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Demetri Martin on How to Tell Robots From People and His One Day As Brad Pitt’s Co-Star

Demetri Martin's got so much going on he can hardly scribble it all onto a whiteboard with a Sharpie anymore. He's set to play two concert gigs at New York's Town Hall tonight and tomorrow before kicking off a national tour, he's publishing a new book (This Is a Book by Demetri Martin) next spring, and he's starring in Steven Soderbergh's new sci-fi bio-thriller, Contagion, which he landed after being booted from Moneyball after only one glorious, too-good-to-be-true day as Brad Pitt's equal. Below, he also explains how to tell robots from humans, and shares his brilliant idea for the modern-day genie.

You’ll be playing a scientist in Steven Soderbergh’s new film Contagion, how did that come about?
I just got a call. I was really excited. I think it was because I was in Moneyball two summers ago back when Soderbergh was directing. I was the second lead. Brad Pitt was the lead.

What exactly happened with that?
We worked for a day and then it got shut down. Sony didn’t like the way the script was coming together. It was really weird. I worked with Brad Pitt for a day doing camera tests and put on different outfits and stuff. One day, I was like, "Wow, I’m working with Steven Soderbergh and Brad Pitt! This is crazy!" The next day my agent called and said, "Hey buddy I have some bad news ... " I was like, "Oh, that’s why I can’t believe it: It’s not happening!." They reshot Moneyball this past summer, but with a different director and without me in it. That was the end of that. 

Not totally, because now you’re back with Soderbergh. Contagion is about a group of CDC-recruited doctors trying to stop an outbreak. What’s your part like? Is it at all comedic?
I play a scientist. He’s serious. I don't have a very big part, but I’m excited to be in it. I got to talk to a scientist at UCLA. And I went into a BSL-3 lab. I guess there are different security levels.

Is BSL-3 considered high?
Yeah, I think there are only three or four levels. In the film, we’ll be simulating a BSL-4. To go in the BSL-3, you have a suit where everything is covered from your head to your feet. Two pairs of socks. Two pairs of gloves. You tape the sleeves of your suit to the glove, the inner glove so it’s sealed. They were the kind of rooms where you have small pox and the bubonic plague and stuff like that. Crazy.

Were you scared?
Yeah. She said there was only one thing in there. I forget what it was called. It was from, like, the South Pacific, rich with bacterium. She said, “You don’t have diabetes, do you?” I said, “No.” She said, “Okay! But if you have diabetes, you shouldn’t go in there.”

That’s intense. You’re also working on a book right now, how’s that going?
I finished a first draft. I’m meeting with my editor tomorrow, and we’re going to go through it, and it comes out in April. It’s called This Is a Book by Demetri Martin. I don’t know if Demetri Martin is part of the title or what, but, it’s almost like old Woody Allen novels like Without Feathers or Side Effects, or like Pure Drivel by Steve Martin. I wrote some scenes, some poems, one-liners, and drawings that are almost like scripts, short stories, things like the robot test, weird forms like that ...

What’s the robot test?
It’s a quiz. It takes place in the future, and technology is so advanced that robots are pretty much indistinguishable from people. You can’t tell who are robots and who are people anymore, and the robots are getting kind of arrogant and taking over society. So anyway, the government makes this questionnaire, and you have to answer this questionnaire. They score the answers so they can tell if someone's a robot. 

What kinds of questions?
Like: “I prefer to take an (a) Bath (b) Shower (c) Compressed air blowers.”
Or: “My dishwasher is (a) Efficient (b) Hilarious.” There are 22 right now. 

And you write letters?
There’s one that’s like an FAQ from a genie. You get this magic lamp, and the first thing that pops out is this letter. It’s like "Hey, first of all, congratulations, you have this magic lamp. I’m the genie inside, my name is Aqbal. If you’re wondering why there’s a letter here, I’ve found that over the years this is the best way to start off to just clear things up in a Frequently Asked Question format that’s popular in your time. Please read this before we meet ‘cause it’s important." And the guy’s just very, sort of, a prickly genie. I think it’s going to be a good book. I just showed a couple of my friends who were like “Hey, this is funny man, congrats.” I’m like, "Oh, good ... "

What do you like about the book format?
Comedy is so subjective, it’s hard to figure out who your audience is. On the page, at least, you’re talking directly to somebody. I always love single-panel cartoons because it removes any social context. It’s like a less social form of comedy because it’s just the person who made it and the person receiving it. Which I guess you can say if you watch TV alone, there’s some element in that, but when you put a laugh track on a show, you’re already simulating this kind of social-approval thing. It’s weird.

With all these side projects, have you had time to write much new stuff for your tour?
Yeah, I’m doing mostly new stuff. I do some old stuff towards the end. I used to just do just new stuff, and then people would come up to me at the end and say, “You didn’t do the swimming joke! Why didn’t you do the horse joke? My friend’s never seen you. I can’t believe you didn’t do that joke.” So at the end, people can just yell out what they want. They’re short jokes, it’s easy.

Do you get nervous when you perform new stuff?
No, I don’t get nervous like that. I learned that my nervousness relates directly to how many people I’m with. So, it could be just a million people and I’m fine. But when it comes down to one — I’m not always nervous around one — but the times I was nervous around a person it would be because it was one person. Even two is easier. When you’re with a group of three, then you don’t have to worry about silence at all. You know, when you don’t know somebody that well and it’s just one on one? Like dating, when I was trying to find a girlfriend — that could make me a little uneasy.

Photo: Chance Yeh/Patrickmcmcullan.com.