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With ‘Dean,’ Demetri Martin’s a triple threat: writer, director, actor

Demetri Martin and "Dean" co-star Mary Steenburgen. | John Sciulli/Getty Images

Demetri Martin was in town only briefly to promote his film “Dean,” which he wrote, directed and stars in. However, Chicago is a city that has long been near-and-dear to the entertainer, best known for his two decades as a stand-up comic, his writing for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and his regular appearances on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

“Whenever I think of Chicago I remember playing here in 2006, and recording my first stand-up album at the Lakeshore Theater [now the Laugh Factory]. … I was one of the first comedy shows there — a non-theatrical show — to play in that room. It was awesome,” said Martin, who ticked off his “must-dos” when he comes to town: “going to the Jazz Record Mart [now Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart]. … When I have time I love going to the Art Institute, plus Unabridged Books up in Lake View.”

Over the past 20 years, Martin has brought his standup act to the area many times, and recalled performing at Northwestern [“a great college gig”], the Chicago Theatre for the now-defunct Just for Laughs Chicago festival, the Athenaeum Theatre, the Vic and the Up Comedy Club.

“The interesting thing for me about Chicago is that while I’ve performed in a number of different neighborhoods and at very different venues, the Chicago audiences have always been great. They get me. … I’ve always considered my three best cities to be Chicago, Austin [Texas] and Melbourne, Australia. Those three places — those are my crowds.

“To be honest, I do well in what I call ‘direct-flight cities.’ It’s when I get into the connecting flights that I get into trouble. I recently did a benefit show in Walla Walla, Washington. I was heckled from joke one. That made for a very long night!”

Now Martin is coming out with “Dean” (opening Friday), a project that has been gestating for quite a long time. “The death of a mother and wife is not exactly what most people would say is a great concept for a comedy,” Martin joked. Yet the comedian-turned-filmmaker pointed out that his goal was to draw on some personal experiences — but infuse his script with enough comedic moments to balance out the poignancy. “Dean” is about how differently the title character (played by Martin) and his father deal with the death of their mother and wife. “The father is an engineer, so he deals with his grief in a very logical, we-have-to-move-on approach to the situation. Dean, on the other hand, is very sensitive illustrator who just has a very hard time moving on,” said Martin.

“I tried to deal with something that was emotionally grounded, but also very real. I think that’s what attracted Kevin [Kline] to it, then Mary Steenburgen.”

Even at this point, Martin is still amazed he was able to attract the two Oscar winners to his film.

“Yeah, I got real actors,” quipped Martin, who shared the story of how Kline came on board to play his father in the film. Steenburgen plays a smaller role as a real estate agent who is hired to sell the family home — who then becomes romantically involved with the father.

Martin was warned that the chances of Kline agreeing to star in the movie were very slim. “I was told his nickname is ‘Kevin De-Kline,’ because he turns down so many projects. My agent told me, ‘Don’t hold your breath.’ ”

Undeterred, Martin shipped off a copy of his script to Kline, accompanied by a “very heartfelt note,” and the actor agreed to meet with the writer. After a lunch in New York, Kline agreed to tackle the role — much to Martin’s delight and amazement.

As he was writing, Martin drew on “the fact that sadly I lost my Dad when I was 20, and he was only 46. … But I wanted to make this a work of fiction, rather than telling a literal story. I wanted to see if I could create characters drawing from my real experience, but not end up with straight reportage.

“Then, ironically, my mom got sick while I was working on this. She’s alive, but she has early onset Alzheimer’s. So, I was able to use those personal feelings about her to help with my writing as well.”

For Martin, seen earlier in “Contagion” and “Taking Woodstock,” directing his first film was a huge change from the kind of feedback he always has received as a stand-up comedian. “With a live audience in a comedy club, you have the luxury of having a live feedback loop of reaction. It’s a live comedy laboratory — for better or for worse. But, your audience always guides you and gives you immediate feedback. Sometimes it’s brutally honest, but it keeps you on track.

“But with a film, you spend months in a editing room, and that makes you feel like you’re in a vacuum. It can be months — or even a year or two — before an audience will see your movie and give you a sense of what they liked or didn’t like.

“That waiting time can be excruciating!”