Delightfully Scrambled Egghead Demetri Martin

An interview with comic Demetri Martin.

Demetri Martin.
Photo by Martin Schoeller.

Up to now, the best-known stars to come from Toms River have been pitcher Al Leiter and actress Piper Perabo. But comic, musician, and actor Demetri Martin may be about to change that. Earlier this year, the former Daily Show correspondent launched his own Comedy Central series, Important Things With Demetri Martin, produced by his former Daily Show boss, Jon Stewart.

Like deadpan master Steven Wright, one of his comedy heroes, Martin, 35, is gifted at walking the tightrope between brainy and dopey. He graduated from Toms River North High School in 1991 and Yale in 1995—then appalled his Greek-American family by dropping out of NYU Law School with a year to go in order to become a full-time comic. Next month, he’ll flout his acting chops in director Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, and in 2011 he’ll be seen opposite Brad Pitt as a stat-savvy baseball executive in Steven Soderbergh’s Moneyball.

Were you a skate punk growing up in Toms River?

I don’t know if you can call me a skate punk, but I was all about skateboarding. I remember learning to do double kick flips and a 360 shove-it. Ho-ho’s were a big deal. You walked on your hands while you kept your skateboard [balanced on your upraised] feet. When I first did a ho-ho, my friend screamed, “Demetri!” I remember that sense of accomplishment. It was amazing. When you work on a comedy bit and it goes over, that’s what it’s like. It’s like skating.

When did you realize you could be a dramatic actor?

When I was in fifth grade in Walnut Street Elementary School in Toms River, I played the Grinch in the school play. I really enjoyed it.

Has your success helped your love life?

It’s made me more confident, but I’m so damn busy I don’t have time to worry if a girl calls me back or not. I hope cute girls like me. When I was younger, I felt really shy with girls. I was a dork.

Why did you leave law school after two years?

Law school is a good place for those who don’t know exactly where they fit in. You go to law school and put off the decision. But you don’t need to have accomplished anything prior to becoming a standup comic.

You had a full scholarship. Your parents must have been thrilled that you dropped out.

Nobody liked my decision but me. I had good grades, and the last year is the easiest. But I had no passion for it. Everyone said I should have gotten the degree to fall back on, but I don’t think a degree is something to fall back on. A couch is to fall back on.

What kind of feedback do you get from Jon Stewart?

He’s great at editing comedy. Jon and Conan [O’Brien] have a great deal in common. They’re both economical with jokes. They both understand jokes. If you come to them with a joke that’s not working, they will fix it, and you’ll leave thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Are you more Greek or geek?

You can take out the “r” when you describe me. My friends’ dads were more the Greek stereotype—they had that machismo thing going on. But I wasn’t that Greek guy you saw on television a generation or so ago.

Right, you’re no Telly Savalas.

I have a full head of hair, but I’m not as hairy as you might think. I don’t have a hairy back. I can grow a thick beard, but I end up looking like a terrorist. That’s not a good thing these days.

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