Move over, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and make room for science’s most scientific new voice: Ted Rimmarniet. He may not have any fancy degrees or published research, he may think Albert Galileo invented gravity, but by the courage of his convictions and the cut of his turtle neck, he may have you doubting — if only for a split second – everything you vaguely remember from your eighth grade science class.
Rimmarniet is the alter ego of comedian Demetri Martin and the host of “Our Fascinating Planet,” a short series produced by Funny or Die that hit Verizon’s go90 streaming service yesterday. Borrowing liberally form the tradition of “Nova” and “Cosmos,” Martin applies his incisive absurdism to the planet’s great mysteries, taking liberties with celestial truths in the name of that other divine entity: Comedy.
“Space, a vast expanse stretching tens of hundreds of miles in almost every direction,” explains Rimmarniet, pausing thoughtfully between words. This measured speech drives home Rimmarniet’s self seriousness, exaggerating the ridiculousness of his claims. It also causes the viewer to listen more closely, awaiting a punch line that may or may not come. Martin is known for his one-liners, but Rimmarniet is a fully inhabited character whose entire demeanor elicits chuckles. Elsewhere, he muses that “the universe is a place filled with overwhelming beauty and and bothersome danger.”
Not that “Our Fascinating Planet” is completely devoid of one-liners: “For centuries man had flirted with space,” says Rimmarniet, “but now, it was time to enter her.”
His facility with one-liners served Martin as a writer for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and throughout two seasons of “Important Things With Demetri Martin” for Comedy Central. Now, he’s trying his hand at filmmaking. “Dean,” Martin’s feature directorial debut, played the Tribeca Film Festival this year and hits theaters next spring. (IndieWire’s David Ehrlich called it a “winsome low-key comedy.”)
IndieWire spoke to Martin by phone last week, just before he performed stand-up to a sold out crowd of students at NYU’s Skirball Center.
Has this character appeared in your stand-up before?
This is the debut of Ted Rimmarniet. I’m a longtime fan of shows like “Nova” and “Cosmos.” I saw the original “Cosmos” when I was a kid, and I thought it would be fun to make something that played with that world a little bit. I’m not a big character guy, but I liked the idea of having a scientist explore this rather than a comedian.
Why did you decide to make this project as a web series?
There was an opportunity to make content to pitch for this platform. Initially, the idea was not to shoot too much original content, but to work with the treasure trove of pre-exisitng stock footage and beautiful HD stuff that people shoot and make available to others. I thought that might work for this format. It was really about writing jokes about science without having to shoot tons of original scientific footage.
So the form dictated the content.
I underestimated the enormity of how much footage there is, so it ended up kind of being a wash, and I was forced to go back to coming up with ideas and then finding footage to go with it. I was surprised, at the end of the day there was so much that it neutralized that idea. It was the same old homework of, “okay, you gotta write some original stuff here and we’ll get footage to go with it, but you still need to have a point and a bunch of jokes.” Even though they are really short episodes, I found that you really need to have some sort of narrative. There has to be something you’re saying.
Was the writing process similar to writing a stand-up set?
In a sense, yeah. As a stand up, I’m still someone who likes to write jokes and rely heavily on daydreaming. So my stand-up is a little more all over the place, and this is more focused.
What do you mean you rely heavily on daydreaming?
If I have a special coming up, or if I have a real deadline that’s approaching, then I’ll be more disciplined to make myself write a page of jokes every morning. Kind of like the first thing I do, like taking a vitamin or something. But, left to my own devices, if I don’t have an imposing deadline, it’s more about going for walks and then just looking around and being quiet and listening, and jokes often will appear. Many of them turn out not to be funny to other people, or they might not even be jokes. With that margin of error in mind, I generally get enough stuff from looking and listening to things around me. With the show I was like, “let’s talk about the brain or space.” So it was kind of an exercise.
Does writing for the web allow you to do weirder, more experimental stuff?
I don’t usually feel better after spending time on the Internet, but if you have a job in comedy or making content, you have to deal with it every day. If I could not be involved in Twitter and Facebook, I would certainly not be. I find it very difficult to manage, and I want my attention and my time in my brain back. If I spend less time on it, then I can appreciate the bits of it that I like more. I feel like it’s just this giant magnet that devours your brain. I guess I could be a hermit and go try to find some other existence, but I don’t see that happening. I love comedy and I like doing it. I really enjoyed the process of making “Our Fascinating Planet.” I think if there were only a few TV networks, I can safely say I don’t see this show happening. So I can’t complain too much about it, I’m certainly reaping the benefits. I had the opportunity to make a pretty specific little show, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But I think it’ll be for some people.
Is that part of what drew you to making “Dean”?
I’ve been trying hard to learn how to write narrative things. I’m working on a book of short stories, I made “Dean,” I’m writing my next script, and I find it really rewarding. It’s really challenging. I do one liners not by accident, but it’s really where my head goes when I’m writing. I’m obsessed with that economy of words and I try to get it down to just the simplest ideas. When I write something larger, I still want it to be economical, and of course it has to be. I wanted to use a different skill set, and a different set of muscles. It’s a way for me to share something that feels much more intimate and personal without going onstage and telling my life story.
Are you going to delve deeper into Ted Rimmarniet’s inner life in “Our Fascinating Planet”?
It’s mostly his presentation of these very important topics and his take on these monumental aspects of science and the world around us. I do enjoy that character, but I’m the first to admit that I am not someone with a gigantic range when it comes to what I can portray. I can do stuff in my little zone.
He does have those searching asides, about how we are all made up of space and dreams.
If you’re lucky enough to make content for a living, and people come to your shows or watch your movies, you have a responsibility to dig as deep as you can and give as much as you can. I’m trying hard to do that. Even if they’re just jokes, I’m still putting a lot into them. For my film, that involves putting my heart out there.