I kind of don't want to like Demetri Martin. With his manicured hipster haircut, faux awkwardness, the way he wears tennis shoes with a sports coat when he's on talk shows--it rankles both the holier-than-thou adolescent in me and the kids-these-days old man that I am becoming. By cultivating a scenester style while at the same time making fun of the same, Martin creates an infinite loop of irony. Is he what he says he isn't? When he points that finger, are three pointing back at him? He first started getting a lot of notice by skewering the way news outlets tried to appeal to the youth market in his segments on The Daily Show, having his cake and eating it too by making fun of the old fogies for not understanding and the youngsters for their silly trendiness all in one short burst. Is this the best marketing concept of all, "I can be one of you and separate from you at the same time," thus appealing to the cool kids while also casting a wink back at the unhip?
It's a conundrum that isn't necessarily helped by the comedian's Comedy Central series, Important Things with Demetri Martin, the first season of which is just making its way to DVD. This collection of stand-up routines, skits, and music is perfectly calculated for the YouTube generation. Each themed episode runs on the conceit that it's an interactive program, complete with Martin offering "choices" of where to go next via crudely drawn control boards with buttons giving the options--usually one that is the obvious next move and two that are gags. Martin pushes the one he wants, and we are treated to a clever segue that also happens to be marked as such (it's aware of what it is!). If I didn't know better, I'd assume a bunch of marketing guys sat around the boardroom table and pointed out what was popular on the internet and strategized how to squish them all together in one show.
Except I do know better, and for as much as a I want to be suspicious of Demetri Martin, I just can't help but like the guy. Important Things is too funny and too smart, and Martin's presence is, strangely enough, too genuine on screen to keep doubting him so. As the host, he is the smart kid made good, the nerd whose nerdiness has paid off. His comedy is never mean-spirited and his delivery always amiable, and like most smart kids, what makes him laugh can be totally silly. He loves to doodle, likes wordplay, and has bits where he moves words around to play with meanings or draws nipples on the number 3 so it looks like boobs. Martin's regular stand-up routine makes him come off like a naive, more erudite version of Jerry Seinfeld, his observational jokes being of the "Hey, what's with this? Wouldn't it be goofy if it was like that?" variety. (Example: "I like how people always say 'safety first.' It makes me wonder what comes next. Dessert?") In the sketches, Martin's recurring characters range from Greek philosophers and Renaissance thinkers to a talkative man in a dungeon to a guy with a yellow belt in karate trying to perform mundane tasks with his martial arts skills and a man so small, a tennis ball is bigger than his head.
It's pretty funny stuff, sometimes wryly so, and those elements--the drawings and prop comedy, the stand-up, and the written sketches--make up the essential components of Important Things. Each episode is built around a topic, and every segment relates to that topic. There are seven episodes in Season One, and the themes are: Timing, Power, Brains, Chairs, Safety, Coolness, and Games. The more pointed subjects, such as "Power," provide better fodder than something broad like "Chairs." Twenty minutes devoted to sitting ends up being too cute to sustain itself. Martin and his writers--many of whom come from other comedy shows like Home Movies, The Colbert Report, SNL, and Wonder Showzen--are better when they have a little something to say or have room to even make fun of their own high-mindedness. Onscreen graphics often puncture some of the conceits, pointing out inconsistencies or blatant untruths in how Martin or his characters present themselves. ("Coolness" is pretty much entirely about the illusion one has of being cool.) One of the most memorable skits satirizes the common college-entrance query where students have to pick what three historical figures they would have dinner with. When one such student ends up at a TGIF with Shakespeare (The Daily Show's John Oliver), Ben Franklin (H. John Benjamin of Home Movies), and Galileo (Martin), he is flabbergasted when all they end up doing is hiting on the waitress. There is something inherently absurd about famous thinkers debating over the best way to score with chicks, and later in the episode the sketch has a callback joke involving Ben Franklin that may be the biggest laugh of the season. It's a dark moment and truly surprising. Likewise, one of the more inventive skits actually comes in the "Chairs" episode, and it involves tracking a piece of gum found under one of those chairs backwards across all the people who chewed it and tracing it back to its source. It's comes from out of nowhere, and truly shows what can happen when this team goes off the map.
