Throughout his long stand-up career, Demetri Martin has been compared to deadpan comedy assassins like Steven Wright and the late Mitch Hedberg. But, as Martin’s latest special shows, his low-register absurdism owes a lot to tireless road veteran Todd Barry as well, though Martin’s affectless manner isn’t a sly delivery system for sharply observed insights so much as a bloodlessly clever ramble. Even tarting up his act with music, a sketch pad, and, here, running snatches of inner monologue, a Demetri Martin set plays out in pleasantly amusing but ultimately pretty forgettable fashion.
In keeping with his special’s title, The Overthinker, the comic interrupts his flow with a trio of distancing techniques. From the start, we occasionally hear Martin’s thoughts as he frets over his next move, ruminates on how a joke went over, or gets distracted at the thought of a post-show cupcake—after a joke about cupcakes. At other times, his ruminations pop up onscreen as subtitles, either underscoring a bit with another joke (“Patent pending” flashes onscreen after his visual joke about a “P-shirt” for impatient people), or in one case simply apologizing to his friend for making fun of vegans. The disclaimer “That joke was not offensive” follows a sketch pad bit about gender-neutral congratulation balloons, but his pervasive but harmless punctuating profanity aside, Martin’s wry schtick is as inoffensive as it gets.
Martin’s sketches occasionally show up onscreen alongside the comic to illustrate a joke, their spareness functioning as blandly affectless filigree. Directed by Martin and Jay Karas, The Overthinker is as visually unassuming as Martin is, with the comic’s opening interior monologue approving of the ubiquitous comedy special “fake fog” about as ambitious as things get. There’s one witty bit where, as the onstage Martin pauses, a triptych of possible directions for the next act are stacked on one side of the screen before Martin chooses one and moves on. A flash of him doing some “mic stand as metal detector” work is revealed after a few seconds to be a discarded impulse. “No,” he decides, “That’s not my style.”
What style Martin has is that of a stunted prodigy, the ever-boyish 45-year-old comic coming across like the wannest character in a lesser Wes Anderson movie, his doodling ingeniousness never quite taking flight. Part of the problem is that Martin, unlike Wright or Hedberg, has never couched his oblique takes on reality in the context of a memorable character. So while some of Martin’s oddball observational one-liners are solid (“Nearly 75 percent of all German shepherds are dogs”), they emerge from a persona so recessively earnest that their absurdist power is muted. A subtitle undercutting Martin’s meandering explanation of the inherent comic power of concision is a joke that nonetheless can’t obscure the fact that Martin is not a focused anecdote-spinner. And while the tale (of his wife’s quest for gluten-free toast) that ends the special has a solidly constructed denouement, Martin’s mid-stream reassurance, “The story picks up, I promise,” is, in his unobtrusive delivery, necessary.
There are tighter segments to The Overthinker, as when Martin picks up his guitar to accompany a song that’s basically a spoken-word litany of rapid-fire one-liners. (“Nearly one-half of all Americans are torsos” is another sly winner.) And Martin’s usual observational twists do strike gold here and there. A reversal of the tough guy cliché “I forgive, but I don’t forget” begets the stellar construction “I forget, but I don’t forgive. Who the hell are you, you son of a bitch?” Observational humor is largely made up of that sort of paradigm-shifting game-playing, but The Overthinker shows again that Martin’s brand of self-referential cleverness needs a more energetic and imaginative framework.