The last couple of years have been a productive and experimental time for Emmy-nominated comedian Demetri Martin.
With his feature directorial debut, Dean, rolling out in theaters this month, Martin also recently created Our Fascinating Planet, a short-form, Cosmos-inspired series, in which he plays Ted Remmarniet, a puffed-up, self-absorbed scientific educator. Comprised of archival footage-driven narratives based in alternative facts, the series was developed before “alternative facts” entered the common vocabulary.
Speaking with Deadline, Demetri Martin explains how Our Fascinating Planet came to be, and what he has taken away from working in both longer and shorter formats than he had previously encountered.
What was the genesis of Our Fascinating Planet?
There was this platform, go90—I believe it’s now retired, but they were looking for original content to populate the go90 app and website. I had this idea in my pocket for a while, because I’m a fan of shows like Cosmos, and I’ve loved documentaries about science, and NOVA since I was a kid. I thought there was something there that could be done comedically.
I liked the idea, just as an experiment—how can I make a show about that kind of stuff, and make it pretty low-fi, but still find a way to have a lot of jokes in it?
I pitched it, and Funny or Die, they were into it. It ended up being a great place to do the show. I really enjoyed working with them, and I’m hoping that we’ll get to resuscitate the character for another chapter in his journey.
Were there particular inspirations in crafting your character, Ted Rimmarniet?
Carl Sagan’s definitely the starting point for me—I’ve always been a big fan of Carl Sagan, so I thought, “Oh, that would be kind of funny.” Because it’s now such a different time than when the original Cosmos was made, the reference ends up being, I think, not as universal as it would have been, I don’t know, 15 years ago.
There’s a new generation of people who maybe don’t know about Carl Sagan, so I thought it’d be fun to start there. A lot of the shows I’ve found on Netflix and Hulu, there are all these different hosts, and to me, there’s something funny about some of them, and the vanity in some of the newer ones.
Everyone’s more aware of celebrity and being famous, or trying to be. Mixing that with science and first-person science reporting seemed really funny to me.
You seem to have a real interest in academic subjects, which so often bleeds into your work, in one way or another.
I was a history major in college and I loved [history] from the beginning, for whatever reason. I didn’t even read that much as a kid. For me, it was PBS and watching documentaries, when I could find them.
My first stop is usually documentary—NOVA and 3-2-1 Contact and all these shows were a big deal for me when I was growing up. Later, I became a reader, almost after college, and non-fiction still draws me first. I do like fiction, and I love movies and make-believe and all that stuff, but for whatever reason—the nerd in me—my first stop is always documentary and non-fiction.
I don’t even know how much content I personally know; how many facts I know, or anything. But as a history major, I did enjoy learning about historiography—in my public school in New Jersey, that was not part of the curriculum. Thinking about the literature of history, and the writing of history, was kind of an interesting revelation because it made things much more relative and malleable and human, rather than “These are the facts, and this war happened on this date.” It’s what you choose to share, the story you choose to tell. I like those things about it a lot.
I thought I was going to be a lawyer, but now that I’m a comedian, and nobody’s making me read anything, I still find myself seeking out things like that.
I just read a book about neuroplasticity—it’s a psychology book. I’m not a big technical reader; I’m like anybody. I’m in my 40’s, and I haven’t been in school for a while, so I’d probably do very poorly on tests involving these subjects. But I like reading the layman’s books to things like astronomy or physics or psychology; whatever it is.
I feel like I’m learning when I’m reading them, and it seems like there must be some residual benefit.
Did you find that you needed a baseline of historical knowledge to go about constructing the fake narratives the series presents?
I did need to know enough about what I was departing from so that it kind of made some sense, and I was surprised in making those little episodes how much of a narrative I did need. I thought initially, “Oh, it’ll be some random fake facts and wrong science, and suddenly 10 minutes would pass.” But it did need enough of a story to pull you along so that you would care at all, or at least be emotionally or even logically invested in what’s happening. If it’s too random, it does just break apart pretty quickly.
What did the process of constructing these narratives end up involving?
I thought my starting point was going to be to find some great footage and then just write to it. We had two researchers, and I said, “Hey, let’s just comb through some stuff and we’ll sit and look at it, and the footage itself will probably suggest jokes that I can write.”
I ended up being wrong, for at least how this show came together. What I had to do was say, “Okay, this is my little essay about this. This is my series of arguments and facts. Now let’s try to match the footage.” So it was a much more traditional approach.
