Comedian Demetri Martin spins the one-liners his way

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The trend in standup is toward the personal. Comedy audiences, particularly outside the club scene, are quick to sniff at even the whiff of a jokey joke. They want honest and raw tales from the comic’s life. Yes, it’s got to be funny, but more importantly, it’s got to ring true.

Demetri Martin is the exception that proves the rule. The law-school dropout has been telling his brand of absurd one-liners in the tradition of Steven Wright since 1997.

“I like personal stuff,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles, prior to his Telling Jokes in Cold Places tour, his first such foray into the Great White North. “I like comedians who do it, but I think sometimes I’m not that interested both in my own personal stuff and someone else’s. They have to be really good at it. I call it the who-gives-a-shit test. Who gives a shit, you know?”

So instead Martin does what he’s good at. Really good at.

“I tend to gravitate to jokes,” he says. “I like puzzles. I like the puzzle of writing a joke. I like trying to get an idea down to just a few words. And it’s fun to tell jokes.”

His routine includes gems like the following, which he told on his last visit to Vancouver, in 2004, as part of the Vancouver International Comedy Festival: “The worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades. Especially if your teammates are bad guessers.”

The larger population has come to know the straight-faced mop-top’s offbeat sense of humour, thanks to his Comedy Central series Important Things With Demetri Martin, a recurring segment on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, his starring role in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, and his aptly titled 2011 release This Is a Book.

And to think, it very nearly didn’t happen. But the Yale grad disappointed his parents by leaving law school, and the comedy world came out ahead.

“It was the first time in my life pretty much everybody who I was close to disapproved of my choice,” he says. “That didn’t feel good at the time, but it also was really liberating because I realized I disappointed people and that wasn’t so bad. ‘I feel free! I can be a poet, I can be a dancer, or I can be a painter. They’re already disappointed, so I’m in the clear.’ ”

He claims it took no courage to defy his Greek relatives. It was simply a matter of maintaining mental health.

“I was more trying to avoid despair. I realized quickly that for me, personally, following through on a career in law might lead to a feeling of despair—not because it’s such a terrible career, but for me it didn’t feel like a good use of what my mind naturally does, where it naturally goes each day.”

Martin’s mind will be on full display at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts next week, as he prepares for a standup special he’s filming in New York in February. Opening for him will be Toronto comic and Important Things writer Levi MacDougall, whom Martin found while surfing the Net for staff.

“I don’t spend a lot of time looking for comedy online,” he says. “While I love comedy, I like to do other things. I like to read books and go see music shows and watch movies and whatever else people do. But when I was casting the show I was really curious to see who’s out there and who have I not heard of. And without realizing it, I found a good number of comics from Canada.…[They] seemed like they were making content where they weren’t so worried about selling to a wide audience. It didn’t seem like some of the stuff I see in the States, where people are trying to get a million hits on the Internet and they want to get famous or something. When you’re an outsider looking at it, what you see is just stuff that is original and funny and seems unconcerned with broad tastes or something—which is a lot of the stuff I love.”

And that sums up Martin, too: original, funny, and unconcerned with broader tastes in contemporary comedy. We may not learn a lot about the man through his act, but who gives a shit, really?

Demetri Martin plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts next Saturday (January 7).

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