Dante Martinez Survived An Entire Year In Comedy Without Earning A Single Laugh. That Hurdle Cleared, He’s Now Trying To Figure Out How To Make Audiences Feel.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews other area comedians about the ol’ funny business in order to help introduce DFW at large to the burgeoning comedy scene blooming right under its nose.
Authenticity can be surprisingly difficult to convey onstage.
You’d think it would be pretty easy, just being yourself. But that “self” can become slippery, and harder to even define, when you’re trying to convert it into something that fits onstage.
Dante Martinez, however, has seemed to figure it out. He’s one of the most authentic, original and wonderfully chaotic comics I’ve seen. He can appear playful and experimental, even while delving into sharp, darkly inspired bits.
I tend to think of Martinez as one of the most naturally funny people I know, so I was surprised to hear him talk about how much he struggled in his first year doing stand-up. He’s not afraid to discuss the issues that held him back when he started, and the struggles he’s facing now as he tries to grow his craft and his profile.
In addition to stand-up, Martinez does regular stage work at Ochre House Theater. These two creative outlets seem to nourish each other: When he’s frustrated by a lack of opportunities in comedy, he looks for creative fulfillment through more acting work; meanwhile, he credits stand-up with making him a better, braver actor.
Martinez and I spoke about his work in comedy and in theater, his rough first year, and his efforts to add new depth to his writing.
You can see Martinez perform at Wild Detectives on March 4.
You just finished working as an emcee at Hyena’s for the last couple of weekends. How long had it been since you’d worked there?
It’s been a few months, maybe two months.
Before those shows, it seems like it had been a while.
It had been… yeah, it had been a moment, man. It was like I had a little hot year where I felt like I was working a lot of weekends, y’know? And then there was a while back where I was getting booked at Addison Improv a little bit, and Hyena’s seemed pretty regular. And then it all just dried up. You kind of need that shit to dry up. There’s nothing like feeling good about yourself, and then realizing you’re shit: “Oh yeah, I am nothing still.”
What do you do to deal with those longer breaks?
I usually do theater at Ochre House Theater. I’m a company member over there. They always have something going on. That’s what I did last time, I was just in a string of theater shows. That’s what I do.
I know you have a background in theater, but it’s weird, because I think of you as such an in-the-moment guy onstage. So it’s weird sometimes to think of you doing theater.
Well, it’s the same thing. If you’re going to strap on a character, you’re still in the moment in the scene. You’re responding, obviously, to the other person. You have all the choices you make beforehand, and so you read the show, you imagine all the bullshit the character’s been through in their life, and why is this one of the more important days of their life, that they’re displaying on the stage. Then you make those choices, but while you’re in the scene with someone, you’re listening and responding. It just happens to be other people’s words. But you’re still reacting honestly and in the moment. Just like an improv show or something.
You did theater before stand-up, right? Has stand-up changed the way you approach acting?
I have a lot more confidence now as an actor, for sure. I had always been doing theater since I was 19. I went to college and majored in theater, which was fucking stupid. I wish I’d majored in communications or sociology instead, but nope. It’s the most embarrassing one, too. I have a Bachelor’s degree, and people say, “Oh, what’d you go to school for?” And I want to say something like business – I think I might start lying and telling people business. Or maybe like an accountant: “I used to be an accountant, but now I decided to wait tables.” But theater’s like, I got a degree, and now I became a professional server. I’d just been doing acting. But I started doing improv, and then… I didn’t realize there were open mics for stand-up. I’d always loved stand-up, and watched it, and wanted to do it, but I thought you had to be on TV to do stand-up. I didn’t know nobodies could go onstage and talk about their assholes and stuff.
Let’s talk about your last couple of weekend gigs. How’d they go?
They went well. I had fun. I got to meet Tony Hinchcliffe. I was kind of scared for him to see my set or see me do anything, because I listen to those Kill Tony podcasts, and he’s kind of brutal on there sometimes. And then I’ve heard him on podcasts, and he has a brutally honest sensibility about him. I was terrified to meet him, but turns out he was super fucking nice before and after the show. He was only there one night, but that whole weekend went smoothly. That’s like the most laid-back club of all the Hyena’s, I think, is Plano. It’s got a real chill vibe. Dallas has got a frenzy about it, because it’s so small. You’re in the kitchen and it’s tiny. Fort Worth is laid back, but I’m scared every time I’m there; I’m scared management’s gonna see me and be like, “He sucks. Don’t come in here no more.” It feels like boss is around, Dad’s home when you’re at Fort Worth Hyena’s.
Do you have a preferred spot between clubs, bars, etc?
