The great Lenny Bruce was once quoted as saying, “The role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh, a minimum of once every 15 seconds.” Perhaps that’s why, when it comes to hosting an awards show, you call on someone who can bring a special je ne sais quoi to the occasion.
In the world of NAMM, the TEC Awards stands as one of the biggest nights of celebration during the multi-day event. Mixing music and comedy packs a powerful punch so when Demetri Martin was tapped for the opportunity to emcee the affair, people began to imagine the fun that would ensue.
“The Third Conchord” is adding a list of new experiences to his inaugural NAMM Show: meeting Jackson Browne, getting to see The Section jam, and, of course, taking on the role of host. That’s right, the comic known for his dynamite deadpan delivery, will be hosting his very-first awards show at this year’s NAMM. Naturally, he shared his excitement with AXS in a recent interview.
AXS: Tell me more about the important role music has played in your life?
Demetri Martin: Growing up, my dad was a music lover and the soundtrack of my childhood was certainly a direct result of his taste. I remember him having an 8-track in the car. It was a lot of doo-wop, ‘60s rock; artists like Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash. Now, I’m the kind of person who likes to have music on when I’m working. It seems to help me think and solve problems. I travel so much for stand-up that I have a constant soundtrack going. It’s all different kinds of music. Having music on in the background is the norm for us. I have little kids now and they’re growing up with classical music in the house.
AXS: When did you begin incorporating instruments into your sets and what made you want to combine the two?
DM: I started around ‘99 or 2000 just bringing the guitar up sometimes, sometimes the keyboard. I learned early on there was value in setting a tone, or a bit of a rhythm, to certain jokes. Once I learned how to deliver jokes while being able to score my set that was great because it opened up this other way to deliver one-liners. When you get on the road and you’re headlining, there are so many jokes that it can be a little monotonous if you’re not careful. Over the years I realized if I play a little music with these chunk of jokes, or tell a story and maybe fingerpick the guitar under it a little bit, if I show some drawings for five or 10 minutes, it breaks it up and it almost gives the show little scenes or little acts. So, I experimented with it and then I quickly realized that it was really fun to play.
AXS: Let’s talk about the upcoming NAMM TEC Awards. Why did you decide to take on the role as host?
DM: It sounded really interesting and unexpected. It’s certainty different for me. I thought it could be fun and it’s one of those rare opportunities as a grown-up where you get to be involved in something you don’t know a lot about. I don’t have a lot of experience hosting things, you know, I just show up, tell my jokes, and I’m out of there. So it’s fun when I get to do something that’s less structured comedically. It’ll be nice to go and talk a little bit, play off the room, hopefully improvise a little, and get to interact with people.
AXS: You’ve had some pretty awesome moments on-stage. I especially love what you did with ‘Flight of the Conchords.’ Do you have a moment throughout your career that really stands out for you?
DM: There are a couple of moments with ‘The Conchords’ and some friends I’ve met along the way. But the first time I really got to do a TV spot; that was a big deal. The first time I did ‘Conan’ and ‘Letterman,’ those were exciting moments. You do stand-up, you do open mics, you do this spot or go on the road, but it’s kind of hard to pin down when you feel like you’re officially in the business or you can tell people you’re a comedian. But getting a TV spot, you feel like, ‘I’m a comedian now and I’ve got documentation, there’s footage of it.’ So that was a big moment.
AXS: So, AXS is ticketing your Let’s Get Awkward Tour. For people who haven’t had a chance to see you live yet, what would you say would surprise them the most when they come to your show? What can fans expect?
DM: Maybe that I improvise quite a bit so it’s not so rote. You know, I’m not a political comic. It is a strange time with so much happening and such polarity. I’ve always prided myself on being pretty irrelevant so I still kind of do what I do. I’m not really talking too much about the outside world beyond my observations or daydreams. But in a way, I realize I’m a distraction so that’s important, too. I’m not really preaching. Maybe when I get a little older something will break open but so far, it’s about dogs and balloons and stuff like that.
AXS: You also do a great job incorporating two of your other talents: drawing and writing. Tell me about your latest book and what do you hope people take away from it?
DM: This is my third book. The first one had essays and some short stories in it. The second book was drawings and the third is drawings as well. I spend a lot of time drawing at home; my notebooks are full of these little cartoons. When I think of joke ideas, often they work as jokes, but sometimes they work better as drawings, sometimes without a caption, sometimes it’s a little scene. As with my jokes, what I like about drawing is that you can communicate ideas really efficiently or economically. Line drawings are great for that because you can distill an idea down to a little scene or just a few lines. I like looking at old New Yorker cartoons. I love Gary Larson. Growing up with The Far Side was a big thing for me. As a reader I think it’s fun, it’s unique, that experience of turning a page and having somebody tell you this joke quietly. You can dictate the pace and the order; you just flip around the book. That drove me to try to do these little books. As a comic, it’s great that I get to do stand-up and talk to crowds, but it’s cool to have a reader because it’s like a one-to-one relationship between the person making the comedy and the person receiving it. There’s something very private and intimate about it.
AXS: You’ve had quite a journey. You left an Ivy League school to pursue comedy, you found success on-screen, you’ve won an award writing for late night, and you were on the pioneering side of ‘The Daily Show.’ What advice can you offer others who want to pursue a career in comedy?
DM: I think that for me, pursuing comedy was about figuring out what I was passionate about doing and then taking a leap. This was before the internet, so at that time, I didn’t really have access to show biz. It seemed like this big risk. I feel lucky that I went for it because it’s worked out well enough that now I can make a living doing it, and I get to do what I enjoy. I’d say to other people, there’s an old saying, ‘leap and a net will appear.’ In the wrong context that can be a pretty terrible piece of advice I guess now that I say that out loud, but generally I think that’s true. It’s scary sometimes to try something that’s uncertain but it seems to me that anything valuable is going to require hard work. So, if you’re going to work hard anyway, do it at something that you really love. You can always change and try something else. I keep that in mind as I’m trying to learn how to make films; it’s really just like starting over. I have to remind myself, ‘hey, you took a leap into stand-up. So, don’t worry about it, just keep trying.’
Demetri Martin recently announced an extension of his Let’s Get Awkward Tour. Tickets are available here at AXS. He’s also in the process of writing a new movie as well as a book of short stories, and you can catch his new special in the spring. For more on the comedian, be sure to check out his website.