Demetri Martin On 'Taking Woodstock'

The new film Taking Woodstock is based on the memoir of Elliot Tiber, who claims to have saved the Woodstock festival from certain cancellation when he obtained the permits necessary to host the show. Comedian and actor Demetri Martin, who plays Tiber in the film, talks with Guy Raz.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Woodstock was never meant to be a cultural signpost or a transformational event in the history of rock and roll. But 40 years later, it remains just that. And now, Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee has made a film about how those three days of peace and love came together. The movie "Taking Woodstock" is based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, the man who helped the organizers get the permits and the location for the festival in Bethel, New York.

Tiber's family owned a rundown motel that was struggling to stay afloat when Woodstock producer Michael Lang approached him.

(Soundbite of "Taking Woodstock")

Mr. JONATHAN GROFF (Actor): (As Michael Lang) You know, we're going to need a place for people to crash while we prepare the festival. Your place looks pretty cool. How many vacant rooms do you have for the next couple of weeks?

Mr. DEMETRI MARTIN: (Comedian/Actor): (As Elliot Teichberg) Let's see, it's $8 a night, but that can be for doubles. Plus the cabins, you can get cots, so four people per, about 150, I'd say. You can get about 200 people.

Mr. GROFF: Hey, man. Let's make it easy. Why don't we just buy the El Monaco out for the season?

RAZ: That motel owner's son goes on to use the Woodstock Festival as his way out of rural New York. Elliot Tiber is played by Demetri Martin. He's better known for his standup comedy and his appearances on "The Daily Show."

Demetri Martin joins me from NPR's New York studios.

Hello.

Mr. MARTIN: Hello.

RAZ: As I watched the movie, I have to admit it took me a few minutes to get used to seeing you in a dramatic role.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I didn't get used to it for the whole movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I saw it once and I thought, oh, wow. That's weird.

RAZ: Ang Lee, of course, who directed this movie, he's this kind of legendary figure in the movie business. He wanted you for this role. And I've read that he was sort of looking for a kind of a Dustin Hoffman "Graduate" kind of figure.

When he got in touch with you, what did you say?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I was really surprised, obviously. I liked the idea of getting to act, and I figured my way in would be to write my own parts. I figured, if I can write a movie, then I can write it exactly as I know how to say it.

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. MARTIN: So I'll be perfect to the part because I control it.

And that was, I thought, a pretty good strategy, and it still pretty much is my strategy. But suddenly, this comes along, and I think, well, that's not really part of my plan, but great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

This is - what a surprise. So I figured a guy like Ang has a lot of experience with film. If he thinks I can do it, you know, I'll do my best.

RAZ: But you didn't get to obviously write your part.

Mr. MARTIN: No, but I did. I typed up the whole script, like it was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You retyped it so you would memorize it, or you just...?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: So I'm a co-writer, in a sense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Demetri Martin, this film, "Taking Woodstock," is based on a true story about how this kid, Elliot Teichberg, who then later in life changed his name to Tiber, comes through for concert organizers right as it seems as if this festival, you know, is never going to get off the ground.

Was there something about the story that appealed to you?

Mr. MARTIN: I think, at first blush, the '60s always enticed me. There's something about the '60s, it's not hard to like it. I know about Woodstock probably as much as your average person who is over 30, where I'd know Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Grateful Dead. And then, of course, I forgot but Sha Na Na was there.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. MARTIN: Which is kind of interesting...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Do you ever think of Bowzer being at Woodstock?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: I know. It's kind of interesting. But what I never really thought of, you look at shots of the crowd and you see just a gigantic crowd. And the crowd is kind of this character. But the idea of individual stories and individual people making up that crowd, I didn't think of that usually when I though of Woodstock.

So what was interesting about this project was you think about specific, small stories, little pieces of that very large cultural phenomenon.

RAZ: I read a line from your standup routine. And this is the line, you say, I used to get bummed out when it rained. But then I realized it's just God's way of washing hippies.

Is that sort of a reflection of your view of Woodstock?

