'This Is A Book' Of Demetri Martin's Miscellany

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:19 pm

Demetri Martin, the stand-up comedian famous for his Beatle-ish bangs and stream-of-consciousness onstage drawings, has now brought his doses of comedy to print in his first book — and it's appropriately titled This Is a Book.

This Is a Book features essays, drawings, one-liners and charts, all penned in Martin's characteristically unconventional, understated style. He talked with Morning Edition's Linda Wertheimer about his new material, and his jump from the stage to the page.

From the section of his book called "Charts and Graphs," he includes a pie chart titled "Types of Breath." He explains, "On the left, there is good, and on the right, there is bad. That's about 50 percent each, but there's a tiny sliver in the middle for interesting breath, which is a very small portion of all the breath in the world."

"It's pretty binary," he adds.

In another section, "Epigrams, Fragments and Light Verse," Martin echoes his stand-up style with brief but hilarious snippets. "They are short little ideas, so I could just put a sentence or two, and then move on to the next one," he says.

They range from tongue-in-cheek to wryly clever:

"The bird, the bee, the running child are all the same to the sliding glass door."

"Nothing wise was ever printed upon an apron."

"Let no man's deathbed be a futon."

"I wish this poem were longer.
There, that's better."

Martin jokes that most of his material is short and inane, but his section on palindromes reveals his keen talent for wordplay.

A palindrome is, at least functionally, "a phrase or sentence that you might say that might create awkward silence with other people," Martin says with a laugh. But he adds that it's also a sequence of letters or words — even sometimes numbers — that reads the same forward or backward.

Martin calls his collection of palindromes "Palindromes for Specific Occasions," and includes a description with each one to clue readers into what it describes. In one example, a head baker at a bakery is instructing a new employee about how to deal with customers, when he suddenly notices what the new baker has made.

He says, "Snub no man, nice cinnamon buns." (Try it. See? It works.)

"It's pretty deep stuff I put in the book here," Martin says with a laugh.

Martin also likes to use drawings in his act — in fact, sketching on a large pad of paper was a trademark of his Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin. So, naturally, Martin uses sketches in his book, too.

One features a "Narcoleptic Pole Vaulter," a sleepy — and unfortunate — athlete who is impaled at the end of a pole, not quite all the way over, and just stuck hanging.

"I captured the moment just when he dozed off," explains Martin. "I love imminence. I love catching a snapshot of something that is just about to happen. Or maybe something that just happened, you know. But I like especially that just-before kind of feeling."

He translated these sorts of proclivities into his book, but it wasn't easy. When it comes to gauging his material, Martin is used to the immediate reaction of a crowd.

"I'm spoiled. I'm used to having people tell me, 'Hey, that's good, keep that.' Or with their silence: 'No, no, no, don't do that again,' " Martin says. "They kind of give me a shortcut — with a book it's more like being in a vacuum."

But Martin rose to the challenge, and even poked fun at some book conventions themselves. After all, This Is a Book is dedicated to ... everyone. On the dedication page, it simply says, "For you."

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Welcome to the program.

DEMETRI MARTIN: Thanks, Linda. Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So, shall we start with a demonstration?


WERTHEIMER: I want you to look up the section of your book which is called "Charts and Graphs." I wonder if you could pick one of them and explain it to us. You should pick one that you think will interest radio listeners.


MARTIN: Okay. This - here's one, a symbol. It's the first one. It's a pie chart, and the titled is "Types of Breaths." And on the left, there's good. And on the right, there is bad. That's about 50 percent each, but there's a tiny sliver in the middle for interesting breath...



MARTIN: ...which is a very small portion of all the breaths in the world.


MARTIN: It's pretty binary.


WERTHEIMER: Now, your television show, "Important Things," was described as a stream of consciousness sketch and variety show.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: Is this a stream of consciousness, sketch and variety book?

MARTIN: Yeah, I think so. I think that consciousness, maybe the stream flows little deeper, because I got to do it on a page here. There are longer stories in the book. That would be the biggest difference, I'd say, between this and other things that I've done. Because in the book, I have that opportunity to go into more detail and do some character work and things like that.

WERTHEIMER: So is that the biggest difference between the stage and the page, do you think?

MARTIN: Yeah. When I'm on stage, I don't usually think, oh, I use that word before in that paragraph over there. I can't say that word again, because the jokes are so short. I get to reset pretty regularly, you know, every few minutes, every minute or so, onstage.

WERTHEIMER: The other thing that I liked, especially liked, was the "Epigrams, Fragments and Light Verse."

