Comedian Demetri Martin is a clever fellow who has been coming into pop-cultural focus over the last few years, most visibly as a semi-regular on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." He has also appeared in videos for Fountains of Wayne and Travis and in the first-season finale of "Flight of the Conchords" as a replacement Conchord and eventual member of the Crazy Dogggz. Ang Lee cast him as the star of his next film, "Taking Woodstock." He is currently on the cover of New York magazine, and Friday he'll play a sold-out show here at the Music Box @ Fonda. It is a good time to be him.
Now he has his own series, "Important Things With Demetri Martin," produced by Stewart's Busboy Productions and beginning tonight on Comedy Central. It alternates in-studio stand-up with taped sketches and animations; each episode -- there will be six -- is built around a theme. (The two available for review were "Timing" and "Power.") Though Martin comes from a generation for whom irony is a form of straightforwardness, I don't think he's kidding about the "important": There is in his deadpan humor a kind of gee-whiz winsomeness, a willingness to be amazed at the way things work, and don't.
Although he used to address trends on "The Daily Show," for the most part his is a comedy that is cut loose in time. It's cerebral -- Martin is a full-bore nerd, a law school dropout who writes palindromes and makes puzzles -- a kind of comedy of semiotics, exploiting the ambiguities and loopholes in words and symbols. (Which is to say, it's a form of philosophy.)
These are typical Martin jokes (from the "Timing" episode):
"I bought a clock and the big hand broke off. I didn't want to throw it away, so I just added 'ish' to every number."
Or of a sign reading "This door must remain closed at all times": "Dude, you're thinking of a wall."
It is very like the comedy of Steven Wright -- and, in the use of drawings, the work of Roger Price, father of Droodles. But where Wright is a strange-looking man in a strange land, Martin is willfully adorable, a 35-year-old in the guise of a teenage boy, his hair cut in a Beatle-y mop that might be called not only age-inappropriate, but Age inappropriate. You can see why "The Daily Show" titled him its "senior youth correspondent."
I like Martin a lot, especially when he goes deep. ("We're arrogant -- I mean, people own birds. 'There's a creature with the gift of flight -- I want it.' ") "Important Things" is inconsistent -- the sketches are on the whole less funny than the stand-up, but they have their moments, and the show is on the whole worthwhile. What it is not -- unlike much comedy -- is chummy.
The rhythms are awkward, possibly by intent -- it's a kind of awkwardness that's fashionable now. (See also: "Flight of the Conchords," or any number of youth-directed commercials.) The set strands the comic in an over-large space paneled and carpeted like a New Jersey rec room and empty but for one appropriately 1970s-style biomorphic red chair; it isolates him from his audience to the point that the laughter sounds (ironically) canned. Some shots hang on just a little too long, leaving small, empty, slightly uncomfortable spaces.
There is a kind of familiar, all-too-human poignancy in that. A title labels the star as "Demetri Martin: Person" (also the title of one of his CDs). That's a joke, but it's also the point.
'Important Things With Demetri Martin'
Where: Comedy Central
When: 10:30 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)