In a sporadic, decade-plus career, Demetri Martin has defined himself as a man of many talents. The best and most obvious example of his abilities is Comedy Central’s short-lived Important Things With Demetri Martin, a multi-faceted showcase for the comedian’s minimalistic yet cerebral comedy. Martin’s debut album, 2006’s These Are Jokes, plays no less like a variety show, featuring guest spots (including Martin’s grandmother), Easter eggs, and songs. His book, This Is A Book, shows his skill with palindromes. But as evidenced on Standup Comedian—his first stand-up album since 2007’s Demetri Martin. Person. and first recorded work since Important Things left the air in 2010—the more Martin amuses himself with gimmickry, and the farther he moves from his roots as a one-liner savant, the harder it can be to come back.
On Comedian, Martin abstains from many of his stylistic props: no whiteboard, no guests, few frills. (It could be argued this is a necessity for the CD version, but past albums are hardly this bare-bones.) Other than the self-introduction and closing track “Guitar, Jokes,” Comedian is largely a traditional stand-up set. The album is split into distinct halves, with the first part containing longer, elaborate bits that blend Martin’s playful prankster streak with his eye for linguistic and cultural ironies, and follow his non sequiturs to their unlikely conclusions. One punchline shifts a joke’s premise from clumsiness to fatalism; a complaint about “looking like a shitty magician” when using automatic towel dispensers reveals an entire sketch on unnecessary conveniences—a biting appraisal and the first half’s best-written material. In place of visual support, Martin creates imaginative scenarios for his dry wit to run rampant, which carries the album’s nearly flawless first half. The cracks emerge when the album transitions into its second half, a series of one-liners and short quips.
In spite of his renown as a polymath, Martin is perhaps most celebrated for his way with a memorable one-liner, which has garnered comparisons to Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg. The material on Comedian occasionally reaches those heights—particularly on consistent tracks like “Concerts,” “Yep,” “Flavors,” or whenever he’s working blue—but the album’s low points stand in stark contrast. Four tracks in particular—”OK,” “Silent Letters,” “Death,” and “Senses, Halloween”—vary from mildly unfunny to glaringly hacky. Lazy setups like, “You can tell you’re not doing well in life when” are a dime a dozen, and a joke at the expense of the WNBA is just too easy. It’s simple enough to ignore underwritten or unoriginal jokes if they’re isolated; unfortunately, the album is hit-or-miss by track, with the better material bookending the sagging middle.
Standup Comedian is curiously contradictory. It’s at its strongest during the first half’s narratives and the last track’s deluge of one-liners, but a weak hybrid of the two occupies most of the album’s running time. Additionally, the impersonal material and Martin’s unwaveringly dry delivery make it feel anonymous, as though a friend at a party is reading from a joke book. Martin is clearly operating outside most of the comedy world, and as frustrating as it can be to experience his missteps, a flawed album that’s brilliant and lazy in equal parts is always preferable to one that’s generic and unmemorable.