Demetri Martin: man behind the mania

It was a conflict left unnoticed, a fight no one would see.

As fans ripe with adoration assembled at the foot of a quiet Kendall Hall Tuesday night, Demetri Martin sat in his greenroom on the far end of the building, calmly clashing with an unlikely foe.

As Martin discussed his wardrobe choices for his piece in New York Magazine, he chewed a roast beef sandwich. Once half of the sandwich was consumed, Martin rose from his armchair, apologized for being rude, and proceeded to withdraw a large bottle of Seagram’s ginger ale from a cooler. Martin sat back down with the bottle and explained his surprise when he learned he had graced the cover of New York Magazine’s Feb. 16 issue.

As Martin turned the cap of the bottle, the bubbling liquid rushed to the top, eager to spray the man sporting a light red sweatshirt and five o’ clock shadow. The ginger ale had a purpose, but Martin was obviously a veteran of carbonated quarrels. He did not waver as he began the familiar sequence of opening and closing the bottle quickly to let out the gas and avoid a preshow shower. He did not acknowledge the battle which was taking place (it took no less than five tries before he could safely unscrew the bottle cap) and continued the interview.

For most, such an occurrence would seem insignificant, or at the very least, not newsworthy. For Martin, whose comedic genius is based on such typically uninteresting things as chairs and ice cubes, the ginger ale incident was all too appropriate. Normally, this would be a quickly forgotten occurrence. The only difference between Martin and anyone else is that this occurrence might just be the next joke in his repertoire of specially crafted comedy, discussing the little things no one thinks twice about.

If with no prior knowledge of his celebrity, someone was to meet and have a short conversation with Martin, they would likely describe him as articulate, intelligent and sincere. They would mention his plain sense of fashion, his Beatle-mania haircut and his unassuming disposition. They would estimate his age in the mid-20s, a stereotypical youth fresh from college with the world in front of him.

“Demetri Martin was exactly the kind of person I hoped he would be: down-to-earth, friendly and approachable,” senior philosophy major and Martin’s student opener Kevin “Vegas” Lancaster said. “Making small talk with him felt perfectly natural, as if he was any other guy, and I think that’s because he’s not some crazy egomaniac, he understands that he’s a human being like the rest of us.”

With these relatively ordinary notions, they may overlook his comedic sensibilities.

They would be correct in their assumptions, except two misconceptions. The first would be that they ventured more than a decade away from his age, but the 35-year-old Martin enjoys the mistake.

“A lot of people think I’m younger, which is cool for now,” he said.

The second would be bypassing his comedic impact over the past decade.

When speaking to Martin, it is nearly impossible to determine that this “normal guy” hosts his own television show, “Important things with Demetri Martin” on Comedy Central, has performed on “Late Night with Conan O’ Brien,” “The Daily Show” and “The David Letterman Show,” has acted in several films and has headlined numerous comedy specials. Martin does have the world in front of him, but with the world as his oyster, he has already accomplished more than comedians twice his age.

As Martin fought with the bottle of Seagram’s at the College, he was not far from either of his homes – his current residence in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., and his childhood home in central Toms River, N.J.

Growing up in the large New Jersey town of nearly 90,000, Martin lived the typical life of a Greek-American adolescent. He attended Toms River North High School, worshiped at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church of Ocean County (where he is now a star when he returns), and worked at his family’s Greek food stand in Seaside Heights, shoving pieces of marinated meat onto a rod.

“I just wanted to skate and surf but they were like ‘no you have to skewer shish kabobs,'” he said with feigned frustration. “It really pissed me off.”

Martin got a late start in comedy at the age of 24, but never regrets his decision to drop out of New York University law school only one semester away from graduation.

“My worst day in comedy is better than my best day in law school,” he said. “It wasn’t terrible but when it’s not the right fit it’s just so grueling. But when it’s the right fit, it might be hard work but I feel like ‘hey, I’m lucky I found something I love doing and I’m not bored doing it.'”

Although his “Important Things” show now consumes the majority of his time, Martin still claims his love for the stage. “Stand-up is always the best for me, I love it the most. It’s really direct and it’s the purest form of getting your comedic sensibility out there because once you’re on stage, it’s just you and the microphone. It’s really nice that you can communicate directly with your audience and you get feedback immediately.”

Martin will likely have to wait to get feedback on his newest project, a book he plans to finish over the summer and submit in September.

“It’s like writing a major paper,” he said. “It’ll be essays, poems and drawings, maybe some short stories, maybe a couple of jokes. Some things I think might work better on a page.”

With a hefty bank account, millions of fans in his corner and a great future ahead of him, Martin does not appear affected by his fame in the least.

While in an empty Kendall Hall hours before the show, Martin went through the motions of his sound check. As he prepared his stage, he politely and awkwardly asked the sound technicians, always using “please” and “thank you,” if he could receive more sound out of certain speakers and if he could position microphone stands in certain spots, almost as an amateur would.

He then skittishly sat at his keyboard, tinkering with different sounds, trying to find the perfect pitch for the approaching performance. He never did find the sound he was looking for but it was not time wasted, because much like with his comedy, it’s the little things that count.

Bobby Olivier can be reached at