This is a Book Review. More precisely, this is a Book Review of “This Is a Book,” a work so wryly titled because comedian Demetri Martin mines the very nomenclature of things for askew humor, joyfully toying with the meanings and associations and sounds of words themselves. That is why he likes “boob.”
This is a Defining Style. Martin will flash a few anatomical hahas — one must oblige one’s core Comedy Central demographic — but he likes “boob” mainly as a fast-punchline palindrome. Besides two-way spellings, he also trains his relentlessly inventive brain on acronyms and epigrams, graphs and rules of grammar, charts and doodle art. Language is his plaything — fodder to be prodded and poked and twisted till it yields bent-perspective laughs.
This Is a Probability. If you like random, short-attention-span riffs built on pithy comic premises, Martin’s your man. If you delight in writing that deconstructs comedy even while constructing it, his self-aware style will appeal. And if you relish literary humor, “This Is a Book” is a book for you.
This is a Breath of Fresh Air. It is easy to read Martin and sometimes hear Jerry Seinfeld’s granular tangents of observational humor. It is hard to read the tale of Socrates as Hollywood-style satire (the philosopher, seeking a career boost, discovers a higher Truth: the power of the publicist) without detecting the distant echoes of a Woody Allen essay. And it is child’s play to tune in to the linguistic gymnastics of “This Is a Book” — say, “A typo can charge the meaning of anything” — and recollect the sublimely deadpanned one-liners of the “bizarro observational” stand-up Steven Wright. Yet Martin’s absurdist wit has become distinctly his own, bearing fresh fruit even as the taproot stretches back decades.
This is an Exposition. As Martin’s national exposure has increased in recent years, the former “Conan O’Brien” writer has honed his approach. He drew attention as the mock “youth correspondent” on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and was largely forgotten as the lead in Ang Lee’s 2009 feature film “Taking Woodstock,” but it is in his one-man tours of page and stage that he displays his sharpest gifts.
This is a Key Transition. In this, his first book, Martin moves from screenwriting to authorship. His savvy formula, though, remains the same. Much as he does in his Comedy Central show, “Important Things With Demetri Martin” — a hybrid of stand-up and sketch comedy, tunes and sketchpad cartoons — the performer-writer so effectively mixes up his many bits that a one-note riff is rarely overplayed.
This is a Sample. Martin the writer often cooks with meringue. Sketch after sketch is constructed upon a tangy comic premise both inspired and lighter than air. One bite-size sample is a bit built entirely on aggravating uses of “etc.” (with just a hint of Seinfeld’s “yadda-yadda-yadda”). Another piece, “How I Felt,” spins adroitly around a single prepositional trick, and yet another, “We’re Pregnant,” pivots repeatedly on the pronoun “we.”
This is the Rub. Martin fires off so many jokes per square inch that the same targets pop up once or thrice too often — from clueless drunk dudes in bars to women with mean-drunk boyfriends in bars, to sober dudes with ponytails (or, in one doodled case, a horse with a second ponytail). And the too-obvious premise of Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future Perfect is a one-noter that many of us English majors arrived at well before Martin took a whack at it. But for the most part, he finds unexpected targets as he pings from lowbrow to middle-highbrow, even when getting yuks from “a unibrow.”
This is a Standout. Amid all the comic appetizers, Martin also provides one satisfying longer piece that all but screams for Script Treatment — the potential for which even he seems to sense. The tale, titled “Sheila,” is a cheeky life-after-death love story that ventures toward brokenhearted realism where both “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Heaven Can Wait” feared to tread. The most fully formed work in “A Book,” it’s a real beaut.
This is a Conclusion. Because Martin’s literary quickies are so consistently clever — and his occasional longer pieces are engaging change-ups — we can conclude that the reader who fancies this brand of wry absurdism and playful labeling will be absolutely entertained from The Front to The Back.
This is a Guarantee.
Cavna is a Style reporter, editor and artist who writes the Post blog Comic Riffs.
THIS IS A BOOK
By Demetri Martin
Grand Central. 268 pp. $24.99