Demetri Martin, The Forum, August 31
It’s been a long wait for fans of the ‘mop-topped one’ to get their live fix of his charming yet goofy brand of comedy, a full half-decade in fact since his last visit to Australian shores as part of the 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Martin’s profile has only risen since then, from rising star to certified poster-boy for alternative stand-up. It’s no surprise then that his handful of solo dates across the east coast sold out instantaneously, even tonight – on a typically slow Wednesday – his “hump-night, hump-day, whatever” crowd was heaving.
It’s safe to assume that many of the numbers here know him best from his television series Important Things With Demetri Martin, a well-produced if compacted version of his boyish stage persona and prop-based humour. Like many other comedy successes who’ve made the transition from stage to screen and back again, he skirts the risk of over-familiarity by offering a wealth of new gags along with a mix of tried and true material.
He eases into his set by turning his humorous outsider’s eye to the venue itself, “I really like the mix of refrigerators and dead roman guys” before turning it to the trickle of late-comers, involving some light-but-not-entirely successful repartee. As unique a performer as he is, Martin is not a strong improviser with several attempts to banter with the crowd were placated, fell flat or simply ignored. When he plays to his unique sense of scrutiny and trademark wordplay however, he quickly begins delivering the chuckles at a consistent pace, all delivered in the calm tones of a hesitant and patient spectator.
Unlike the vanguard of stand-up acts who angrily rant and rail against some sort of annoyance, Martin elicits laughs by being just as strangely baffling as what’s bewildering him. The topics he skewers deepest are based around social interaction. Whether it’s the idiosyncrasies of language “I know you can be superstitious, but what about just stitious? Can you have a sub amount of stition?” Or the general peculiarities of human interactivity: “Whenever I want to be noticed I start a sentence with, I don’t mean to be racist. Like ‘I don’t mean to be racist, but you look great today!’”
His accessible, dead-pan style is an easy sell, but that’s not to say that he’s neutered– some of his jokes rely entirely on their inappropriate contexts and there’s several juvenile references to ‘juggling balls’ – but his demeanour never comes off as crude or offensive. In fact, at his most vulnerable some of his material has a darker social edge, his lack of interest in children and pampered pets for instance.
Bolstering his set and adding variety are his migrations to guitar and piano, though essentially the same jokes but with a plaintive soundtrack, it still adds a welcome change in dynamic. His ‘sung list’ of delinquent antics called “nice things I’ve down with water balloons” was a particular highlight. His now-hallmark sketchpad jokes, another. A staple of both his live set and tv show, they bring some of the biggest roars of the night, consisting of simplistic graphs, mathematical silliness and generally absurd revelations. Such as the visuals on ‘Wet Floor’ signs (“Hey, you’re the guy from the toilets!”) to the correlation of praying between humans and mantises (“There’s no such thing as an agnostic mantis”).
Even for Martin’s typically low-key method, it’s a particularly mellow performance. Driven by a consistent hum of healthy giggles rather than punctuated by severe belly laughs, but it nevertheless proves there’s comedy mettle to his popularity. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more likeable comic, or one whose on-stage quirkiness is not so much an act as an honest reflection of his personality.
WORDS: Alister Newstead