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Stand Up and Deliver
Comedy Central Hits the Mark With 'Martin'

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.

"You're in a bubble," says Martin, who keeps his verbal skills limber by writing palindromes. "You're in an editing room working your [tail] off, and you're looking at footage of yourself. Every insecurity plays out."

The comic's stand-up bits -- on a spare set that calls to mind the late-'70s wood-paneled rec room of one's parents -- are interspersed nicely throughout the half-hour show. The intercutting, too, helps Martin avoid what we'll call the Steven Wright Problem. Martin shares that comic legend's understated delivery and penchant for lingering one-liners -- but the segments move briskly before anything has a chance to get too droll.

Martin loves that Wright's comedy "was based in thought and how a person thinks about things. I'm learning the value of feeling, too -- if you can hit both planes, like good live music . . . it's a nice thing to work on. I start from the place of deconstruction. How do you communicate more emotional stuff. If the feeling is genuine, you can communicate it."

Martin, who dropped out of New York University law school in his 20s to pursue comedy, says "a lot of my influences skew pretty old. I love watching old television . . . like the old 'Dick Cavett Show.' The pacing and patience from an earlier time seem to have forged my comedy. It's a different landscape now."

Amid his humor's cool detachment, a certain warmth comes through on the show -- which is how Martin wants it. "That's why I like Monty Python," says Martin, an Emmy-nominated performer who also wrote for Conan O'Brien's show. "What strikes me about the best of Python is the humanity."

Important Things With Demetri Martin (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 10:30 on Comedy Central.

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