Nerd comedian finds niche with U of C audience

By Justin Sink

One couldn’t quite shake a sense of looming disaster Friday night at Mandel Hall—the planned entertainment, folk/rock/sea shanty hybrid The Decemberists, had cancelled at the last minute, and the Major Activities Board (MAB) had to scramble to bring in Daily Show and Flight of the Conchords comedian Demetri Martin. The pre-show crowd was a classic U of C amalgamation of awkward-looking first-years (most of whom seemed to have purchased tickets not because they had any idea who Martin was, but solely because the MAB show was something that had been featured prominently in their O-Week campus life meetings) and unwashed upperclassmen, a little too on-edge from throwing together their final B.A. proposals. The situation looked ripe for an epic comedic bomb.

Sure enough, after the unassuming, shaggy-haired comedian emerged onstage, he wasn’t even able to get through thanking the University for hosting the evening before a heckler from the upper balcony demanded, “STOP MUMBLING!” The wry Martin—best known for his quiet, literary, and observational humor—laughed, dropped the mic, and began walking offstage, only to return and deliver one of the more memorable—and undeniably hilarious—acts in recent MAB history.

After riffing on the University (“the only school I’ve ever been to where there’s an argument over what the mascot is”) and Mandel Hall (“the lights across the ceiling are great—it’s like the inside of a gay whale”), Martin launched into his routine, a unique but effective combination of traditional stand-up and lo-fi multimedia.

The jokes ended up being perfectly suited to the bookish, quirky U of C audience. Peppered with puns, historical allusions, and references to mythical creatures, Martin’s act struck a chord with the crowd, which laughed giddily along with his wordplay. At times throughout the performance, Martin went to his onstage props, including a large pad—a giant notebook filled with cartoonish drawings—that has become a staple of his stand-up routines.

As Martin was using the pad to illustrate which letters of the alphabet he deemed cool—“P” earned high marks, while “Q” was considered lame—one couldn’t help think of him as a master of one of the emerging trends in comedy: the somewhat childish, blatantly ridiculous blend of irony and nostalgia that celebrates detachment and faux idiocy. The comedic world of Demetri Martin is an uncomplicated one wherein funny rhymes reign supreme, and even though few topics remain sacred (the routine included AIDS jokes, a celebration of fat ex-girlfriends, and numerous ruminations on bird shit), nothing is examined with any degree of antagonism. But it would be unwise to confuse his simplicity with a lack of sophistication. His slow and quiet delivery—a mix of Steven Wright and Napoleon Dynamite—suits his jokes perfectly. Perhaps betraying his degree from Yale and time spent at NYU’s law school, his jokes contain an underlying and inescapable intelligence that endears him to an audience that would rather laugh at the world than with it.

Perhaps nothing illustrated this idea better than when Martin grabbed his guitar, earmarking the highlight of the evening: a song dedicated to his enemies entitled “Me Versus You.” Consisting of a series of back-and-forth confrontations (“Me: SATs, You: high school football player; Me: Mexican sprinting champion with job opportunity in Texas, You: Border; Me: Your teeth, You: Hillbilly”), the jokes were not particularly complex or subtle, but one couldn’t help but be won over by their cleverness and delivery.

Toward the end of the performance, Martin offered the opportunity for audience members to yell out favorite jokes from past performances (in addition to his spot appearances on The Daily Show, Martin has filmed three stand-up specials for Comedy Central), which allowed for both the recycling of classic material and more improvisational back-and-forth with the audience. After exhausting the archives, he did a quick question-and-answer session with the crowd, providing details about his soon-to-debut television series. For the most hardcore fans, he offered an impromptu post-concert meet-and-greet.

In the end, Martin—who has described himself as a “nerd with geek tendencies”—was in his element, the perfect stand-in for a crowd full of nerds with geek tendencies and in need of a good laugh.