I know this is maybe cliché-sounding, but I think to do a club room, and do 15 minutes of a club act, is a more polished, slightly hackier thing going on, but I think if you can do that, you can loosen it up for a bar show, or a showcase that doesn’t have all the constraints of a regular comedy show. You don’t have to be proper, you can be looser, and, for lack of a better word, alt-ier. It’s just more fun to do whatever and know you won’t get in trouble, or not asked back. I recently did a show at a Christmas party in someone’s house, and we performed to, like, 20 people. And there were eight comics. Almost as many comics as there were people. But they were having fun, and it was loose. But I think I got too dirty, which I have a tendency to do. And this is something I’ve discovered since that show, and this weekend, working, how stuff that I don’t think is dirty at all may be really disgusting to other people. I don’t know, I guess I’m one of those guys, you couldn’t say anything to offend me. Even if it was a personal attack – except maybe, “I think you suck and you’re not funny.” For that I’d be like, ouch. But about the world and shit? I don’t know, I can’t remember a time I was like, “Oh my God! Can you believe he said that?”
Is it weird for you to have to police yourself when you know it’s something you don’t care about?
Sure, sure. I think I talk about drugs a lot, because I use ’em, and like… that, I think, can really suck the air out of the room sometimes, and I don’t really realize that people are, y’know, not like that.
I’ve seen crowds get excited to talk about drugs – maybe they feel like they’ve gone out, so they want to be naughty – but sometimes they will shut right down.
It can be a real hot button. It’s like you might as well talk about abortion, or something. What else, stuff that shuts down a room immediately… I don’t know… I don’t even want to say it, but any time you hear a comedian do a pedophile joke, you’re like, “Ugh, oh God…” But I don’t know, it’s like, there’s a fairness to talking about drugs and drug culture. It’s an honest exchange. It’s illegal, and it’s underworld-y, or whatever, but if you’re buying or selling or using, there’s an unspoken ethics about it, the way you share them, the way you don’t share them, the way you’re secretive about them, the way you can’t talk about them. People just fall in line. You can tell someone’s a real asshole by the way they don’t obey the unspoken stuff about what’s going on.
So you feel like it’s harder to be your full self when you think parts of your life will rub people the wrong way?
For sure. And I know I can’t talk about a lot of stuff in my life, because I… maybe it’s too close, but also I don’t know how to make it funny. Or maybe some of the stuff I live might be too X-rated, or just too naughty to talk about on a stage. Or maybe I’m just not funny enough to find a way to write it that makes people laugh and relate to it. I think I should relate to it more, or find the bridge that relates to it more, instead of just trying to make it a goof. But I don’t know how to do that yet. I guess that’s the journey I’m on.
What’s your comedy experience been like, from starting until now?
I remember the first time I did an open mic, and I remember the first jokes I tried saying. It was at a bar open mic with musicians. There were three comics, and two of us were doing it for the first time. We had three minutes. Musicians would play three songs, or 15 minutes apiece. I think I remember getting laughs during my first set, but it was three minutes. And then I think that was the last time I got laughs for about a year and a half. I literally did not get another laugh for over a year. It was brutal. It was like, “I’m funny among my friends,” but how do I channel this to the stage? And I was used to being onstage, so how do I make this work? That was figuring that out. I really, really can’t stress enough how unfunny I was in the beginning. I remember having nervous breakdowns onstage. I remember getting real drunk, and I almost had to get drunk to prepare for the next bomb. But then that was also hurting me, too.
How do you survive a year like that?
Well, luckily for me I was already an alcoholic. [Laughs.] I was already doing that heavy drinking. But I am a fan of stand-up that much that I wanted to be part of that world that much. I was like, I know I can get there. I was extremely tenacious about trying to get better, trying to be more comfortable. I remember one time getting drunk and having this weird nervous breakdown onstage. It was a wireless mic, and the mic stand and the light were right next to the front door. So the stage was basically right next to the front door, so the stage area was, in essence, right next to the front door. So if someone entered they walked right past you. I remember just… I wasn’t getting any laughs, and it was terrible, and I took the wireless mic off the stand, and I went out into the middle of the street. It was Exposition Park. It was a place called Fallout Lounge, next to Amsterdam. I literally laid in the middle of that street, and was just rolling around, and moaning into the microphone on the ground. And I was really drunk. [Laughs.] And the guy who ran the open mic was furious I took the mic out into the street. But I was literally laying in the street, moaning and making weird sounds into the mic. And then I came back in and said, “That’s my time.”
And I think that was the first time anyone was like, “Hey, good job.”
[Both laughing.] That was your breakthrough moment?
