Demetri Martin is a new comic voice from the Far Side

by Neal Justin

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

9 February 2009


With his anorexic build, boyish face and mop of hair that would make Rod Blagojevich envious, Demetri Martin looks like he should be playing hackeysack on some college green. Instead, he’s poised to become comedy’s next superstar.

His coming-out party takes place Wednesday with the premiere of “Important Things With Demetri Martin,” Comedy Central’s wholly original new series that uses animation, sketches, standup and music to showcase a bright, promising talent.

What makes the 35-year-old special is his ability to shift from format to format without dropping his deadpan delivery and his oblique point of view. One minute, he’s delivering a bit about our fascination with bear-skinned rugs. The next, he’s playing five instruments simultaneously while displaying illustrations that point out the uncanny resemblance between a button and a disappointing pepperoni pizza.

That’s followed by a quickie cartoon about a one-hour-photo shop driven out of business by a 59-minute-photo shop; a sketch about a time-traveling gigolo who trades potatoes for sex during the Irish famine; an acoustic number dedicated to his enemies titled “Me vs. You” (sample lyric: “Me hillbilly, you my teeth”) and a language lesson on how the phrase “I hate you” can become even more spiteful by removing the letter “h.”

The most unusual - and ingenious - device in Martin’s act is a simple sketch pad and easel, the kind you used to find in boardrooms before the advance of PowerPoint.

The simply drawn sketches are a nod to one of his comedic idols, “Far Side” creator Gary Larson.

“Often when I’m trying to think of jokes, I just doodle,” Martin said in an interview last month. “I started to realize that certain jokes just work better as a drawing. There’s something in the economy of just lines and words that has a certain elegance to it for my taste in comedy. I also don’t need to worry about the tech stuff so much. I can make changes at the last minute and don’t have to worry about a computer.”

In addition to Larson, Martin has been inspired by Steven Wright (“my greatest influence”), Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and his father, a Greek Orthodox priest who used to recite “Saturday Night Live” catchphrases around their New York City home.

Martin attended Yale Law School for two years before dropping out in 1997. He was onstage three months later.

“The funny thing was, I decided I wanted to be a comedian and then dropped out of law school, but I hadn’t tested if that was a viable career option,” he said. “I just kind of announced, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be a comedian now.’”

It didn’t take long for the entertainment business to notice. He got an Emmy nomination while writing for “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” in 2003 and 2004, then began contributing “trend-spotting” pieces to “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

Busboy Productions, Stewart’s company, is behind “Important Things.” Its last project: “The Colbert Report.”

O’Brien and Stewart aren’t the only fans. Oscar-winning director Ang Lee cast him in his upcoming film “Taking Woodstock,” granting him top billing over the likes of Emile Hirsch, Liev Schrieber and Imelda Staunton - a hefty role for a performer whose greatest acting challenge had been in a Fountains of Wayne video.

“I was just trying to get some small parts in movies to get some chops, to see if I could hold my own in a scene with someone who’s a trained actor,” Martin said. “Then I get a call that Ang Lee wanted to meet me. I had seen ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and I was like, ‘This guy made people run on the tops of trees. This is a talented person.’”

This sudden jolt into the mainstream may sound intimidating to mere mortals, but Martin appears to have realistic expectations.

“We have about 300 million people in the country, so if I can get a third of that, it would be great,” he said. “That takes a lot of pressure off me because that means there are 200 milion people I don’t even care about.”

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