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Timing Is Everything

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A diagram of an anagram: Demetri Martin, rearranged.  

Now he thinks a lot about permanence. He dreams of writing a book, directing a movie, inventing a thing. He’s not sure what kind of thing exactly. Something practical and permanent and elegant. As a kid he’d stick his hand out the car window, feel how strong the wind was, then imagine inventing a tiny windmill you could attach to the car to power your Sony Walkman. (“Of course, if my detraction from the car’s aerodynamic qualities is so great that it adds a significant amount of drag over time, thereby burning more gas, I’m basically using gas to power my windmill,” he says now, somewhat sheepishly.) He occasionally likes to visit the design section at MoMA to stand and admire a lamp, or a chair, or even a doorstop in which, by removing the extraneous parts, the designer has revealed the essential object. “There’s a certain simple concrete permanence to an object that a joke just doesn’t have,” he says. So far, though, he’s only built jokes.

On a frigid December night at the tail end of last year, 200 or so fans trekked up to the Metropolis Studio at 106th and Park Avenue to watch a taping of Martin’s show. He often jokes that when he got his trademark mop-top haircut, he accidentally asked for “Gay Beatle,” and there’s a definite tinge of Demetrimania in the air. The largest subset of the crowd in the studio is college-age kids, and the largest subset of that is college-age girls. When Martin appears and opens the floor to questions, one opportunistic woman yells out, “Marry me?”

The show’s logo is a stick-figure riff on da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, and the set, with its wood-paneled walls, looks like an homage to seventies-era kids’ programs or, as Martin says, “a failed porn producer’s basement.” Later, after flubbing a line during a stand-up bit, he jokingly calls himself a “retard,” then pauses and says, “Er, drat. It’s an anagram of ‘retard.’ I only now realized that.” Then he points out to the audience, by way of apology, that “Demetri” is an anagram for “Me tried.”

“When you’ve been developing comedy for a long time,” says Lauren Corrao, the president of original programming at Comedy Central, “you start to feel that there are only three formats: narrative, sketch, or reality. But Demetri’s show is authentic. It has this handmade quality.” Martin has six writers working with him, as well as a troupe of sketch actors (one highlight: a sketch, not starring Martin, titled “This Is an S&M Couple Whose Safe Word Is ‘Bill Pullman,’ ” which ends with a man in leather being hit with a cricket bat and yelling, “It’s that guy! You know! The actor! What’s his name!”). In essence, though, Important Things is another one-man show. And watching it is like being invited on a guided tour of Martin’s daydreams.

He recalls a day, years ago and not long after he started in stand-up, when he went to the Museum of Television and Radio to watch clips of comics on TV. He watched Woody Allen on The Jack Paar Tonight Show and Richard Pryor on The Ed Sullivan Show. He watched comics throughout the decades, from Bob Newhart to George Carlin to Jerry Seinfeld to Janeane Garofalo. Each decade had its representative comedians, its signature voice. Then the reel ended. “And I remember feeling so excited when I left, because I realized the next chapter was still being written. And I thought, What’s it going to be? Because you see all these icons and legends, and then—blank.”

On second thought, Martin is not the Obama of comedy. After all, the world is just as messed up as it was last year, maybe more so. There’s still plenty to be outraged about, plenty of bozos for sharp comedians to shred and skewer. All the one-liners and anagrams in the world won’t remedy that. But there’s a part in If I where Martin talks about how, when he looks at signs on the street, the letters seem to rearrange themselves before his eyes, Mobil transforming magically into Limbo. He’s learned to believe that “there’s a parallel world right in front of us that’s revealed with a small shift in perspective.” Inside the studio, on that frigid night, the audience seems eager for the refuge of parallel worlds. Everyone’s glad to gather here in this bubble of pure absurdity, thrilled to watch six words become six minutes, and six minutes become a half-hour, and that half-hour, if it doesn’t change the world, at least allows them to escape it for awhile.


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