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Demetri Martin: Not A Smart Comic?

April 21, 2011

Disturbing news, Demetri Martin fans. First, I’m sick. Second, in my bored feverish state I stumbled upon this interview with Demetri in which he addresses people who call his routine “smart.”

“Smart comedy? Really?” he says. “I’m doing jokes about chairs and stuff. You don’t need special knowledge. They’re not jokes that require knowledge of specific topics like, ‘Well, if you knew who Winston Churchill was, you would find that joke funny.’”

Perhaps he is just being modest, but as a long-time pessimist (regarding what the average person grasps), I have to strongly disagree with Demetri’s opinion of his comedy. Saying that his comedy isn’t smart because it’s about “chairs and stuff” is like saying that IQ tests aren’t difficult because they’re mostly squares and circles. People who score highly on those tests tend to not understand how people could score any lower, just as Demetri thinks that everyone should be able to understand his jokes.

To be sure, there are many low-brow aspects to his comedy routines. But I think most people who are willing to sit through a low-energy routine are way ahead of the curve, and that’s the key to what makes Demetri’s comedy so “smart.” It doesn’t just attract a smarter crowd; it demands a smarter crowd. Look at Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler, two of the most popular comedians today. They’ve played quiet roles, but their highest-grossing movies are the ones where they’re explosively loud and attention-grabbing. It’s attractive, and mainstream audiences love it*. Demetri Martin, on the other hand, doesn’t yell or use cute voices, so viewers have to put in more effort and patience in order to fully process what he’s saying. It sounds silly, but much like the laugh track in sitcoms, most people need to be told when something is funny. To laugh at a Demetri Martin joke is to have figured out why it’s funny, which is a lot more effort than the majority are willing to put into their recreational activities.

To put it another way, and playing on Demetri’s terms, there is a podcast from The Daily Show’s British correspondent John Oliver called The Bugle, co-hosted by his long-time friend and also-comedian, Andy Zaltzman. It’s basically the epitome of smart comedy because it does say “Well, if you knew who Winston Churchill was, you would find that joke funny.” In order to understand even half of the jokes, you have to be not only up on current politics, but anything ranging from British sports to Ancient Greek emperors. I will admit that I’ve laughed at jokes from both of them without fully understanding their references, because their tone is often high-energy, and in John Oliver’s case, forceful. It’s funny because they want it to be. There is clearly a difference between smartness of content and smartness of context.

Is this way too many words devoted to an offhand comment made in an interview? Yes, absolutely. I devoted less commentary to my review of Demetri’s whole book, but I truly believe that when you write an epic poem done entirely in palindrome, it’s hard to make the argument that you don’t do “smart” comedy.

*I’ve enjoyed many films from both actors, and am in no way trying to insult them or their fans.

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