MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
When comedian Demetri Martin spoke with me the other day, he brought along some of his family. Martin is 34. He's from Tom's River, New Jersey. His father was a Greek Orthodox priest. His mother ran the family diner. Martin went to Yale, won a scholarship to NYU Law School, went there for a while, but chose comedy instead.
He now appears occasionally on "The Daily Show" as a trend spotter, and he's has a special of his own this year on Comedy Central. He tells a story about sitting on a park bench trying to write jokes for that show. He was trying to write but his writing was interrupted because he heard a sound.
(Soundbite of kissing noise)
Mr. DEMETRI MARTIN (Comedian): And this kissing noise, I look up and there's a guy standing like three feet from me. He's going -
(Soundbite of kissing noise)
Mr. MARTIN: Kissing just the air. And then, I looked and I noticed that he was pointing his kisses at a squirrel. He's trying to get the attention of a squirrel. And I looked over at the squirrel, and he didn't look up. The squirrel just continued working with a nut or whatever the hell he had in his hand there. And that's when I realized, wow, I'm less focused than a squirrel.
SIEGEL: Now, we have invited along to vouch for your character and your veracity, your mother, Lillian Martin. Welcome to the program.
Ms. LILLIAN MARTIN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Does your son lack powers of concentration?
Ms. MARTIN: No.
SIEGEL: He doesn't?
Ms. MARTIN: No.
SIEGEL: How would you describe him?
Ms. MARTIN: Very focused and completely committed to whatever he's doing at the time.
Mr. MARTIN: Thanks, Mom.
SIEGEL: At one time, Demetri, that was law school.
Mr. MARTIN: That's right. Yeah, that was two years of law school.
SIEGEL: What happened?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I applied to law school from college. From seventh grade I wanted to be a lawyer. As far as I knew, law school was the goal. I should add I was elected president of my class in sixth grade. I beat Renée.
SIEGEL: Was it close?
Mr. MARTIN: It was close, from what I understand. I don't think it helped the relationship, but at that point, I was a better orator than Renée was - class president in sixth grade. Seventh grade, vice president. If the president got shot in 7th grade, then people had trusted me enough that I would take care of it.
Eight grade, I think was president. And then every year, I ran for president or vice president, depending upon the circumstance. And I won. I never lost an election. I'm not bragging, listeners, whoever's out there, this isn't to say I'm the best or that I was the best president of childhood. I'm just saying I had a good run from sixth grade into law school.
So what happened was senior of high school, I was student council president. And I was the president of the GOYA at church, Greek Orthodox Youth Association, an unfortunate acronym for us with the bean company. People know Goya beans more than they know the GOYA youth movement. No, we are known because of Goya.
Ms. MARTIN: Right. Yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: So I was the president of the GOYA at church and then I became the state president of all the GOYAs. So I was the president of all the Greek kids in New Jersey.
SIEGEL: Yes, in a manner of speaking.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah.
SIEGEL: Well, this talent for and experience in leading congealed around the ambition to go to law school and be a lawyer.
Mr. MARTIN: Good focus, because I did forget what the initial question was.
SIEGEL: That's all right. I -
Mr. MARTIN: That's more of (unintelligible)
SIEGEL: You're digression was very, very entertaining.
Mr. MARTIN: But that's what I - that's where I was going with that kind of stuff. I figured hey, I like doing these leadership kinds of things. Law school, everybody says, is a ticket even if you don't use to ticket. You know, you can do other things with it. You can go into politics or, you know, that's the only example I can think of, but there were other things to do.
SIEGEL: Well, real estate or insurance, perhaps.
Mr. MARTIN: Yeah. Just getting things from other people, basically. So as I got further into law school and closer to the reality of working with clients and having other people as part of my responsibility and not just my grades, I started to realize, wait a minute, I don't like doing my work. And I can slack off now and still get good grades. But that's just the game I'm playing.
But what happens when I'm representing somebody and I wait to the last minute and then the guy has to go to prison or something? That's not cool. And soon I started to realize I need to find something else that would involve not disappointing somebody when I slack off. And I arrived at comedy, because there I get paid, in a sense, to disappoint people.
SIEGEL: Now let me ask your mother for a moment, who's with you.
Mr. MARTIN: Okay.
SIEGEL: Mrs. Martin, the moment of transition to comedy was something you looked at how at that time?
Ms. MARTIN: Well, Demetri - you can't change Demetri's mind. So if he came up with that final decision, there was no reason for me to complicate his decision.
Mr. MARTIN: That's true, though. I remember, I do remember when I made the decision to leave school. I took my mom out to dinner, and we went to a pizzeria, and went to Patsy's. Remember?
We're eating there, and I said Ma, listen. I'm thinking of leaving law school. And my mom, from what I remember, you didn't say that's crazy, you shouldn't do it. You said something like, can I have another slice of pizza. Who's funnier? Me or - who's your funniest kid?
Ms. MARTIN: You are the funniest kid.
SIEGEL: Perhaps who can introduce us to your grandmother very quickly?
Mr. MARTIN: Sure. I have here with me my mom's mother. Her name is Dinah. Greek for grandmother is yiayia. So I know her as Yiayia Dinah.
SIEGEL: And do you find your grandson's humor funny?
Mrs. DINAH MARTIN: Now we find him funny, but not before.
SIEGEL: Not before when?
Mrs. MARTIN: When he was a kid or when he was going to college, we never thought he's going to be a comedian. The first time, I didn't want to go because I didn't want to hear all the dirty jokes. But after what I heard, I said this is terrific. I never miss after that.
SIEGEL: You mean, you've come to like dirty jokes now? Is -
Mrs. MARTIN: No. No.
SIEGEL: Oh, I see. I see.
Mrs. MARTIN: He still doesn't do - oh, no, no. No way. He still doesn't do dirty jokes.
Mr. MARTIN: Did you ever do jokes when you were younger? Are you into comedy?
Mrs. MARTIN: No. No.
Mr. MARTIN: Because you seem funny. I've had my grandmother on stage a few times, and she always does pretty well. She's pretty funny and I'd say pretty quick.
Mrs. MARTIN: Yeah. I'm very funny with my friends. They think I'm very funny. So, but I find out late in my age. I'm 76, 77 years old. I have found myself funny?
SIEGEL: You mean you could -
Mrs. MARTIN: It is over.
SIEGEL: You could have done more with this if you'd learned earlier that you are funny, perhaps.
Mrs. MARTIN: Yeah. But you see what it is, I didn't have the time. I had five children. I always yell and after them.
SIEGEL: Do you agree, by the way, with your daughter that Demetri is her funniest child?
Mrs. MARTIN: No, he's not funny. He never thought he was funny.
Mr. MARTIN: Thanks, yiayia.
Mrs. MARTIN: No, he never thought. After you finished college and they told him he was had some kind of play there, like funny, and said not my son. My son, he never laughs. How can he be funny?
SIEGEL: So it's kind of a one-two-punch you get here, if I'm getting it right, Demetri. There's a lot of support from your mother, but your grandma is kind of hard on you there. She's a tough critic.
Mr. MARTIN: She keeps it real.
SIEGEL: She keeps it real.
Mr. MARTIN: Yiayia has the honest lens of age.
SIEGEL: Well, Demetri Martin, I'd like to thank you for bringing with you your mother and also your grandmother along for the program today.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: It's good to talk to you.
Mr. MARTIN: Thanks so much for having me. I hope you guys are doing well over there.
SIEGEL: It's Demetri Martin, whose sister and uncle also make cameo appearances in his stand-up special, which seems to air pretty often on Comedy Central.