The majority of the material works in the shows, including the loose style (think Chappelle's Show for white college kids). Naturally, not every piece of business is going to get the same reaction. The only stuff that misses the mark consistently tends to be the transition bumpers, including the animated Demetri Martin sharing Jack Handey-style deep thoughts, and the musical numbers, which are often recorded live. That just may be my personal taste, however, as I've always found joke songs, be they performed by Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Jimmy Fallon, or whoever, to age faster than the comedians can perform them. That said, even I'll admit to getting some chuckles out of some of the "Me Vs. You" scenarios in the "Power"-themed song and being impressed by Demetri's one-man-band antics in "Timing." Again, when these come off, it's largely due to Martin's egghead charm. He seems amused to be doing these things, like he can't believe he's getting paid to mess around, and I ended up being amused with him.
Smartly, Martin doesn't fall back on variety show clichés. There are no bands dropping in to play a tune, only a minimum of television parodies (the DeBeers ring bit in "Timing" gets run into the ground and the chess accessory commercial in "Game" is a non-starter, suggesting this is not Martin's forte), and what few guest stars there are--Amanda Peet (the "Timing" episode), David Cross ("Chairs")--are put in sketches with no fanfare. Either you get it's them or you don't, no fuss is made. To do so would kill the laid-back vibe. In fact, it was only in the middle of the third episode or so that I started to realize that I was looking for too many modern influences in Important Things. What this show really emulates is Sesame Street and The Electric Company: themed variety shows that are subversively educational, full of animation and comedy and music, and even fake sponsors. This is a show for and by the generation that grew up planted in front of PBS.
Which leads me to my only concern, that maybe the vibe is too laid-back and all of this is a tad too self-aware for its own good. The show's creators may be too content to be mildly intellectual and thus at times too middle of the road. Some of what we get in Important Things with Demetri Martin: Season One is very memorable, none of it is awful, but most of it is easily forgettable. I am not at all convinced that I would regularly revisit any of it the way I might, say, a Monty Python disc or an SNL best-of compilation. Maybe if we could jumble the themes up on the DVD, turn it into one long program where the topics are swapped around, I don't know. Most of them run out of steam as they go, and some more lively behavior would be welcome from time to time, more of that dark and out-there humor a la the Ben Franklin moment. Turning the energy up works, for instance, in "Power" when Martin plays a superhero, the Revenger, complete with comic book panels. He gets loud and jumps around, and it takes at least a small portion of the episode to another level. I don't want Martin to crank everything up to 11, most of it should remain as it is, it's just that peaks and valleys are more stimulating than a plateau.
Please note these contain all the same content as the broadcast versions, but they are uncensored, so any language that had been bleeped out for the original airing is allowed to fly free here.
There are commentaries on select episodes: "Timing," "Power," "Coolness," and "Games," plus on one deleted scene. These feature Demetri Martin, writer Dan Mintz, and head writer Michael Komen. These tracks are a bit of a chore, as the speakers are too laconic to hold any sustained interest. Even when informative, such as the track on the first episode, which contains a lot of info about how the series developed, the presentation is very dull and requires effort to stick with. "Coolness" is made more annoying by Demetri strumming on a guitar through most of it. Also, as they go from episode to episode, the commentaries get more show specific and occasionally the speakers repeat information, like telling why Martin wears the same outfit in every show. By "Games," even the participants seem sick of it, as the track starts with a warning that it's best not to watch all the episodes and listen to all the commentaries at once. Now you tell me!
Eleven deleted scenes, outtakes, and bloopers can be watched individually or with a "play all" function. In the commentaries they note that they filmed more than they needed for most episodes, and so there are a couple of complete sketches here, including one with Martin as a cult leader backing out on the day of mass suicide (the one with audio commentary) and a couple with the recurring characters. There is nothing essential here, nothing that was a great loss to any of the episodes.
Finally, there are two pieces of production ephemera: a graph and a line-up chart to show some of Martin's early planning.