Yeah. And it was definitely not funny, but it was something to see.
What do you think about the DFW comedy scene?
I mean, people talk shit, but people also talk good on it. I have no perspective on it, because the only other scene I’ve seen was Austin, the only other scene I’ve visited was Austin. But I saw that show on Viceland, and all these other scenes seem so much cooler. Everyone here seems to fight about petty shit, but they also say this is a big market; we have four or five clubs. I don’t know how to feel about it. I’m just trying to work at the clubs and get on bar shows, and whatever shows I can get on. I’m grateful that it’s here, and grateful I’m working. You see these articles – Minneapolis is cool, Colorado’s cool, of course LA and New York are the big ones. Chicago. And Austin, of course. But it seems like Dallas ranks up there just for number of comedians. I don’t know how big other scenes are. Are we known to be a big scene?
I know we’ve had a lot of people find success in LA, but I don’t know if we have a reputation beyond that.
This does seem like a launching pad and a cocoon phase for most comedians. It almost seems like if you are going to go to a bigger market… it sucks, because I don’t dig Austin as a town so much. I dig the people there, I dig the comedy scene. But as far as driving around in traffic, the way shit’s spread out, how crowded it is… There’s no great mass transit. If I wanted to move somewhere that crowded, I’d go to New York, somewhere cool-cool, or somewhere… I think it’s definitely an upgrade as far as a jump for comedians, but I think in life it’d be a lateral movement for me. Outside of comedy, and my personal needs. If I’m gonna move out of Dallas, I might as well go big — L.A. or New York, right? I romanticize New York, I fantasize and romanticize about living in the big city, and walking around, and having a coat, and like, walking like I’m cold. I always wanted to do that. But I have way more friends in L.A. and that doesn’t seem like the town I want to move to, really, just…
L.A. is the acting town.
All the fame-hungry people of LA, it’s like, goddammit, man.
You do have the acting background, with theater.
I don’t think LA has much of a theater scene, y’know?
That’s true. Would you want to move up in theater?
Absolutely. For sure. I’ve definitely made more over the years doing theater that I ever have doing stand-up. I’ve barely made any. If you think about it, you work a weekend, and you get your money. And I’m always grateful for the money, because it feels great to get a check for talking about your sideways thoughts or whatever, but you can make a living doing acting. That seems like a closer thing if I was really going to pursue that, try to do more commercial work, more industrial work. That’s something, as far as actors are concerned. Do I want to be famous, or do I want to be a working actor? I could be a working actor and do a bunch of industrials that the public will never see, but I’m getting paid for it. I feel like I’m involved in the coolest theater company in the town. As far as the Observer‘s concerned, they always win, they’ve won best Theater Company several times.
How’d you get involved with Ochre House?
I just pursued them, man. They don’t have auditions. I had just graduated college, I didn’t want to do theater for a while, but then I started going to watch shows again, and I went to a couple of their shows, and I was blown away by how much they weren’t oppressed by the stuffiness of some theaters. Companies can be real prim and proper, but this is a real DIY, punk rock-ish kind of theater. And it’s all new works, all original pieces. That was exciting for me. I had literally just started hounding the artistic director. I would always know what bar he hung out at, and I would go there every day. I would say, I have two hours to kill before I go to this one particular bar, I’m just gonna stop by Amsterdam and go bug him – actually, it was Meridian Room he was hanging out at. I would do that constantly. Relentlessly bugging him. I remember one night, I was shit-faced, and I was like, “Look, I know you don’t think I’m an actor, but look, I want to school for theater, I’m an actor.” He was like, “Oh, you went to school for theater?” And then like a year later, he finally wrote me into a show, and I’ve been a part of the group ever since. I guess this was supposed to be about comedy, but I’m just as active in theater as I am in comedy. But doing stand-up, falling on your face so fucking much, being garbage at it for so fucking long… and it’s arguable that I’m not still garbage. From a headliner’s perspective, I’m still an open-micer. I’m not even the feature. They’re essentially viewing me as a goddamn open-micer, who is maybe the same age as them, or older. Because that’s happened to me, where the headliner’s younger than me. Tony Hinchcliffe is… what, 32 or 33?
I have no idea.
