Points of Reference

How Picasso, IBM, and Jazz Shape Demetri Martin's Comedy

Yes, Picasso informed his doodles.

By Seth Sommerfeld March 25, 2013

There’s an art to brevity—and Demetri Martin’s clever humor proves there’s also a market for it. The comedian has always mixed genres, relying on traditional stand-up, one-liners, guitar songs, and his own simple sketches, pie charts, and cartoons. Those drawings made a brief appearance in his first book, New York Times bestseller This Is A Book, but he's since given over to his art with the newly released Point Your Face at This (see excerpts below). Martin brings his live act and book tour to Showbox at the Market for two shows on March 27.

For our latest Points of Reference interview—where we ask artists about their pop culture influences—we interrupted Martin in the midst of a marathon bookplate-signing session to find out what shaped Point Your Face at This.

The Far Side by Gary Larson

If we go back to my childhood, I have to go with Gary Larson. I don’t know how much he is a direct influence—I don’t think my work is so much like Gary Larson's—but I do think that for me, as a kid, Far Side cartoons were probably the first thing I saw just on a page that really made laugh. It was such a cool experience, and I still enjoy it... particularly the drawings that have no words, where he’s just kind of captured a frame almost from a little corner.

SS: When you discovered Gary Larson as a kid, did you immediately have the notion to draw your own cartoons?

Nah, I don’t think so. No one in my family draws, or plays music, or acts; people don’t even really read books much. I realized that later—I go home to visit and there are no books in the house. We have dinner. That doesn’t mean my family couldn’t be artists, but I think if I had to analyze it I just didn’t feel entitled to that. ... I don’t know if I can execute it the way somebody like Gary Larson does, but I can certainly enjoy drawing and not worry too much about it.

SS: So when did you start drawing?

I liked drawing as a child in elementary school, but I didn’t draw to convey jokes. I would try to draw a truck or a baseball player or something, just like everyone else in school. I stopped drawing around sixth grade; it kind of just went away. I started again shortly after I started doing stand-up... And, no surprise, my drawing technique was right where I left it in sixth grade.

IBM logo by Paul Rand

Paul Rand is a graphic designer who developed the IBM logo, but there’s a famous rebus with an eye, a bumblebee, and the letter M. I really like that. Compositionally I think it’s just powerful and memorable. I didn’t study graphic design or art really at all when I was in school, but later, since becoming a comedian, I’ve found things along the way that have resonated. With Paul Rand, that really changed the way I really looked at a lot of the things that I just thought existed, like the UPS logo or the ABC logo, a lot of corporate identities. ... It’s just these great visual thinkers who can communicate a whole brand and a whole feel with just a few colors and shapes or lines.

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso

There’s a line drawing of Ivor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso which is pretty famous. It’s pretty awesome when you look at it and think about the detail that’s conveyed with just a line drawing. That guy was clearly a genius. I saw the Black and White show at the Guggenheim last time I was in town. I was finishing up my book and it was just so inspiring. When you look at his work with those restraints, basically just black and white, it’s really cool to see the variation with just those two colors.


Steinberg the Labyrinth by Saul Steinberg

In the last year or two, I’ve learned a lot about [former New Yorker cartoonist] Saul Steinberg and his body of work. There’s something so deceptively simple about Saul Steinberg, just the confidence in the lines. ... If you try to analyze it, you can’t quite understand why it works. Like, why does that look so cool? Because the proportions are off and he did something kind of tricky there, but it really works.


Money Jungle by Duke Ellington

Last year on tour, I watched the documentary Jazz by Ken Burns. I watched the ten DVDs over the course of the tour. And out of that, I started listening to bebop, which I hadn’t really listened to before, and I’ve been listening to Money Jungle by Duke Ellington. It’s actually from after the bebop era, but anyway. Money Jungle has a piano, bass, and drums; it’s just the three pieces. And there’s something stripped down about it that’s really catchy and simple. I’m sure it’s not simplistic in any way, but it sounds simple and clean. A lot of the things that I seem to be attracted to, whether they’re in comedy, music, or art have a simplicity to them. I think a lot of what I strive for in my jokes and in my drawings is simplicity.

Demetri Martin
Mar 27 at 7 & 10, Showbox at the Market, $35–$40 (7pm show sold out)

A drawing from comedian Demetri Martin's new book, Point Your Face at This.


A drawing from comedian Demetri Martin's new book, Point Your Face at This.

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