On January 20, the day Barack Obama was sworn in as our 44th president and George W. Bush officially left office, not only ending eight years of political turmoil but robbing the nation’s comedians of arguably their most fertile punch line since Gerald Ford tripped down a flight of jet stairs, Demetri Martin was not indulging in his usual hobbies, like composing palindromes or teaching himself to write with both hands simultaneously. Instead, he was sitting in an editing suite on Hudson Street, considering a joke about dolphins.
The joke, as told onscreen by an animated version of Martin, went like this: “My friend asked me if I’d ever swam with dolphins. I said, Yeah, of course. [Pause.] Wait. What distance are we talking about? [Pause.] From the dolphins. [Pause.] Because last time I was in the ocean, I’m pretty sure I swam with most of them. [Pause.] Think about it. [Pause. Pause. Pause.] All right.”
Martin, along with one of his writers, Michael Koman, whom he’d met while working on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and an editor, Bryan Shelton, was cutting together an episode of his forthcoming show, Important Things With Demetri Martin. They needed to get the episode down to 22 minutes for its premiere on Comedy Central on February 11. They’d been at this process, on various episodes, for weeks. (When Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River, Martin didn’t know about it until he saw the plane being towed along in the river outside the building’s window.) As a result, the editing suite had the slightly stale air of a missile-firing silo in which the men, bleary-eyed, have been locked together for too long, hands on the firing keys, ready to launch.
Someone floated the idea that they could save a few seconds by lopping off the “All right,” but Martin objected. That final beat, he argued, makes the joke, like a gymnast sticking the perfect landing. They watched it again. Martin was right.
Important Things is produced by Jon Stewart, which is fitting because if Stewart was the comedic face of the first decade of the 21st century, then Martin may be the face of the next one. As a stand-up comedian, Martin has made his name with jokes that are short and punchy and stealthily smart, like elegantly assembled pipe bombs packed with explosive absurdity. For example: “A drunk driver is very dangerous, but so is a drunk backseat driver, if he’s persuasive.” Or, “I was walking down the street and this guy waved at me. Then he said, ‘I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else. And I said, ‘I am.’ ” Or, “If I ever see an amputee being hanged, I think I’ll just start shouting out letters.”
His TV show, like his act, incorporates these jokes, along with drawings, and guitar-playing, and pie charts, and sketch comedy, and anagrams, and animation, and guitar-playing-with-harmonica-and-a-tambourine-tied-to-one-foot. What it doesn’t incorporate is jokes about politics, or Bush, or what-the-hell-is-happening-to-this-country, or any references to the general cultural lunacy of the type that have made Stewart and Stephen Colbert so successful. With its hybrid of stand-up and sketches, Martin’s show is more reminiscent of Chappelle’s Show, except without the racial edge—as if Dave Chappelle were a white guy who went to Yale and was obsessed with palindromes.
Which brings us back to Obama’s inauguration. Comedy, like politics, is about the right man at the right moment. Jerry Seinfeld landed on TV in 1990 as the apotheosis of the eighties “What’s-the-deal-with?” observational-comedy boom. Jon Stewart emerged in 2000 as the righteous, eye-rolling poster boy for Bush-era comedic rage. So if the last election signaled a free-floating desire among young people to embrace a shift toward the smart, the different, and the new, then Demetri Martin is a man arriving at the exact right moment. Put another way, if Obama was the candidate of people who like to feel hopeful and smart, then Demetri Martin just may be the Barack Obama of comedy.
Think about it. [Pause.] All right.
In person, Martin is thoughtful and self-effacing, articulate, and only occasionally prone to getting lost in the culs-de-sac of his own digressions. His mind works like a Rube Goldbergian contraption that’s constantly spitting out offbeat observations and half-formed premises. Most of these ideas will find their way into one of his notebooks, which he has custom-made at Kinko’s and which are jam-packed with scribbles and jottings and drawings that may one day grow up to be jokes. He’s 35, lives in Brooklyn Heights, and has a girlfriend. (He was once married.) He’s partial to New Balance shoes, hoodie sweatshirts, and T-shirts he’s drawn himself, like one that reads PERSON. (He finds extreme literalism very funny; one of his comedy albums is titled These Are Jokes.) At first glance, he could be any cuddly emo-boy you’d encounter in a Williamsburg bar. In fact, with his taste for clever allusions, hand-drawn graphics, and finger-plucked guitar riffs, he can sometimes come across like a stand-up comedian that Wes Anderson would dream up for a movie. To some people, this makes him adorable. To others, he might seem toxically twee—people who prefer their comedy in the form of, say, the shrieking indignation of Lewis Black or the abrasive subversion of Bill Hicks. The jokes, though, are hard to resist. For example: “I went into a store and the saleslady said, ‘If you need anything, I’m Jane.’ And I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never met anyone with a conditional identity before. If I don’t need anything, who are you then?’ ” Or, “ ‘Sort of’ is just conversational filler, but after certain phrases, it can mean everything. Like, ‘I love you.’ Or, ‘You’re going to live.’ ” Or, “Drummers are cool. Until you put them in a circle.”