Comedian Demetri Martin has made a career out of one-liners, wordplay jokes and incorporating music and props into his stand-up comedy. Now, Martin is making his first foray into directing with Dean.
Starring Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen and Martin, Dean tells the story of a young man trying to move forward with his life after the death of his mother. The film opens in select theaters June 2.
Martin spoke with Morning Shift host Jenn White about how the death of his father influenced his upcoming movie. Below are highlights from their conversation.
On death and comedy
Demetri Martin: When I was 20, I lost my father. He was only 46. He had cancer and my family was just shocked and devastated. But it’s been now 23 years since I lost him and that’s not something I’ve really chosen to explore in stand-up.
I don’t know — it’s not my first thought that, “Hey, people are coming out for a show on Friday night, why don’t I tell them about my dead dad?” That’s just not your first thought as a comic. You can make great comedy out of it, but it’s just not — for me, I talk about dogs and balloons and things like that — so I thought a film would be an interesting opportunity because I could explore the idea of loss and grief, something that so many of us have to deal with at some point in our lives. But also, try to make it funny.
On the ‘yin and yang’ of comedy
Martin: The original title of the movie was The First Thing You Never Get Over. And I chose the title Dean because that was my dad’s name.
And whoever’s listening … it really is a comedy. I know I’m sounding like I’m going to start crying up here or something. I’m not. It’s a comedy. It’s the classic “tears of a clown.” But as a comedian, sometimes I think you’re hungry to dig a little deeper and maybe to earn some of the laughs. There’s a yin-yang to it where you’re dealing with things that are a little bit heavier but then when you laugh, hopefully it’s more of a cathartic laugh.
Martin: Personally, I’m old enough now to accept that I am somewhat of an awkward person. I’m not the most awkward person you’ll meet — I can certainly speak with people and I’m fine at making eye contact, et cetera — but I’ve met some pretty cool people along the way, certainly being in showbiz. Sometimes I kind of marvel at them.
I have a joke where I talk about seeing a guy hitting on a woman and he was on rollerblades. And I’m just like, “Wow. Just that kind of confidence. I just wish I had that. If I could just take a pill and be that confident.” I just never had that game.
So when it came time to tell a story, and yes I’m playing a character, but what kind of range do I have? At my best I’m going to be some version of myself. I’m not a trained actor. I can do what I can do. But I said, “Yeah, what I’m familiar with is awkwardness."
Martin: It’s not Citizen Kane. It’s not The Godfather. It’s just an indie movie here. But I tried to explore vulnerability and tenderness. I have to say it’s kind of scary in today’s world, which has gotten pretty snarky, especially in the comedy world. It’s hard to be vulnerable and to just sincerely put something out there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button above to hear the entire segment.