In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's actor and stand-up comedian Demetri Martin, whose directorial debut Dean is out this Friday in theaters.
When I was 11 years old, my first job was skewering shish kebab at my family's Greek food stand at the Jersey Shore boardwalk. It was a summer job held against my will, and I had to work in the basement of our little food stand with my grandfather. My next job was working at my family's diner throughout high school. I hated every minute of those jobs, but it certainly instilled in me that the customer's always right. I often have to eat out, so I'm a pretty good tipper because I know how hard food service jobs are. It's real work, and it gave me empathy and compassion for people who are doing that.
If there's anything that I resent when I look back, it's that I wasn't given a choice. I wanted to work at the Gap at the mall—I had some friends who worked at the mall—but my family was like, "You're going to make more money at the diner. You get tips, and you can eat whatever you want." But they didn't understand how important it is to feel like you have some control over your life and ownership of what you're doing. There's not much about my family I can complain about—I had a pretty good childhood, my parents had a great relationship, they loved me—but if I'm going to nitpick, stuff like that pissed me off.
I was also told that I wasn't a good worker and that I was slow, and I still resent that. I do think I'm a hard worker, but within my immigrant clan, I wasn't considered fast—and you had to be fast. "C'mon, we've got to turnover here, you know breakfast is busy on Sunday morning. You've got to bus the tables faster!" Uncle Johnny would always give me shit about it. I'm old enough now to know that that's bullshit, but it's not like I can go back and tell them that. People have passed away. It's over. I missed my chance to prove it to them.
My first passion as a kid was breakdancing, but I loved skateboarding, too. Over the years, I had three halfpipes in my backyard—I'd build one and skate it for a while with my friends, we'd take it down, and we'd build a different one. I dreamed about skateboarding, and I wasn't a great skater, but it gave me something to be a part of where I wasn't a complete nerd. I was on the math and physics teams, but I'm not a very coordinated person—I'm not muscular, I've got a skinny neck and a big nose, so high school wasn't a great time for me.
At the Jersey Shore, if you're not good at team sports, you're just a useless piece of shit. I was pretty happy to leave. I haven't been back in a while, and I'm sure it's changed more than I even know, but something that's interesting to me about New Jersey is that New York and Philly are two big cultural magnets on either side of the state. The folks who live in a certain radius from New York still get access to the culture in New York, and for people in Camden, Philly is a good barometer for sports. The Jersey Shore's equidistant to both places, so it's got its own weird culture.
One of the bad things about where I'm from is that there are some people who aren't just ignorant—they're stubbornly proud of it. It's a badge for them. If you get out and do something else, that's a problem for those folks. I always envied North Jersey, because they had access to the city, and it seemed like there was plenty of people who had more ambition.
I don't want to shit on the Jersey Shore, because there's so many great people down there, and I didn't have a bad childhood. But it did piss me off when I got older and met people from other cities who were like, "You could be in the school play and on a sports team." My high school was still stuck in 1955. It was very oppressive. But the nice thing about Jersey is that it's no bullshit. I never felt like I didn't know where I stood with someone. People said what they meant.
When I visited Yale with my family, I was like, "I'd love to go here." I was even fantasizing about the Yale sweatshirts. I applied early, and I got in. I was genuinely surprised, and I had a really good time there. But even though those Gothic buildings looked so beautiful in pictures, they were cold. We had space heaters because there was no insulation, and we had mice all over. Having traveled and performed at a lot of colleges, I would've loved to go to Berkeley. But I have no regrets, except for that I just know too much now.
I wanted to go to law school since I was in seventh grade. I was getting good grades, but I knew I couldn't be a doctor. People know pretty early that they can do that kind of work, and I was like, "I can't do it." All the way through college, I was like, "Law, law, law." Then, two months into law school, I felt, "This isn't for me. This sucks." I didn't know what to do because I really hadn't thought of any other plan. I applied for a White House internship, and I got it, so I was an intern in the Clinton White House in the summer of 1996. But then I realized it wasn't for me.
I went back to law school for the second year, which was a real crisis. I remember asking myself, If I didn't have to worry about money, what would I do, and how would I get money for doing it? I liked comedy, but there was no improv and no internet. It was a different culture for comedy. Now, I'm amazed—I go to colleges, and there's stand-up clubs, everybody's doing improv, there's different chapters of UCB. I don't know if that's better or worse. Because I'm grateful that comedy was such uncharted territory for me. It was hard, but I said, "Alright. I want to do stand-up, and I'm going to do it now, or I'm going to regret it for the rest of my life." So I left law school, got temp jobs during the day, and did stand-up during the night. I bombed regularly and made no money for years. Eventually, I found my way in, and now I look back and I'm like, "Oh, I'm so glad I did that."
What's cool about comedy is that there are a lot of different ways you can have a job. A simple piece of advice that has been useful to me is that whatever job you want, you have to make it work on your own. When I had a TV series and I was hiring writers, I realized how important it is to have samples of your writing and write stuff on spec. When I was coming up, I didn't think about that—I just thought, I'm a funny person. I'll meet with them, tell them what I want to do, and maybe they can watch a clip of my stand-up. The other thing I'd say is that I find I make good stuff if I make a lot of stuff. If I'm too precious, it doesn't work. I've got to write five shitty jokes to get to the good one. Then, another good one will appear and I'm like, "OK, cool." I try not to worry too much about it.
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