Demetri Martin’s particular form of understated, overly literal humor should be perfect for the page. Half his comedy is visually based, thanks to the drawings and graphs that illustrate his jokes. Martin’s verbal delivery never seems to be what makes him funny, but his stand-up is successful nonetheless. Which raises the question: If the writing and drawing are what make Martin’s humor work, why isn’t This Is A Book funnier?
This Is A Book is consistently charming and generally clever. It contains a decent share of laugh-worthy lines—the dedication “For You” stands out. It just feels like it should have more, that something is missing. Without Martin’s boyish looks and self-effacing mannerisms, sections focused on his interactions with concepts of masculinity lose their impact, both comedically and as a social examination. His longer-form stories and character pieces are all fictional, revealing nothing about himself and relying on irony. Some of it works, like the piece eulogizing a sleazy dudebro, turning everything annoying about the type into a compliment. Sometimes it’s just confusing, as in another short story involving ghost romance that rarely rises above “quirky.”
Martin is on much firmer ground when he lets his cleverness run rampant. A chapter on hyper-specific palindrome uses is probably the best in the book, especially the multi-page epic tale of a man falling in love with two strippers. His drawings are, as ever, excellent, though there’s a relative lack of graphs compared to some of his stand-up, with only one dedicated chapter. The rapid-fire, grab-bag approach to comedy works well in these sections, eliminating any need for the depth or insight lacking in the rest of the book.
Ultimately, This Is A Book is far more effective as a demonstration of the difficulties of translating comedy to the page than it is as a book. It’s eminently readable, but Martin’s humor is best dealt with in smaller doses, and the longer fiction pieces seem like jokes stretched well beyond their limits. There are probably ways for Martin to apply his mannerisms to the page successfully, but This Is A Book’s humble title serves as an unfortunately accurate description of this attempt.