Mr. MARTIN: I don't know. I guess saying hippies in that joke would definitely put it in Venn diagram that overlaps with Woodstock. But I was probably thinking more about specific situations when I've been on the road and ended up somewhere, and there's somebody who smells like patchouli or something like that. And I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: ...well, that's an association I have - olfactory, I guess, association with Woodstock.

RAZ: I mean, obviously, anyone expecting to see the comedian Demetri Martin in this film might be disappointed because, you know, forgive me, you're not funny in this movie.

I want to play a clip from your standup routine for a sec.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. MARTIN: (Performing) I went to a clothing store. The lady working there, she got mad at me. She said, what size are you? I said actual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTIN: (Performing) She was amazing. I never met a woman like this before. She showed me to the dressing room. She said, if you need anything, I'm Jill. I was like, oh, my God, I never met a woman before with a conditional identity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

What if I don't need anything?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Who are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

If you don't need anything, I'm Eugene.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: You started doing standup a little more than a decade ago. And some people will know this. At the time, you were at NYU Law School. This is after you had graduated from Yale. Did people, particularly your parents, think you were insane for doing that?

Mr. MARTIN: Everybody was disappointed. Pretty much everybody I knew was surprised and disappointed. It was a strange feeling in life to have kind of across-the-board disappointment, disenchantment.

RAZ: Your dad was a Greek Orthodox priest. Your mom ran the family's diner. It almost sounds like the next line should be, and they walked into a bar.

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.

RAZ: Was home a place where you could be funny? I mean - or did your parents sort of kind of demand achievement and discipline and things like that?

Mr. MARTIN: In my family, I think what they do, I learned later when I took Intro Psych, I figured it out: Operant Conditioning. You know Operant Conditioning where you - I guess you reward the behavior you like and you just withhold praise from what you don't like. So you don't really punish anybody or yell at them or anything.

It's just that when they do something you like, you give them a lot of praise, and say that's so great, and they tell all their friends, he's doing this. For example, I was a White House intern the summer before I dropped out of law school. Everybody knew about it. I'd come home and go to church and everybody would say, oh, my God. Demetri, you're working at the White House.

And I guess my parents, my mom had told everybody, he's working at the White House, you know? The next summer, I started doing standup comedy, and when I'd come home, nobody knows. What, you're doing what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

This is the kind of a shameful move from the White House to open mics.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

Unidentified Man: From Comedy Central's World News Headquarters in New York, this is "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

RAZ: Most people got to know you from the "The Daily Show" as the youth correspondent. And I want to play a clip of you giving young people some financial advice.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

Mr. MARTIN: Young people, listen up. Protect your credit. Number one, don't put your credit card near a magnet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It can erase it. So, like, if you are going to buy magnets, use cash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Two, if you're locked out of your apartment, don't use your credit card to break in, it'll damage the card. Instead, use the card to buy a new apartment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Did you ever think that you would make it? I mean, I guess that's sort of a strange question, because what are you going to say, yeah, I thought I was going to make it. But I mean, were you pretty confident that you could actually give up all this stuff, you know, law school and this person that your parents may be wanted you to be, and actually make it in the entertainment industry?

Mr. MARTIN: When I started, I dropped out of law school when I was 24, and I started doing standup that summer. And I tried to switch from this idea of big achievements or being a lawyer or senator or something like that.

RAZ: A senator?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I didn't - I don't know if I ever wanted to be a senator, but I was student council president and president of some other things when I was a kid. So I had, like, a really good track record. I hadn't lost any elections from, like, sixth grade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So my family said, he's going to be a senator. Like, look at this streak he has going here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It's like, not very realistic when you're president of, like, the Greek Orthodox Youth Association at church or something like, he's going to be a senator. He's two-time GOYA president, come on. Here we go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But what I was going to say was, I just figured I'm going to go boldly in the direction of my dreams, say it as Thoreau would say, and just see where it takes me. And my only rule being if when I wake in the morning I'm looking forward to the things that I have to do that day, then I'm on the right track.

RAZ: Demetri Martin is the star of the new Ang Lee movie, "Taking Woodstock." You can also see him on Comedy Central's "Important Things with Demetri Martin."

Thanks so much.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you. Have a good one.

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