Comedian Demetri Martin flaunts absurdist humor at Wheeler Auditorium

Mikaela Raphael/Staff

“Yeah, I talk about really relevant stuff in my act,” nodded Demetri Martin knowingly after a round of puzzled laughter from a sold-out Wheeler Auditorium audience Friday. He’s just told a joke about the water pressure of showers on submarines: not exactly the first topic comedians include in their act. But such absurdity — and his self-aware reactions to its reception — is what makes Martin a charmer.

Martin has consistently followed the unbeaten path in his comedy career, which included a stint as a writer on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” two books full of drawings and short stories, two comedy specials and a wildly entertaining variety show “Important Things with Demetri Martin,” which was canceled in 2010.

Seeing Demetri Martin perform live is like sifting through the grab bag of thoughts of a New Balance-wearing, sketchpad-wielding, overanalyzing observer of daily minutia. The comic himself said that he’d “like to be cooler” than he is. Friday’s set at ASUC SUPERB’s, “Demetri Martin: What’s Your Major?,” however, capitalized on his apparent uncoolness.

It’s a common pattern to see a comedian flaunt their “I’m not confident” schtick, only for it to ironically be told from beneath a spotlight and in front of hundreds of audience members. The comic’s self-consciousness was palpable — most certainly not a charade — and frankly, very refreshing. While Martin’s work is primarily accessed via his comedy specials, books and albums, seeing him perform live serves as an in-person invitation into his world of bizarre observations.

The audience became living, breathing witnesses to the dead air between jokes and sometimes failed improvisation. It was like seeing an actor break character onstage — for a moment the performance falls away and only realness is left over. In one instance, Martin began one of his classic quips: “You can go bananas or go nuts. Those are the only two foods you can go, I think.” A heckler in the front row, well-versed in college slang, shouted “You can go ham!” Another slang-savvy audience member defined it for him as “hard as a motherfucker.” Derailed, Martin improvised, to wince-worthy effect. “You can also go lamb…limp as a motherfucking…baby.” He trailed off, giggling and shaking his head. “This is getting worse, I’m just going to stick to the jokes.”

Though not an expert improviser, Martin’s strength lies in his surprising punchlines and sharp transitions. He is not a storyteller sharing embarrassing childhood memories or a physical comic prancing around stage in costume, but rather a maestro of one-liners, jumping from topic to oddball topic. A joke about the origin of hide and seek was followed by a bit about lining up at Panera Bread, which was then followed by a joke about the politics of fashion at the bus stop.

The comedian’s trademark style, a combination of a steady Steven Wright-esque one-liner structure and drawings displayed on a blue mix media pad — a sketch of the letter “R” from behind or a bar graph of “Things that Pray,” for example — was a fitting framework for his absurd speculations. At times, Martin’s transitions between bits, or lack thereof, were funnier than the actual punchlines. A joke equating a refrigerator to a “cold garbage can” immediately led into a joke opening with “I like cupcakes, but…” The mere randomness is what made his set so characteristically “Demetri Martin.”

He punctuated the evening of comedy in typical Demetri Martin fashion: with a musical bit. Although he’s abandoned the foot tambourine and cowbells from his earlier stand-up years, the comedian was met with hoots and applause when he took up his guitar and harmonica — a familiar quirk of Martin’s brand of comedy. Over simple fingerpicking and harmonica ditties, Martin overlaid an assortment of one-liners, a masterly balance of both musical and comic timing.

To some, Demetri Martin is the “guy with the drawings,” the guy toting around a guitar and an oversized sketchpad to serve up jokes without a narrative. Yes, the guy’s got instruments, drawings and a stream of unrelated one-liners, but more than that, he is a comedian willing to go to offbeat and uncomfortable places for an audience’s enjoyment. And it’s brilliant.

Contact Danielle Gutierrez at [email protected].