Demetri Martin’s Netflix Comedy Special Confronts His Veteran Career

Demetri Martin’s Netflix Comedy Special Confronts His Veteran Career

A comedy career can be a tricky puzzle. You must evolve to stay relevant and interesting, but change too much and fans will revolt.

The prolific standup Demetri Martin, 50, has always had the mind of a puzzle-maker and a knack for paradox. A characteristic joke: “I am a man of my word: That word is unreliable.” In “Demetri Deconstructed” (Netflix), the inventive seventh special of what has become a major, joke-dense career, he seems to be answering a riddle: How does an eternally boyish alternative comedian mature into middle age?

Martin steers clear of common temptations like storytelling or culture war or revelation. He is now married with kids, but he’s not the kind of comic to tell jokes about parenting. After two decades, including three books and a movie, “Dean” (2016), he directed and starred in, we barely know him. The move he’s making with the new special is away from a lodestar: simplicity. His jokes always sought out absurdity in as few words as possible; the delivery was unvarnished and there was little physicality. His floppy hair and crisp bluejeans are so consistent that they have become a kind of uniform.

Embracing the increasingly cinematic aesthetic of stand-up specials, his new hour, which he directed and is actually closer to 50 minutes, takes his act and wraps it around an intricate high concept. The first step to this move was in his previous special, “The Overthinker” (2018), which was funnier, if less radical. The theme there was in the title, and he illustrated it through the formal device of occasional interruptions with narration that represented his inner voice.

In one bit, his narrator wondered what the cartoon sitting on an easel next to him onstage would like from the balcony, which led to a shot from farther back where you couldn’t make out the picture at all. This perspective shift was heady: It wouldn’t get a big laugh but made for a memorable critique of comedy in big rooms and a self-mocking joke about how not everyone would get him.

“Demetri Deconstructed” doubles down on such experiments. Instead of occasional intrusions of thought, the conceit here is that the special takes place entirely inside his mind, allowing for a more surreal visual language. A framing device has him hooked up to an EEG of sorts with a dubious doctor who wants him to imagine a comedy show. (Think “The Matrix” but for comedians.)

The rare special in black and white, it features visuals that are constantly shifting, shrinking and expanding, breaking into split screens, offering multiple versions of the comic sometimes in scenes together or telling jokes over each other, so we can hear neither. (It’s a conceptual bit that almost seems like a spoof of conceptual bits.) His jokes rewind and repeat, as if he was editing them in real time. A curtain with titles periodically appears, in a theatrical touch out of a Wes Anderson film. Like the work of that director, this comedy asks you to tune into its frequency, one that can be at times more clever than hilarious but that sets a high bar for surprise.

We are in an era when the process of comedy is discussed, analyzed, picked apart even more than the final product. So, Martin seems to be saying, why not blur the lines? The idea that stand-up specials recreate the live experience has been slowly replaced with an embrace of the artifice of film. “Demetri Deconstructed” often feels less like a standup show than a vaudeville variety act, with an old-school soundscape, moody spotlights, even a spin on ventriloquism. As usual, he brings along an easel, where he displays simple cartoons to set up jokes, some of which, like his very funny ruminations on the letter R, share a sensibility with next-generation alternative comedians like Julio Torres.

Martin opens with a joke praising his fans for being “respectful,” and notes, “I’ll be at a farmers market and no one will.” He pauses and shifts his posture just enough for the crowd to finish the joke and laugh. He then reaches the punchline, that his fans are so decent that they don’t “bother or even look at me,” and gets another laugh. Told with the kind of timing developed from two decades of performance, this self-deprecating joke represents a shift of sorts for a comic who had a charmed early career, with a hit Edinburgh show that led to jobs for Conan O’Brien and “The Daily Show.” There are hints at career anxiety in this special.

What’s most striking about the comedy is that while Martin has long been likened to deadpan joke writers like Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, his persona was never as alien as theirs were. It’s become increasingly clear that Martin’s absurdity was rooted more in the real world, in oddball observations that made you look at mundane things in new ways. Listen to his jokes about buying toothpaste or the phrase “you wouldn’t touch something with a 10-foot pole,” and you can hear the cadence of Jerry Seinfeld. You also hear it in his complaints about people who use the word “adulting.”

Where he’s gotten weirder is in the form, not the content. Like all comics who specialize in deadpan short jokes, his act risks seeming repetitive, and all head, no heart. The inclusion of his inner voice is a way to recognize the issue. And what we see in his inner thoughts is hints of insecurity of the kind of comedy he doesn’t do. His version of crowd work finds him making the mistake of addressing the entire group. “Where’s everybody from?” he asks, and the answer is awkward silence

In jokes like these, Martin is aware of his own failure to connect. But he seems unwilling or uninterested in exploring the source. Or even showing more of the weirdness that lurks beneath his persona. One is left wondering about the framing device: What brought him to this place hooked up to wires? What is wrong with the real world that makes him retreat to his overheated imagination?

He’s such a model of equanimity that the smallest departure from calm could have a large comic impact. But he reserves the special’s most surprising incongruities for the visuals. And while there are plenty of short setups and punchlines — “How long did it take to make the first clock? No one will ever know” — the overall impression is of someone finding creative ways to dig around in their own navel. Occasionally, he sounds trapped in it.

At one point, his inner voice says: “Try something topical.” But every time he starts a joke, the narrator expresses quick disapproval, so he stops after a second or two and starts again. This is a man overthinking so much that his joke ends before it ever began. Martin’s punchline: “That’s an example of a joke that won’t be in the special.”

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