I like to have a character who moralizes a little bit and editorializes, maybe when it’s not appropriate all the time. That weighed into what I was writing, too, because I wanted him to have some argument that was maybe just a little inappropriately personal, or paternalistic or something. Once I knew that things started to snap together.
As a comedian, is the short-form arena exciting, simply for the creative freedom it grants you?
I feel like what’s great about it is, if you have ideas that are percolating, or that you’re trying to develop on your own, it gives you a chance to put them up on their feet. For me, if I see it in terms of a larger development process for an idea or a character, then it feels like a great opportunity, rather than maybe an endpoint in itself.
I guess it can be that, too, but I like to fantasize about having different chapters to that character’s life—a larger narrative series at some point, or maybe a film someday. I haven’t really thought in those terms for that, but I can see how that works really well depending on the content.
By making something, by having a deadline, and then sharing it, it’s a cool opportunity, and it feels like it’s really of this time. There’s a lot about technology and social media and just the onslaught of content that I find overwhelming and hard to manage, and sometimes discouraging. But to me, this is an example of the other side of it, where it feels a little more hopeful and generative, and I like that about it a lot.
But yeah, I think it’s just a matter of putting ideas up on their feet, and even if it doesn’t get the views or make the big impact that you were hoping for, for me, thinking of it is on the way to other things.
I wouldn’t want to politicize what you’re doing, but it’s interesting how this project has aligned with the concept of “alternative facts” that has recently emerged.
Yeah. We made it while things were getting worse, let’s say, and then everything got worse than I or my friends could have imagined, in where we are politically and nationally. In a way, I think you and I might be saying the same thing, which is it’s kind of relevant, but it wasn’t on purpose.
There’s plenty of people who are doing real commentary and satire, and this is a softer approach. What I thought I was satirizing was a little bit more of the self-promoting narcissism of our time, but, sadly, that dovetails nicely into the political climate and narrative of our country right now.
The alternative facts stuff, that wasn’t yet a thing. It didn’t have a name when we were making this. I think a lot of people found that the news part of our world seems so absurd that it’s almost not even fun to satirize it because the line is so blurry. It feels weird.
I’ve never been good at that. That’s mostly why I don’t do political comedy because my brain just gets overloaded. I just get upset. Even when I try to make stuff about it, it’s just like a guy complaining, not really funny.
I support it, and I think it’s really important. But yeah—I have a smaller, more localized focus in my comedy.
Your feature directorial debut, Dean, is in theaters now. Was there a learning curve there?
That was a huge learning experience because I’m mostly a comedian, and most of my experience is about self-reliance and doing things yourself.
I’d had the TV show [Important Things with Demetri Martin] on Comedy Central, and I’d done some other things, but this was the first time I really tried to do something bigger. I learned a lot about collaborating with other people and getting it to work, which was great.
It turns out that I liked that a lot, and I didn’t realize how much I was craving working with other people, even if it’s just for a limited time. While it was exhausting, I’m looking forward to making more movies. That’s one of my big goals now.
Making something with a longer arc is really challenging when your brain has been trained to do one-liners. Stand-up is almost like improv, because the feedback loop is so quick. You can come up with an idea and make something, and they tell you right away, “Yes, no, that’s good, that doesn’t work, that’s funny; we accept that from you, or we don’t.”
The movie, compared to that, is like this leap into a vacuum, and it takes so long. You have to change your expectations about validation, or audience response, or any of that stuff, but it feels rewarding in a different way. That cost-benefit analysis has been part of the learning process for me.
What are your artistic ambitions going forward?
Having my first movie under my belt, I’m excited to write more scripts, and hopefully get bigger budgets along the way. I have a book of drawings coming out in the fall called If It’s Not Funny It’s Art— I like drawing, and I’m overdue on this book of short stories that I’ll hopefully finish this coming winter.
And I’m doing this big stand-up tour—it’ll be like 30 dates I’m adding for the fall. I’m going to shoot a Netflix special in December, so that’ll come out hopefully next spring.
For me, it’s always been a priority to try to diversify what I’m doing, for a couple of reasons. One, because I like the challenge, and it’s great to feel like I’m learning how to develop comedy in different arenas. It also helps me stay afloat professionally, so that if it’s not really happening for me in one area, I can focus elsewhere, and maybe get some work there, and then kind of rotate the crops a little bit.
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