It may not have had very many viewers, but Demetri Martin’s short-lived Comedy Central series Important Things With Demetri Martin was the perfect showcase for his talents. Its mix of stand up, sketches and animated sequences provided an excellent balance of Martin’s various strengths, and the biggest disappointment of watching Martin’s new Comedy Central special Demetri Martin: Standup Comedian is that it doesn’t accommodate the same range of material.
Despite its title, Standup Comedian does offer Martin the chance to do more than just tell jokes. He breaks out his trademark flip pad to present the audience with some drawings and diagrams, he offers up spoken observations while playing guitar and harmonica, and, in one of the special’s strongest segments, he presents a series of hypothetical fliers to be posted on any community bulletin board (“Dog not missing”; “So you want to learn how to play saxophone? I can stop you”; “Free tiny strips of paper”; etc.). The segment with the fliers is very funny but also illustrates one of the limitations of Martin presenting his material in a stand-up special: He has to read each flier to the audience, since only those closest to the stage (and those watching at home, of course) can actually see what they say. The fliers would be great material for a book or even a short, silent TV segment, but they fit awkwardly into Martin’s stand-up act.
Even the flip pad, which fits better into Martin’s stage show (and was a staple of Important Things) is sometimes a little awkward, with Martin showing amusing charts and graphs and then having to explain what the joke is with each one. They’re funny jokes, often built on the amusing juxtaposition between mathematical concepts and everyday life (Martin speculates on the number of vertices in a love triangle and decries the structural instability of popsicles), but Martin sometimes belabors them by guiding the audience through each detail.
His straight-faced over-analysis of social niceties and other things we take for granted is also part of his charm, though. It starts as soon as he comes onstage, as he deadpans, “Thanks for clapping so much. I appreciate it,” in a way that makes you question the entire concept of applause. Although he still looks like a hipster, Martin has always had a sort of professorial tone to his comedy, with his charts and graphs, something that Important Things played up. So when he pauses to explain exactly what he means by a certain joke, just the idea that it needs to be explained at all can make it funnier. Some of his best jokes are simple one-liners (on coconut-scented hand soap: “It’s nice, unless you’re dirty from coconuts”; on disabilities: “It must suck to have just one arm–until you get arrested.”), but he never just stops with one line. He always goes on to elaborate further about what he means, and taking a simple one-line joke to its logical (and absurd) conclusion can make it even funnier.
Martin is so logical and methodical that when he pulls out a joke that makes him sound more like a typical stand-up comedian, it can be a little jarring. “I like it when ex-girlfriends become XL girlfriends” is sort of a funny line, but it sounds wrong coming out of the mouth of the guy who previously mused about treehouses, “That’s like killing something and then making one of its friends hold it.” Martin is best at off-kilter observations, not easy battle-of-the-sexes bullshit. There’s a bit of tension in Standup Comedian between Martin the absurdist and a more conventional persona that might score laughs more easily, but thankfully the absurdist generally comes out ahead.
If Martin’s style hasn’t really evolved much in the two years since the end of Important Things, that’s hardly a bad thing. In Standup Comedian, he strikes the right balance between bizarre nonsense and immediately recognizable subjects, just as he’s been doing for most of his career. He’s developed a unique personal style that incorporates elements of prop comedy, observational humor and surrealism, without going too far in any particular direction. During his best jokes, it’s possible to imagine a whole sketch playing out as he speaks, and sometimes Martin himself, just with his drawings, is able to create that brief little world. Until someone offers him another variety show or a movie deal or a Vegas-style stage production, Martin is making do with a pad, a marker, a guitar and a harmonica, bringing his absurd, funny, relatable and obscure ideas to life.