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"Timing," "Power," "Brains," "Chairs," "Safety," "Coolness," "Games"
by Jefferson Robbins If he ever gets tired of being Steven Wright with a guitar and a facial expression, Demetri Martin may have a future as a filmmaker. It's plain from the first season of "Important Things With Demetri Martin" that the comedian/actor thinks about the various parts of a given scenario and holds the branching possibilities in his mind in a three-dimensional way. This is typical of puzzle fiends and anagramists--terms which suit Martin well--and any producer/director worth a damn. His well-known line drawings, here set into motion by animators, make me think he's read both Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. His comedy is a realm where everything is nametagged and hypertexted. (See the title of his debut CD: "These Are Jokes".) No surprise, then, that his stand-up routine is a hit in this age of Google Maps and floating metadata. Wait 'til we're all staring through the lenses of our augmented-reality iPhones, swimming in subsurface information--then we'll truly be residents of Demetri Martin's world.
Each episode of "Important Things..." takes its theme from a concept ("Safety," "Coolness," "Timing") or an object ("Chairs"). In the onstage segments of his Comedy Central show, Martin is a professorial prop comic, exploring these topics with his chalkboard, feltboard, and giant sketchpads. ("Thank you, audience," he says, again explicitly tagging a component of his show--the viewer--as just a component.) On video, the camera frame becomes his dry-erase easel, and the skits that most strongly bear Martin's signature are those that have been graphed on and subtitled in bold yellow. Naturally, producer Michael Koman also plugs Martin into "SNL"-style conceptual sketches, where you'd expect him to be a fish out of water. He's not--Martin surprises by proving himself a good actor opposite familiar players in a string of cameo bits. A movie where he screams abuse at Amanda Peet, as he does in a first-episode segment, is one I might stop to watch if it came on TV.
Interestingly, the screaming happens over and over throughout this seven-episode debut season. Set loose from his stage act, Martin is often in conflict: he's a yellow-belt martial artist confronting mundane problems with fists and feet; he's a nebbishy driver threatening another motorist with a tire iron; he's a rubber-suited vigilante out to avenge his father's death by tick-bite. These interludes are surprisingly angry for a performer whose stand-up act is so mellow. But all comedy has an edge of loathing (self- or otherwise), and on a second look, much of Martin's material could be traced to an underconfident hetero male's drive to conquer. His song "Me Vs. You" casts him as the inevitable victor over an imagined enemy. ("Me: horny teenage boy. You: sock.") A time-machine sketch allows him to play slacker stud to historical babes across the centuries. And a depressing number of his jokes point out things that Martin thinks of as gay, or reassert that Martin himself is not gay, or denote those things he believes will prevent a man from achieving sex with a woman (inline skates, posters of dinosaurs).*
Launched with Jon Stewart as executive producer (really, why don't they just declare him president of Comedy Central and move on?), "Important Things..." arrives on a single DVD that's nonetheless chock-a-block with spare content. The audio is simple broadcast-quality 2.0; picture quality is sharp, and the show mixes video with film, including that hipster standby Super8. The disc wants my player to believe there's a subtitle option, but there isn't. The seven episodes are snuggled in with twelve bonus skits and outtakes, as well as throwaway clickable documents like an "early production graph" (Martin's obsessive charting of how individual skits would interrelate). The deleted sketches and stand-up bits probably wouldn't have been missed--a segment on brain damage is painfully unfunny, at the expense of the victims thereof. In one piece of cut footage, a boom operator is yelled at for trying to retrieve a basketball Martin has lodged in the hoop. Why did anybody think it was a good idea to disclose this embarrassing slapdown to the viewing public? There's an opening "mature audiences" warning, and the profanity that was bleeped for broadcast turns the air blue here. Noting how regularly F-bombs are the punchlines for this show, and for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report", I wonder why anyone at Comedy Central bothers putting Stewart's products through Standards and Practices.
Commentaries can be heard on the episodes "Timing," "Power," "Coolness," and "Games" and on the elided sketch "Cult Leader in Love." Joined by Koman and senior writer Dan Mintz, Martin serves up unpolished variations on the Martin-isms you've spent 154 minutes absorbing: "That's a notecard that we drew and wrote on." "I just burped on the commentary." "I just cracked a knuckle." "This is me drawing." Some insight into why Martin's interesting brain works the way it does would be nice, although he doesn't appear to have examined his own gifts too closely, and his collaborators don't quiz him on it. "I don't know why I'm obsessed with labelling things," he says, "but I find it enjoyable." Clearly. The three wonder aloud how actors get up the nerve to convincingly kiss on camera. This apparently puts Martin in mind of his lip-lock in Taking Woodstock: "I had to kiss a guy. I don't know why I keep harping on it. I think because it was somewhat traumatic." Again: clearly. The acoustic guitar reappears as Martin fingerpicks his way through the "Coolness" yak-track. That's fine, he's good at it, but I've already heard "Alice's Restaurant."
That was a joke.
22 minutes/episode; NR; 1.33:1; English DD 2.0 (Stereo); CC; DVD-9; Region One; Paramount
*The remainder of the sketches, crafted by a staff of scribes, are largely detached from Martin's aesthetic. "Creedocide," which defines religion as a poison, is a delightfully grim short that could nonetheless feature any actor; "Medieval Safe Sex" would be funnier without Steve Martin's "Theodoric of York" as a forerunner. return