He may be older, but he looks younger than me, he looks way better than me. He’s an attractive guy. But even if the headliner’s 45, they’re only 10 years older than me? I’m that far? It’s feature then headliner, but how many years is it til I get there? Tony Hinchcliffe’s nine years in the game, and he’s got a Netflix special. I’m like… pushing seven, and I’m an open-micer. But I guess those first few years were such garbage. Because I was such a drunk, and I had to make a choice. It became getting drunk to have the courage to do open mic, and then it became, “Oh shit, I’m too drunk, I can’t even do open mic.” Or it’s, “I think I got some laughs last night, but I don’t remember anything I said. Nothing.” Then I started recording them and hearing them, and it was like, “Oh!” Because your perception when you’re drunk is way different. You realize, oh, they’re laughing at your failures, or they’re laughing because you’re doing badly. I was like, I thought they were laughing at me? So I realized, OK, I can’t be drunk onstage anymore. That’s a thing. And then I think when that changed, things significantly changed for me. I made a real jump in growth. And then I went totally sober for four months. And in that four-month span of time, I got to do that roast of Patty [Sweeney], when she left. I think that was a big turning point for me. I think I was under the radar completely. My friends knew who I was, and we would always laugh at open mics and stuff, but then I did that roast, and I think I had a really good set, and after that I started getting booked at Hyena’s. It was after that set. I’m glad Patty put me on there. She thought I was funny, because she was always working the light, and working the list. She thought I was funny, even before I started getting work over there. That’s why she asked me to be on the roast. And because we were friends. But I think that was a turning point, because that happened, and shortly after that I had that sober streak. And stuff started moving. But it’s a slow-moving grind, too, because to develop a new 10 minutes…how long does that take? Half a year?
It can. I get slow sometimes in my writing, for sure.
There’s nothing like when you come up with a new idea or bit that works, and you’re like, “Oh, this totally relates to this chunk I haven’t used in a while.” So a one-minute anecdote turns into four, because of some old stuff you can rework to fit onto each other. Connecting those dots is one of the best feelings about doing this. But then you start seeing all the parallels of your life. I talk about my relationship issues, a little bit of sex stuff, how broke I am, my non-sobriety. Is that the theme for my life? Those four things? How much of a cliché am I? That starts to get a little depressing. In terms of the grand scheme of the things, I was watching that new Neal Brennan thing the other day…
God, it was so good. But, like, he’s talking about things that are huge in terms of his life. Life issues, depression. I think he’s really taking a bite out of big stuff. And then I’m over here talking about waxing my asshole onstage, and how petty am I? I have no depth. I know I have all those every-man feelings everyone has. How do I channel that? I have no idea, I’m still working on that. I don’t want to be some sort of hack that talks about take-it-or-leave-it stuff. I want to get to the meat of stuff, I just don’t know how to talk about that pain yet.
Have you been thinking about what your next step needs to be?
I’m about to take a writing class. I took this class on Second City, it was an Internet class for satire writing. And that was an eye-opener because I didn’t know so much about what they’re talking about. So that really helped open my eyes to how much I don’t know. I guess I should’ve known that. So now I’m about to take another writing class, and just try to write more. I don’t know how to do it, sometimes you don’t know where to begin. I was doing these free writes, where you just, for 10 minutes straight, try to write. And that was getting me nowhere, it felt like. Because all this writing… and then it got me in trouble with my girlfriend, because she’d read my free writing, because I’d leave them out, and she’d be like – because it’s basically just non-stop writing your thoughts – and she’d flip through them and be like, “Is this what you really think?” And it’s like, yeah, at that very second that’s what I thought. But you can’t be afraid of that. I’m trying to write more, taking a writing class at Dallas Theater Center. I know it’s geared toward theater writing, but if you can take a bite out of something in terms of dialogue in a scene, you can write towards monologue, and then write towards the format of stand-up. You can hit the same topics. Because I was thinking when I was watching that 3 Mics, Neal Brennan was taking a big bite of a serious story, and if you do that, I was thinking, “Well, why doesn’t… he could…” I guess that’s why his concept was original. Because you take a big chunk out of your story, and then out of that story you can derive bits, but then he would just move to another mic and do bits about different things. I don’t know how to grab onto something that’s heart-wrenching in my life and chop it up with bits. Do you feel like you touch on any of that heavy shit?
Not enough, honestly.
I mean, people don’t want to see you cry up there, but they want to see some real shit, they want to feel. I’ve gotten to points where I’m telling a story for the first couple times, and the room may not be laughing, but I can feel the room listening. And that’s a great feeling, when you can really sit in those silences. That’s a great feeling. I don’t know where to go with this, I don’t know what I’m going to hit on to make them laugh, but I know everyone’s actively listening. And I’m not afraid of it, either. That’s a really good feeling, when I got to be able to do that.
So you’re trying to find those truer moments, and get the laugh.
Yeah. And always bring it right back to my pee-pee.
Cover photo by Andrew Sherman (Drewlio Photo).