MARTIN: Yes. This is one of the sections that's the closest, probably, to my stand-up...


MARTIN: ...inasmuch as, you know, they're short little ideas, so I could just put a sentence or two and then move onto the next one. So I can read a couple of those.

WERTHEIMER: Well, why don't you read one, and then I'll read one, and then you read one, and we can sort of see how we do?

MARTIN: (Reading) The bird, the bee, the running child are all the same to the sliding glass door.


WERTHEIMER: (Reading) Nothing wise was ever printed upon an apron.

MARTIN: (Reading) Let no man's deathbed be a futon.


WERTHEIMER: Now, that is really a good one. What about this one? I'll do the first half, and you do the last half.


WERTHEIMER: (Reading) I wish this poem were longer.

MARTIN: (Reading) There. That's better.


MARTIN: I panicked, because I didn't know what page you were going to be reading from.


MARTIN: But as you started to read, I realized how short and inane most of my stuff is, so I can just lop-on the ending there.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you've also included a collection of palindromes.


WERTHEIMER: First, let's discuss: What is a palindrome?

MARTIN: A palindrome is a sequence of letters or words - can be numbers - that reads the same forwards and backwards.

WERTHEIMER: So like...

MARTIN: Madam, I'm Adam.


MARTIN: And that's by letter. So it's not even by the break in the words. It's simply the sequence of letters.

WERTHEIMER: And that's what you did, too.

MARTIN: Yes. I put some in the book here.

WERTHEIMER: Okay, pick one.

MARTIN: In the palindrome is: Snub no man, nice cinnamon buns.


WERTHEIMER: And, of course, obviously buns spelled backwards is snub.

MARTIN: Right. It's pretty deep stuff I put in the book, here.

WERTHEIMER: How do you imagine people approaching this book? Do you imagine them, like, having it on their bedside table and picking it up, and reading a palindrome or two and going to sleep? Or what?

MARTIN: Wow, that makes it even worse...


MARTIN: ...when said a palindrome or two. I don't know why that bums me out.


MARTIN: What I picture is someone having the book and being able to travel with it or leave it in their bathroom or near their bed, maybe on their coffee table. And that person can pick up the book and open it, pretty much, to any page and hopefully get a laugh. They can commit to a longer story, or just flip through the palindromes. And I guess the best situation would be that they read it to somebody else out loud, like over radio. This is perfect.


MARTIN: So they can really get it.

WERTHEIMER: This was very good, right.



WERTHEIMER: Now, the crossword puzzle, I like that.

MARTIN: I'm very proud of the crossword puzzle.

WERTHEIMER: I don't want to give too much away, but every answer is the letter A, or several letters A.

MARTIN: Yes. What I did was I took a regular crossword puzzle and I started by writing the letter A in every square that wasn't colored-in fully black. So every open square, I just put in A in it. So when you look at the puzzle, what you see is something that looks like it was done by someone who doesn't understand how crossword puzzles work, or English.


MARTIN: Just some idiot just put in A in every square. But then what I did was I wrote all the clues, and that's where the hard part came in.

WERTHEIMER: What about this one: Is found on five of Hester Prynne's outfits?


MARTIN: Yeah. That's in a reach category. Yes.

WERTHEIMER: I like that one.


MARTIN: Or an opera singer's vanity plate, and that's just a bunch of A's.


MARTIN: One of them that was kind of cool, I thought, was what you might see when a letter A - when a certain letter falls off a sign.


MARTIN: So it's almost by stop-motion photography. It was going down, just a bunch of A's. But it would be the one A moving through time and space.


WERTHEIMER: How do you find this, writing a book? I mean, when you do standup, people laugh. I mean, you don't know how people feel about what you wrote.

MARTIN: That's exactly right. That was a big question for me. I'm spoiled. I'm used to having people tell me, hey, that's good. You know, keep that. Or with their silence: no, no, no. Don't do that again.


MARTIN: So they kind of give me a shortcut. With a book, it's more like being in a vacuum.

WERTHEIMER: You know, before we conclude this interview, I do want to thank you for dedicating the book to me.

MARTIN: Oh, absolutely. I'm a big fan, so it kind of worked out.


MARTIN: Yes. It says the book is for you in the beginning.



MARTIN: That would be weird if I put your actual name in there.

WERTHEIMER: That would be weird.

MARTIN: That would just make this interview - yes.

WERTHEIMER: Yes, it would.


MARTIN: You'd say: I don't think I want to be the one to interview him. I don't know that guy. That's kind of creepy.


WERTHEIMER: Demetri Martin, thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks. Thanks for having me.


WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.