TV Preview: Demetri Martin's a Real Stand-Up Guy on 'Important Things'

 The half-hour
The half-hour "Important Things With Demetri Martin" makes good use of the star's doodling skills. (Photo by Bryan Bedder - Getty Images; Illustration by Hyunju Chappell Hine, Chris Meighan and Susana Sanchez - The Washington Post)
By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

As a comedy-talent hothouse to rival "Saturday Night Live" in recent years, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" is about to bear fruit yet again. Tonight, the fake-news program's gifted Demetri Martin launches his own show, joining Stephen Colbert and Lewis Black as "Daily Show" alums who have landed their own Comedy Central series.

The ever-contemplative Martin, who's the slyly titled "Senior Youth Correspondent" on Stewart's show, is more than up to the challenge of working nearly solo in the late-night spotlight.

Think the deadpan Steven Wright, only cheerier and more versatile. A stand-up comic and sometime cartoonist, Martin seems cursed with endless postgraduate cleverness.

His is a comic mind that needs room to roam. Fortunately, that's precisely what this new project -- a studio-stand-up/taped-skits/animated-bits/musical-ditty hybrid -- offers. Were "Important Things With Demetri Martin" (which airs at 10:30 p.m., right before Stewart's show) to deliver the laughs in only one format, it would be far less inventive. As it is, it's like watching a one-man variety show for shorter attention spans.

There might be genuinely Important Things afoot here, but no single comic conceit is so important that it takes more than a few minutes to unfurl. From commercial parody to cartoon "lecture" to standup riffage, the show's hilarity relies heavily on deft editing -- another skill Martin possesses. (He spends long hours in the cutting room, he says, sweating details of the final cut.)

Martin's manner and uber-youthful looks belie his age -- he's 35 -- but help define his irreverent approach. He has for years honed a style of detached observation that seems to dissect humor even as it's creating it. Dry irony abounds, whether he's drawing a twisted doodle, delivering low-key one-liners with an earnest glint in his eye, or singing a folkie guitar-and-harp tune that pivots on punch lines.

So just how did Martin -- whose comedic influences include Gary Larson, Monty Python and Peter Sellers in addition to Wright -- come to pull all these disparate elements into a cohesive, coherent whole?

"Comedy Central wanted a sketch-comedy show," says Martin, who also stretched his acting muscles by taking a role in the upcoming Ang Lee feature film "Taking Woodstock." "I needed to figure out how to do sketch comedy -- I asked myself: 'How do I get my [drawn] sketches to work like scenes?' "

Martin is apparently a quick study, because most of his taped scenes build hilariously. In the second episode, titled "Power" (each episode is organized around a theme), his character gets into an escalating parking-spot showdown with another driver (John Benjamin), and -- written like a true cartoonist -- the on-screen captions are smartly paced. In a bit about an actor's fury that co-stars Amanda Peet, the comedic build again works beautifully, and the pop-culture whiff of the recently leaked audio from Christian Bale's on-set rant adds a layer of hilarity.

Martin's show comes from the stable of Stewart's Busboy Productions. So how much credit goes to Stewart?

"Jon has been really good," says Martin, who welcomes the higher profile that his "Trendspotting" segments on "The Daily Show" have provided. "He's a wise person -- he learns from his time in the business, [having] had a couple of shows." For example, Martin continues, "I was talking to him about even the promos that I wanted to edit, and he put that in perspective. He said: 'People are going to judge you on the merit of the show. . . . You don't have time to control every aspect. Let it play out.' "

Martin's involvement goes from page to stage to the cutting room.

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