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Getting Out of Vaudeville: Demetri Martin on "Dean"

Dean” marks the feature directorial debut of stand-up comic Demetri Martin, who also stars in this dramedy that won the Founder’s Award (Best Narrative) at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016. Martin plays the title thirty-something who is dealing with the loss of his mother and recent failed relationship, and is the son of grieving, isolated New Yorker Robert (Kevin Kline). When illustrator Dean ventures to Los Angeles on a whim to sell his drawings, he meets an intriguing local named Nicky (Gillian Jacobs); Kline’s character has his own mourning period challenged when he meets a woman named Carol (Mary Steenburgen). 

The feature presents new challenges for the one-liner comic, namely that of writing narratively and collaborating with others behind the camera. “Dean” unmistakably bears the dry goofiness of Martin’s stand-up (often using lo-fi drawings to show characters’ thoughts like parentheses) but the movie shows the promise of a storytelling talent. spoke with Martin about his new project, how the rise of Twitter and memes forced him to do something different with his one-line comedy, the advantage that comedians have when they become directors and more.

Is touring for a movie different than touring as a stand-up comedian? 

Yeah. It’s funny, I don’t talk about myself much during my stand-up, and I think by design it feels a little healthier for me, mentally. Because it’s already so self involved, you’re selling yourself. Nobody can talk. Somehow I’m telling jokes that are like things that I’m sharing with people rather than “Hey, here’s my story.” Doing press is nice actually because often people are nice and friendly, so you’re meeting people and having conversations with people, that’s not so bad. But yeah, you’re talking about yourself and it’s worse when it can be like a bunch of quizzes. Oral exams. You know the answers, so it’s OK. And with stand-up, you’re just a drifter. I’m not talking to anyone all day. And I get relatively introverted, so. I don’t mind that. It’s nice, I can go to book stores, record stores, do my thing in each city. And then you go on stage and talk for like, 80 minutes or something and go back to your hotel room, go to sleep and do it again. 

Does that lead to a type of distance with your on-stage persona? 

I think so, even not on purpose you just fall into it because it’s not a conversation you have with yourself. And the truth is also that I’m trying in part with the movie, there’s a weird surprising dialogue between the movie and stand-up for me because it's the first time I’m doing something. I have done one man shows over the years but luckily they are pre-YouTube and you can’t really find them. This thing I think is more personal and comes from a more emotional place than my stand-up does. And it’s making me think about a way to make stand-up more like that. 

On your recent Netflix special, you have dark asides like when you mention some serious animosity towards your brother in between lighter jokes. It’s not out of character, but it’s like, “Oh, he’s not joking!” 

Yeah, I’m like testing the waters. I left that in there in the edit, my agent was like, “Are you keeping that in?” And I said, “I think I am, yeah.” Kind of an F U to my brother. 

It adds more … 

More humanity. That’s what sometimes I feel is missing. I’m a Steven Wright fan, and I love Gary Larson. There are things that I like, I don’t know if you can call them escapist, but they’re “above the neck” comedy. And now I’m just like, trying to explore more emotional territory, without being whiny or without oversharing. When Richard Pryor tells you about his life, it’s pretty great. He lived a life. I was on the math team in New Jersey. It’s not the same. I have to dig if it’s going to work. 

When you were making that transition into storytelling, what were some things that were challenging or particularly different? 

The first is, I really am drawn to jokes as well as the shorter jokes. And there is a luxury in that, because you don’t have to worry about story, really. And then, I realized of course that if I am going to make a whole movie, I am going to have to first and foremost make a whole story.  

So I had joke ideas and you realize that’s the tail wagging the dog, I can’t make a scene around that joke. I’ve got to get the story to work and to trust that I’ll find ways to make it funny. That was really challenging, and also writing for other people. Stand-up doesn’t tell you how to write for other people. You write for yourself, and even that’s naive because you’re trying to figure out who you are up there. And then I’m trying to write for older characters, for women, which is frankly humbling, because I’m not a woman and I don’t have their experience. I finished the movie feeling like I just want to get better at this, I have a lot to learn, you know what I mean? I want to make more movies, but I also want to feel like I can write parts and feel confident in the script I’m giving to this actor or that one to say, “Hey, read this, I think you’ll like it and it’s a part you’ll be attracted to doing because it’s thoughtful and empathetic because I’m thinking about that character’s point of view. I’m not just servicing my character or the place of being.”

You know, the classic thing is the love interest. Not just getting a pretty girl to laugh at my jokes, but as much as I can giving her a story and a point of view so that there’s something new. And of course that helps the whole project and me anyway, it’s not even that altruistic when you think about it. When I think about Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall," she’s so great, she’s so funny. It’s her and he clearly wrote stuff for her, but she gets to be herself to some degree and you’re like, wow, this is something to aspire to. 

How did you get over that hurdle of writing women? 

I’m definitely still learning how to do it. My wife helped me. She’s not in the business, but I realized quickly, “Well, she’s a woman. She’s had a life.” [Laughs] And of course while it’s a nice idea to take it when they say, “Hey, just take a male part and make it a woman,” you know you’re giving roles to women but that doesn’t seem like that’s enough. That’s not my interest, so I’m asking my wife like, “Hey, would you say this?” And she’d be like, “No, no, don’t do that.” And so I kind of roped her into working on it with me at times. She does commercial interior design, she is not in the business. But she had really great ideas, she was really helpful. 

