Demetri Martin ’95: from gorilla suit to fame, lucre

Comedian Demetri Martin ’95, this summer’s winner of the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award in Edinburgh, Scotland, started winning audiences on Cross Campus with a gorilla suit.

“Looking back, there were signs that I should have been a comedian,” Martin said. “I was acting out and starved for attention. Case in point — the gorilla suit.”

The gorilla suit?

“There was this time when he was on his unicycle with his gorilla suit and riding around the courtyard and making people laugh during Spring Fling,” said Jaime Ramos ’95, Martin’s suitemate for four years. “I think we dared him to go out in the gorilla suit on the stage and jump off — He ended up losing one of his gorilla feet.”

Martin had a perfectly rational explanation.

“I needed a new ski suit, so I was like, OK I’ll get a gorilla suit,” said Martin. “Who cares that it has no peripheral vision, and you’re skiing with eye holes you can’t really see out of — It was a cry for help. I was trying to get out.”

Martin said he has Yale to thank for his well-honed skills, which helped him best many seasoned comedians for the United Kingdom’s coveted Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. Though he did not formally pursue the performing arts or participate in any improv groups while in New Haven, he said he perfected his art in the Calhoun College dining hall while socializing with friends.

Making artful use of a microwave, Martin cooked up many new friendships with legions of dining-hall-weary fans. He microwaved marshmallows and butter in dining hall bowls, morphing into a one-man, Rice-Krispies-treat-making show. And over steaming plates of cereal and goo, Martin practiced his off-the-cuff comedy with his Calhoun classmates.

But Martin did not immediately discover his calling. He spent two years at New York University Law School before turning to comedy.

Despite the fact that he tried to liven things up at NYU by attending a few classes in his old gorilla suit, law school did not have the comedic flair Martin desired. Night after night in the library could not compete with the attraction of the small comedy club across the street.

Although his decision was shocking in many ways, Martin’s friends understood. While in college, Martin’s father succumbed to leukemia, and his former suitemate saw the life-changing loss as his reason for making his life as interesting and successful as possible.

“[Martin's] father died when we were in college — which is why he wanted to do something with his life and why he was so geared to success,” Ramos said. “So, once he got into law school I remember him telling me he didn’t really enjoy it. It was just a lot of reading and not anything that great. He was always a funny guy who — would crack jokes. He had that in him all the time. So, maybe it was because of his dad and realizing life was too short — and he decided to go for it.”

Martin is now internationally recognized for his talents, winning in Edinburgh with his one man show “If I — ” The Perrier award, though known in the United Kingdom, is not well known in the United States. Martin was quoted frequently during the festival for calling Perrier only a creative stain remover. Not only the award, but the concept of a comedy contest at all, is alien to Martin.

“It’s like saying who’s the best painter — you are because you paint these windmills and you use blue,” Martin said. “But I’ll take it; it’s cool.”

The contest, judged by a panel of established critics and comedians, provides the winner with 7,500 pounds (almost $12,000) plus headliner status at The Perrier Comedy Award Shows in London’s West End later this fall.

Martin’s show centered around the palindrome “Dammit, I’m mad” which he perfected during his fractal geometry class at Yale, though the show’s future was in jeopardy for a time.

“The only thing I had was the title of the show “If I –,” which is the middle of the palindrome in my show that has fractal properties,” Martin said. “I looked up “if” in the dictionary, and there were five different meanings of the word if, and that’s my show — explaining how they apply to my life and my future. That’s generally where it came from. It’s an honest show and kind of a confessional.”

Martin’s list of accomplishments grows every day. He appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” earlier this year. He was recently offered a job writing for Conan and is filming a television pilot of his creation for the BBC. He recently auditioned for a new Woody Allen movie and will also record a half-hour special of “Comedy Central Presents” in the fall.

“It’s very weird that you caught me now,” Martin said. “You have these big moments that happen in five minute increments. It’s like, you get five random minutes with Woody Allen, and the path unfolds before you if you just start walking.”

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