Size matters, for sure. Not every opus need be magnum, however, in order to make an outsize impact. Just ask Demetri Martin.
Although he’s written screenplays and a bestselling book, appeared as a Trendspotter on The Daily Show and performed three one-man shows, Martin is perhaps best known as the inheritor of a mantle once occupied by Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright before him: that of the laser-sharp quipmaster. His style and delivery are different enough from those and other comics to stand out in a crowded field, but what the three share is the ability to wring the most meaning, and laughs, out of the fewest words.
The prototypical Demetri Martin joke goes something like this: "The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades." This joke is un-improvable. It simply could not be any shorter or longer. It’s not just brevity that makes such gags work, though; there’s something else at play here. You could call it elegance. You could also call it precision. Martin’s work is marked by a total absence of excess. His spare aesthetic shows up everywhere from the jokes themselves, to the titles of his projects (These are Jokes, This Is a Book), to the style of his drawings. Over the course of his career, Martin has managed to make himself fully efficient, without ever coming across as machine-like.
After releasing his first new special in six years, Stand Up Comedian, the comic, author, and sometime actor spoke to Co.Create about the art of simplicity and how to be more succinct.
I started doing comedy in 1997. My first shows were "bringer" shows where you had to bring your friends, who’d buy tickets and drinks, and then you got to do stand-up. My first night I told 12 jokes. For the first couple years, actually, I was only telling jokes in 5-, 7-, and 10-minute bursts, which isn’t much time. So I would just write as many jokes as possible to try and cram as many as I could into the length of the set I had.
Generally, I’m pretty severe, and I like to take out as much as possible. I always used to joke about having an LPM—a laughs per minute count at any stand-up show I did, so that the show would be dense, rather than too thin. I like it to be lean and mean. My building blocks are little jokes and short ideas. I think that even when I try to write longer things, I still tend to think incrementally, and it almost gets kind of fractal in a sense, where you have the larger structure, and it has a certain arc to it, and then even if you cut the thing in half, you’d have the same structure, and so on.
I think a lot of the things that I love that are longer, they have an economy of words. They’re streamlined too; it’s just harder to detect how they pulled that off because you’re pulled into the story and making an emotional connection. As I write a movie, I have to keep breaking it down to all these smaller pieces and do a lot of charts. I have to break things down and understand, "What’s the point of this scene?" or "What’s the gag here?" and of course, the whole time keeping in mind, "What’s the larger story?" Longer things still need to have that economy of words. A novel could be 100,000 words long, but those words need to matter.
As I moved through the material of This is a Book, I started to realize that it’d be more interesting if there were variants so that it was almost like a show—like little performances and different ways of presenting the material. I could put jokes in the form of Charts and Graphs, and Ideas and Opinions, and Statistics. I tried to be careful of how the order of the content flowed, if you moved straight through it. I was excited when I realized the form was informing the content.
I’m putting together a book of drawings right now, and it’s like a standup show. Each drawing is one page. If I do a headline show, I might have 100 jokes. The order for me really matters. I find over time that certain jokes work better for me later in the show, it’s better to open with certain jokes, two others won’t work together. The book of drawings is even more dependent on order.
I think simplicity is very appealing, and I think it’s deceptively difficult to achieve. Doing a book of drawings has been a really interesting exercise because I have to make them final. I have all these shitty versions of them, and it’s just easy come easy go, but once you’re going to put them in a book, it’s like putting jokes on an album—I have to decide, okay this is the way I want to tell this idea, I can’t redo it, this is it. The lines are kind of analogous to words in a joke, and if there aren’t that many of them, the importance increases. One wrong line on a guy’s face changes his expression when it’s just a few lines to show a whole feeling. Which I like and I find interesting because there’s something elegant when you get it to work with that simplicity.
Explore Outside of Your Comfort Zone
When I was really organized, I had different columns on these cards I brought with me to do standup. On the far right were the jokes that were brand new—boiled down to a single word or idea. If I’m doing the set correctly, it should all be from that column. The only problem is, a lot of those jokes really suck, and if I stay in that column, I’m gonna bomb and the audience loses confidence in me. One column over, in the middle of the page, those are jokes that work half the time, and I continue to rewrite them onstage. The topic will be something like "revolving door," and maybe tonight’s the night I figure out how to get it to work. If I do, then I move it to the far left of the page. Those are jokes that I know work something like 90% of the time. The show is kind of a failure if I just stay on the far left of the page, because I already know those work, rather than moving forward. A success would be if I did everything to the right of the page and it worked, then I suddenly have 5-10 minutes to add to my act. Sometimes I just write onstage, though. I’ll have this rambly thing and the audience helps me figure out how to make it work.
Here’s an example of a joke that doesn’t quite work yet. It’s super simple. Sometimes when I’m eating at a restaurant, the waiter will come up to me and ask if I’m still working on something. Like, "Are you still working on that salad? Are you finished with that salad? Are you still working on it?" And to me there’s something funny and annoying about him asking me that. I’m actually at lunch from work; I’m on a break. Don’t turn even the eating of the salad into how productive I am. A lot of times a joke just floats in my head, perfectly formed, and its like 15 words. Other times, it’s something like this salad thing: for some reason it pisses me off, and I can’t quite get the wording right, but if I think about it some more and then keep chiseling away, I get it down to just like a sentence.
I don’t really use my favorite ideas on Twitter, but I like to use the form. I like to use the medium in ways that I can’t use the stand-up stuff. I try to draw things using just punctuations.
I’m sure it’s not that interesting to most people, but for me it’s actually kind of a fun game to draw an animal just using parentheses or something. That’s where I start from usually. I’m trying to develop my act so it’s not just these little puzzles that you solve, but I think the way my head works is that it starts with these games, and that usually breaks something up in my head and I find something.
On my last special, I had friends on stage coming out in costume. There was one part where I’m playing piano and harmonica, and I have drawings on a large screen, which I was controlling with a mouse underneath my foot. So what was happening was I was taking really simple ideas and making my life way harder than it needed to be in these complicated presentational themes. It was really fun and I was trying to push the limits of what I could come up with. In the wake of all that, though, I turned back to where I started from: which is just me on stage, telling jokes. That’s what my act has been lately: just me talking. All I require is a microphone, and if the room is small enough I don’t even need that. It feels good to shed a lot of things and get back to the old basic jokes.