At the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday, January 7
Demetri Martin is an oddly compelling theatre performer. His reserved personality doesn’t command a large hall; he dresses in sneakers and a hoodie to match his prepubescent hair cut; and like an open-miker he constantly refers to his joke-filled notebook throughout his 90-minute set. And yet it works, thanks to those well-crafted jokes he scribbles down.
Known as a droll master of the one-liner, Martin showed he’s also an engaging performer. At the Centre on Saturday night, he was more conversational than his reputation would lead you to believe, interacting with the crowd and answering any question, no matter how inane, thrown his way. In the crowd’s defence, he did solicit them throughout his set. That’s not always wise with Vancouver audiences, but Martin was able to handle any ridiculous shout-outs (“What’s the deal with airplane food?” was one of the funnier ones) with genuine improvised humour or honest answers.
It also helps that Martin breaks the show up nicely into segments. Sure, everything is just a variation on his one-liners, but the presentation turns what might have been perceived as an endless supply of verbal tricks into a well-constructed and fast-paced night. He goes from banter to jokes, fake announcements, jokes, notepad drawings, jokes, invented coffeeshop fliers, jokes, guitar, and then back to banter. End scene.
Comedy purists love to denigrate gimmicks, props, and musical instruments, but Martin is not relying on the drawings or guitar to get the laughs; they’re incidental to the comedy. The jokes he tells over top of his strumming would work just as well on their own; the fliers, announcements, and drawings could all be tweaked into stand-alone one-liners, too.
Not everything hit, of course, but we’re talking about dozens and dozens of jokes. So while his bits on a frustrated GPS or drunken babies weren’t exactly cutting-edge, better ones were right around the corner and they didn’t disappoint. Some of his best lines required work on our part, too. Martin likes to pare a joke down to the barest essentials, and if that means we have to supply the punch line, so be it. “I don’t know when the question mark was invented, but I betcha it worked immediately,” is a perfect example. These kinds of lines are always followed by an expectant pause before the light switch goes on in everyone’s heads and the laugh seems richer because of it.
Also admirable is the fact Martin won’t pander, despite the odd fart joke. He’s not afraid to let the words schwa, isthmus, or vertices go unexplained, knowing full well he might lose half the crowd. And when he did, he got them right back with another killer everyone would understand.
He may not be uttering important things, as his TV series implied, but they sure are funny.