Boy wonder

Demetri Martin’s precocious humor
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  October 25, 2006

CAREER PATH: After graduating from Yale, Martin dropped out of NYU Law School to become a comedian.

Demetri Martin has chosen a radical modus operandi for a young contemporary comedian. He tells jokes. That would make the 33-year-old New Yorker stand out in a comedy scene dominated by observational humor, sketches, and storytelling even if he weren’t completing his first year as trend reporter for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Thanks to his high-profile Daily Show appearances and his Comedy Central Presents Demetri Martin TV special — which concluded with an elaborate skit that examined his twisted mental clockwork through the eyes of a horse-headed “dork-ataur,” chubby Boston absurdist Eugene Mirman as a tutu-wearing fairy, and Martin’s mom and grandmother on a set that looked stolen from a high-school auditorium — there’s a perception that he’s a sketch artist. But the former Late Night with Conan O’Brien writer, who plays the Berklee Performance Center this Saturday, has roots that extend to the early days of vaudeville and the Borscht Belt, when smart guys delivering flip zingers ruled the stage.

“For me, a joke is like a puzzle,” says Martin, who talks with the speed and slightly clipped tone of a fast thinker. “You make an observation or introduce an idea, which raises a question, and the punch line is the answer. I love jokes and liked Steven Wright when I was in high school, so that makes him an influence. I also liked Peter Sellers for his comedic performances and Billy Cosby, who’s a great storyteller. So all of that’s part of doing comedy for me. But jokes tap the same energy that made me love doing puzzles when I was a kid, because even though I seem to have a kind of low-energy personality, I always have to be engaged.”

Hence his array of self-proclaimed “useless talents,” which surface in an early club appearance caught on his new CD/DVD release These Are Jokes (Comedy Central). That routine features Martin juggling balls and blades, riding a unicycle, and walking the dog with a Duncan yo-yo. He also taught himself to draw with both hands, something that pays off in another of the DVD’s short films. With songs, drawings, animated films, and his half-hour Comedy Central special, These Are Jokes is a well-rounded and likable overview of the first phase of his career.

The second phase starts with his current tour. It’s his initial run at big venues, and the performance in Austin on November 18 will be filmed for his second Comedy Central special, this one an hour long. He’s also working on three film scripts that have been optioned by studios — DreamWorks, Sony, and the indie Thousand Words — and include roles for him. He hopes to direct.

Even though he’s in his 30s, precocious still seems an apt word for Martin. He dropped out of NYU Law School — which he was attending on a full scholarship after graduating from Yale — to become a comedian. His soup-bowl haircut and blue-eyed earnestness make him look younger. That man-child persona and his straight-man delivery give his Daily Show “reports” extra irony and his most irreverent song lyrics a lick of innocence.

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