Of all the youngish comedians to ascend to near-household-name status in the mid-to-late aughts, Demetri Martin may be the most deserving of a sketch comedy show. It’s not simply that his laugh-per-minute quotient is considerably higher than most of his Comedy Central-tethered peers (including even more high-profile bearers of the stand-up torch such as Sarah Silverman, whose shtick isn’t always about the great guffaw anyway), but also that he approaches humor as a mechanism for conceptual exploration rather than as a vehicle for inherently gut-busting personality in the manner that Paul F. Tompkins or Patton Oswalt do. Martin’s modest delivery wavers between deliciously deadpan and infectiously juvenile, but he manages genuinely funny observations—whether articulated in brief, Steven Wright-inspired jabs or broken down via graphs and charts on the sizable pad that often accompanies him on stage.
Important Things with Demetri Martin, however, proves that a gift for angular one-liners and comedic ideas, along with bona fide variety writing experience (Martin toiled on Conan O’Brien’s late night show for a season) won’t necessarily transcend the dull mediocrity of most cable-based primetime. Martin is likeable and talented enough for one to assume that he just hasn’t yet found a successful way to translate his wooly wordplay and jangly, guitar-assisted punchlines into the structure of 22-minute, three-act programs, but it’s hard to imagine that a stand-up comedian who conceives of such orderly, premeditated specials—Martin has a knack for sensing when bits like surprise guests and goof metrics have outworn their welcome—would have issue with the transition to studio television.
The look and feel of the show, which utilizes jokey doodles as transitional filler, is attractively innovative: Hands scrawl out crude, dumbly punny sketches that leap to poorly animated life like something out of Michel Gondry’s discard pile. And founding each episode on a separate theme—so far season two has taught us about “Attention” and “Ability”—should provide Martin with a fecund topic he can riff on week after week. But while the brief “stand-up” interludes capture Martin at his chart-enhanced métier (a bar graph comparison of parents’ interest in their children versus Martin’s interest, or lack thereof, in the same children could have easily been a highlight on These Are Jokes), the sketches seem borrowed from the bottom barrel of lesser comedians. Rather than using the offbeat succinctness of his own individual wit as a starting point, Martin’s trying to write like the remainder of Comedy Central’s skit-littered wasteland. How else to explain a bit about a dog who disrupts the sobriety of tender moments with goofy hats?
Martin’s also not playing to his strengths as an actor in the show’s sketches, mostly stepping aside to straight-man status and allowing the scenario’s joke-with-a-capital-J to stand front and center. But whether he realizes it or not, his youthful, half-ironic on-stage demeanor is the most appropriate, and possibly the only successful, distribution method for his jokes, and it’s something we don’t see nearly enough of in Important Things. If only the show were a latter-day Laugh-In, wholly unafraid of leading audiences down random, occasionally forking paths for the sake of 10-second blackouts of hilarity. Now that’s the type of humor you expect to see when your host presses a hand-drawn play button.