t just arriving, and I have a tour or a special coming up, I double back and fill out stuff. I’ll try to expand something or add a tag to this or that.

Counterbalancing that, though, is that having been doing this for so long, I’m much more comfortable onstage. And now and again I’ll just write a new joke on stage, while improvising. That’s always nice. It doesn’t happen that often, but sometimes I’ll have a good crowd and something new will just come out, already well structured.

Q: Sometimes I’ll find one of your jokes just popping into my head, like an old commercial jingle or a Beatles song. Do you still throw older jokes into the set sometimes?

Martin: Ha, that’s great. Well, there was a time when I would ask the audience, at the end, if they wanted to hear any particular old jokes. They’d be like, hey you didn’t do the ice joke, or the batteries joke. So there was a window when I’d kind of take requests. I’d do my new hour, I’d fulfill my own requirements, then I’d do some old favorites.

Sometimes I go through my notebook and I’ll find a joke from eight years ago and I’ll think – did that one slip through the cracks? Did I ever record that one? So I might throw it in and try to find a new ending or put it in a new format. I’ll find a way to resuscitate it.

Q: For people coming out to the show, is there anything new about this show you want to disclose in advance?

Martin: Actually, yeah, I’m working really hard at a particular thing, it’s a kind of tug-of-war. To me, jokes are almost like objects or things that I get to make, then show them to people. And that can be great, and it can make a really good hour. Because there’s a good pace to it and there’s a lot of material. It’s really dense.

And on the other hand, there’s a way to build an hour that’s more narrative in structure. Years ago, I did three different one-man shows, mostly overseas, at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh and the Melbourne festival in Australia. Each had a beginning, middle and end, and they each had very personal stories in them. It was cool, and for me it felt like a step forward. It was a different kind of connection with the audience.

So I’m trying to find middle ground between that and some new jokes. And I’m doing something new with the drawings that I’m excited about, plus I have a little bit of music stuff I’m working on. For people who have seen me before, they’ll see things they haven’t seen me do. And for people who haven’t seen me before, they’ll definitely see things they haven’t seen me do.


Who: Demetri Martin

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 17

Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham

Cost: $40

Details: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org

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