Demetri Martin ’95, a stand-up comedian and writer for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” finds doing comedy liberating — when he tells jokes, he no longer feels he needs to be good at something.
Martin’s sense of freedom has allowed him to develop skits ranging from a 224-word palindrome to a poem about love and sex using only the words on a bottle of Rolling Rock beer. He discussed his career as a comic and his life philosophy before an audience of 35 at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea Tuesday.
For Martin, comedy is an art. But the things that evoke a visceral laugh remain a mystery to him.
“When I sit down to write, I am lucky if 10 percent of the material turns out to be good,” Martin said.
Calhoun College Master William Sledge praised Martin’s recent successes.
“In the past year, Demetri has become a writer for the Conan O’Brien show,” Sledge said. “In the summer he won the prestigious Perrier award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.”
The Perrier award is given to the comedian who is judged to have the best show at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
While comedy may be an art, Martin has developed a strictly scientific approach to writing jokes.
“Jokes for me are like extracting the premise of an object,” Martin said. “My friends and I are like really dumb physicists.”
Though Martin did not do stand-up at the tea, he discussed comedic theory. The best comedians understand the importance of cadence, flow and tone, he said. He said most professional comedians would not say Jerry Seinfeld is their personal favorite. But Martin applauded Seinfeld’s routines for “just being really structurally sound.”
Comedy was not something Martin initially considered as a possible career. After graduating from Yale, Martin matriculated at New York University’s Law School. When he became disillusioned with the study of law, Martin slowly entered the comedy scene.
“It’s funny when you get out there [coming from Yale], because things seem so hard. I’m a big believer in approaching a career incrementally,” Martin said. “The whole thing about comedy is about redefining failure.”
A humbled perspective helps one to be a better comedian, Martin said. But he said “bombing” can be a traumatic experience at first.
“Most of the time when you bomb, it’s no big deal,” Martin said. “But, when you bomb on TV, it sort of sucks in a special way, because now it’s on tape.”
Martin said that one his greatest joys about being a comedian is the people with whom he is able to work.
“In whatever terms I am considered a failure, I don’t care. I’m having fun and hanging out with cool people,” Martin said. “The great training ground for me was just talking to people in the college dining hall. I’d come in at five o’clock and not leave until seven.”
Tiffany Card ’04, who was familiar with Martin’s work before the tea, raved about his routine at the Edinburgh festival.
“His one-man show was awesome,” Card said. “The room was always packed, and the crowds just loved him.”
Martin is currently working on a new show called “Spiral Bound.”
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