Demetri Martin’s early comedy stand up in “If I”

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Demetri Martin is a genius with language. His jokes are that of a wordsmith, always incredibly tightly written. This is one of his first one-man shows; it is structured around the word “if.” Each segment is about a different understanding of the word. He brings up a dictionary and goes through each definition, and those segments then take us through the phases of his life.

The first segment is about his about his childhood, and the first definition of If — “in the event that.” This segment shows Martin’s insecurities. He felt different than other children because rather than being into sexual magazines, he was just into puzzle books. There are some great jokes in this part that only work because of the complicated logic Martin sets up in explaining his word puzzles.

Martin tells us that he was a student in law school, but decided that he didn’t want to do that and dropped out to do stand-up comedy. Already, this is an enticing hook with which to start the show. He tells us that he loved puzzles. Growing up, he would do puzzle books, and then when he entered college, he started making the puzzle books. There is a silly joke about making a 3D crossword. This was before video games and the internet, so it was printed in a newspaper. I think that could be a solid little phone game today.

One of the last parts is a drawn comic set to music. This is a very visual joke that is told in a unique way. It is about Demetri wanting to prove that he is a good person, and to do so, he forces a woman to take his seat on a bus. After this Martin ends the special with a bunch of “what if” scenarios. This is set to some overbearing music. But the jokes in this segment are silly and have him in various scenarios, including being a professional ping-pong player. Also during this part, his shirt randomly changes from “Demetri” to “me tired,” which adds an extra smart joke about the nature of filming a comedy special, and shows the magic of having multiple recordings of the same show.

This one-man show is very unique. Martin draws on so many different talents. His transition from juggling, to stand-up, to comic strip keeps the interest. You are always asking yourself what trick he will pull out next. My favorite moments of Martin are when he’s able to use his weirdly specific talents and make them into a tight joke. During one moment, he’s showing a list of palindromes that have a photo attached. One is a bicycle with a sombrero on it. He calls that one “el cycle.” That combination of nonsense and wordplay works great with Martin’s low-key delivery. Personally, I wish he would have leaned in more to the silly, as often his jokes fall flat to me without an extra element on top of the wordplay.

This special works not only as a work of autobiography– we see Martin’s coming to big life decisions and his personality throughout his life, but also a way of understanding how he crafts his jokes. His anecdote about making puzzles, also shows us how he writes a new joke. It’s not really teaching you how to think like Martin, but showing you why anyone would think like him.

Today, Martin is a hugely successful stand up comic. His specials often include cartoons; he voices Ice Bear on Cartoon Network’s We Bare Bears, which is one of my favorite cartoon characters on cartoons right now.. Sometimes he plays guitar on stage. His low-key delivery focuses on the jokes and is still able to deliver on the striking wordplay he started with.

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