Demetri Martin, backwards and forwards

First aired on Q (20/12/11)

Writer and comic Demetri Martin has been called "one of the funniest men in America" by Entertainment Weekly, and his fans include Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart. New York Magazine called him "the Barack Obama of comedy" (back when the U.S. president was particularly popular, that is).

Martin's distinctive brand of comedy features graphs, charts, Venn diagrams, drawings and absurd one-liners. For example, "I saw a sign outside that said 'watch for children,' and I thought, 'that sounds like a fair trade,'" and "This summer I want to go to the beach and bury metal objects that say 'get a life' on them."

Last spring, he published his first book, somewhat unoriginally titled This Is a Book (points for clarity, though).

The writer and comic spoke with Q's Jian Ghomeshi just before the Christmas holidays about his upcoming tour of Canada and his obsessive passion for palindromes.

Even if you don't recognize his voice, there's a good chance you'd recognize his face. Framed by his trademark moptop haircut, he's been a regular on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he had his own Comedy Central series Important Things with Demetri Martin, and he's acted in both the Ang Lee film Woodstock and Steven Soderbergh's film Contagion. This month, he will leave sunny California for his first cross-Canada tour, appropriately titled Telling Jokes in Cold Places: 2012. (He's particularly excited to visit Calgary, because it's an anagram of "racy gal," he says.)

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Martin is know for his passion for — some might say obsession with — wordplay, which includes palindromes (words or phrases that read the same both backwards and forwards) as well as anagrams. It all started because he grew up — for lack of a better word — a nerd."Now that I'm a little older, I have a better theory of my personal history," he said. "I'm from Jersey, specifically the Jersey Shore, and as a kid I wasn't good at team sports... I'd go to the bookstore at the mall, and I found these little puzzle books."

He continued to take solace in those puzzles right through high school, when he worked at his family's diner. "While I was bussing tables or waiting on people, I could at least be thinking of a puzzle in my head. It was an escape," he explained. And he maintains that this fondness for wordplay was the first step on his road to comedy. "It got my brain calibrated to jokes. When I discovered stand-up comedy, I immediately gravitated to jokes, because to me it's like solving the premise."

Now he incorporates palindromes into his act, and compares his wordplay to fractals. (In university, Martin took a course about fractals, and the patterns appealed to him.) He even wrote a poem that is a palindrome containing palindromes, if that concept doesn't give you too much of a headache. (And if you're racking your brain trying to come up with a palindromic line, here's one of Martin's examples: Evil is a deed, as I live.)

Martin graduated from Yale and won a scholarship to NYU law school. But his love of comedy won out over pragmatism, and he dropped out of NYU before his final year. "I was waking up and feeling dread, going to law school," he said. "And after enough weeks of feeling that way I thought, 'I should be able to find something I don't dread.'" Fortunately for Stewart, O'Brien and Martin's many less-famous fans, he did.

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This Is a Book

by Demetri Martin

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

"'From the renowned comedian, creator, star and executive producer/multiple title-holder of Comedy Central's Important Things with Demetri Martin comes a bold, original, and rectangular kind of humor book. Demetri's first literary foray features longer-form essays and conceptual pieces (such as Protagonists' Hospital, a melodrama about the clinic doctors who treat only the flesh wounds and minor head scratches of Hollywood action heroes), as well as his trademark charts, doodles, drawings..."

Read more at Grand Central Publishing.