What’s nice is when you write and then direct your own thing. I don’t have to be precious about any of it, and it can move and change as it needs to depending on how the actors are responding. I told them, “Hey, I’m not precious about any of the words here, tell me what you think.” Especially with Mary [Steenburgen] and Kevin [Kline] who are older people, I don’t want to make caricatures here. Again, It’s not "The Godfather" but I’m trying to do something that’s believable. So, when they were doing scenes where they were kind of feeling each other out and some courtship there, I wanted to say “As far as I can imagine, when you become single when you’re 60 or 64, you’ve been around but that doesn’t mean it’s easier,” like you suddenly know to have a first date, or whatever. So I love the stuff that Kevin did with that first kiss when they’re on the street. That’s what I was hoping for with Kevin Kline, the way he moves as an actor, the physical stuff, is just some of the stuff that I love about him. It’s a simple thing of how he’s trying to kiss her, I thought that was awesome. That’s stuff I can’t write. 

You talk about writing not being precious. Is that different from when you’re writing stand-up? 

When I started, definitely for me it was all about getting the wording down. And the precision about it was what was fun for me. And even with my own stuff, I’m on stage now and try to improvise more. I think that technology has made that necessary as a one-liner comic. People fucking tweet my jokes. 

I noticed you’re not on Twitter. 

I hardly do it. I hate working for Twitter and Facebook, I hate being an unpaid employee for those companies. 

Or memes. Another visual medium that you were doing beforehand. 

Right, exactly. And graphs and all that stuff. It was like way back I thought I was doing that stuff. I certainly didn’t invent it, but I got out of the gates early with that stuff. And it makes it less interesting to me. And like, I’ll make a joke for the first time in whatever city and then there it is on Twitter, someone just tweeted it. It’s like, “Can I have a chance with this fucking joke? Can I figure it out, can I rewrite it a couple different times?” No, you can’t. So it makes me improvise more, and I’m like, “Fine, I’ll improvise, take it, I’m never going to do it again.” So, developmentally it’s a backhanded help because it makes me learn how to write on stage more and it’s more stimulating. And stand-up is like the live laboratory, because they’re telling me, “Yeah, stay on that topic a little” and I’ll try to come up with something with a couple tags for it. And then it flames out, and it’s like, OK, I’ll move on. But on the other hand, there’s so much content and everybody is tweeting it feels like, who’s looking? Nobody cares. 

So would you say there is a direct correlation between this creative change and improvisation to trying to pursue something different? 

Definitely. Because for me, if it didn’t change, I’d just do my jokes. You know how they talk about with vaudeville, the same 20 minutes you could do for a decade? This is me finally getting out of vaudeville. 

That sense of creative reward, is that different when you’re editing? Do you test it? Are you watching with people? 

I tried; it was very disconcerting, it took longer than I would have liked to get it to work. My wife came with me to Tribeca, I remember thinking I just don’t want to be embarrassed by this, there’s so much hubris involved being the writer/director. Because you feel like you’re not going to work again if this thing’s terrible. So when it was well-received at the festival, it was like a relief. When it got distribution, I was elated. At that point, objectivity was so gone, we did some early screenings of early cuts of it. We screened it along the way. That was the closest to stand-up.

I had a joke at the wedding reception [for a friend of Dean's], where this waiter comes up to me, and they were like, “Do you want some vegan meatless gluten free meatball lasagna?” And I say, “No thanks, I’ll wait for something with more adjectives” or whatever the joke was. And I thought it worked, and it was my attempt at a Woody Allen kind of thing. And so we get to the edit and we screen it, it doesn’t work. We try a different take, it doesn’t work. A different size, it doesn’t work. Eventually at the screenings, someone said, “You know, I didn’t like him at first for a while, he just seemed like a dick. He was mean to the server at the reception.” And it was like, oh. I’m mean to a server! And she’s smaller than me, and in my head I think I’m doing a Woody Allen thing. The thing is, I’m almost six feet tall, I’m not Woody Allen, and the girl is little and she’s nice. If I were maybe smaller and there was a bigger guy, or at least a guy who looked like me, the power dynamic would be different. On paper, the joke to me worked. But things I didn’t know about, going into filmmaking, and then I’m like, “Oh shit, you really have to worry about every single thing.” Something I would have never learned if I didn’t make a movie and cast it. 

When watching "Dean" I was thinking about other recent comedians who have become directors, like Jordan Peele ("Get Out") and Mike Birbiglia ("Don't Think Twice"). They’re almost like entertainers first, and then second they are comedians when functioning as directors. With your own experience in both now, does that correlation make sense?

I think one thing that helps the comedian ... I think the self loathing for many of us is very real. We are all needy for sure to get that validation, those laughs from strangers. But I didn’t come up in movies. So my work is all in the room, often in comedy clubs, literally standing on the same floor, not on a big stage just with the crowd, and they’re just sitting right there. And they really do have so much power, and they’re telling you, in real time, how you’re doing. I think it keeps you grounded and it does really help shape your sensibility. I think if there’s advantage it’s a shortcut to tone. You’ve had live crowds help you figure out what your tone might be. 

What [stand-up] doesn’t do is train you how to collaborate, it doesn’t train you well to do that, so I’m guessing for other folks my situation that’s a lot of the learning curve. Along with the obvious things, but that specifically. Stand-up teaches you self-reliance and a lot of things, but it doesn’t teach you that stuff. And you have to learn patience, and you’ve got to get good at communicating. You have some vision in your head. Hey, that’s a nice idea, congrats that you can see the scene in your head, wow you’re brilliant. Who cares. It’s called thinking, I think we can all do that. It’s about how do you talk to a department, who has a different skill set than you, and say, “How do we communicate this?”

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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