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Demetri Martin: Gen X Prince of Stand-Up
February 1, 2010, 1:46 pm
Filed under: comedy | Tags: , , , , , ,

Demetri Martin is unique in the history of stand-up comedy today. He’s like the antithesis of 80s comedian Sam Kinison — that overweight, repulsive, cokehead screamer. Sammy K was a man’s-man stand-up comedian; someone who conveyed with his rage and purple-faced delivery his unhappiness with the world and everyone in it. Ready to have his stomach split open and his guts splash out onto the stage, he made stand-up look like the hard, drug- and alcohol-driven job it truly is.

If Sam Kinison was some kind of 80s Thersites — the foul-mouthed, humanity-hating slave to society — then Demetri Martin is our modern-day Paris: a lover, not a hater, the shiny-eyed, self-effacing dude who plays his guitar softly, making jokes that zing but land softly in a nimbus cloud of post-hippie ethos.

Demetri Martin

His first comedy special, in 2007, features a finale that was more fantasy than wit-cracking crescendo — the comedy coming from the tension created by breaking convention with what comedians do and don’t do. He plays out on his guitar a little tune while a forest setting shows the imaginary space in his mind, what he calls “the place where my jokes come from”: a place where elves romp along side jokes and his mother and grandmother appear.

It’s easy to appreciate the originality and sheer fucking whimsy that Martin’s palate-cleansing material provides in a post-9/11 world. Martin’s comedy has a very positive appeal in relation to the oh-so-tired racial, gender, and ‘ya know what I hate?’ stereotypical humor of his brethren. He shows us that comedy can leave the confining corral of convention and wander free, grazing in new pastures along the way.

Though Martin’s comedy brand may have soft-approach precedents (Kaufman’s wide eyed innocence, Seinfeld’s persnickety over-preciseness), Martin’s comedy can be seen as equally influenced by first-gen female stand-up comedians: the quirky, off-beat, shiny-happy thing going in the manner of DeGeneres or Silverman and their more underhanded and, at least in DeGeneres’ case, self-deprecating approach to satire.

Yet I would argue that, regardless of precedent, his comedy stands apart from others, whether because of his shtick usage of props — the guitar, harmonica, easel and basic etch-a-sketch visuals — or because his comedy in its purist form seems to come from a place of whimsical modesty. As such, he’s a DIY comedian for our generation and this age, his early Beatles haircut and circa 1979 clothing reflecting the not-really-aging gen-X ‘n Y-ers, an anxious yet peaceful people getting crafty: types, joining their local organic CSA; an iPod-loving, Facebook-addicted folk who want to laugh at different things from previous generations. Martin hears our call.

But can Martin appreciate his own maverick sensibility? Here’s one problem he may be facing: live stand-up comedy often plays in venues like colleges or bars, where comedians perform to young, male-dominated audiences. If we look at the standards of behavior that are imposed upon young men through the media and conservative social standards, we can see that ye olde behaviors (acting tough, getting girls, having lots of muscles, putting down vulnerable behaviors like crying as being pussy or ‘gay,’ etc.) still rule a lot of the young men from the heartland. Young guys like these, indoctrinated in this heteronormative code of masculine behavior, just aren’t going to get, albeit like, Martin’s jokes, which, early on, were almost painfully self-deprecating in their treatment of his insecurity about his masculinity — see this clip from 2004:

While much of his audience is going with him, these immature youths, let’s be honest, probably aren’t — simply because they aren’t going to experience the same kind of kick they get from seeing someone who talks about troubles with pussy all night, a la Dane Cook.

In fact, Demetri Martin’s comedic axe often lands by poking fun at guys who are a little too involved in trying to conform to these male codes of behavior. Which is why I think we can see an evolution in Martin’s comedy today. If we look at his more recent performances, we see the incorporation of more standard gender joke craft and attendant homophobia, as in this clip from 2008:

This is somewhat disappointing. On the other hand, once he’s gotten the young heteros on his side, he can then launch his other masculine-stereotype-deflating jokes in a more widely effective stealth attack.

Certainly, despite Martin moving into film with 2009’s Taking Woodstock, movie reviewers aren’t getting his type of new masculinity. The NY Times was genuinely mean about him in their review — their critique based not so much on his acting presence as on the critic’s frustration at how Taking Woodstock thwarted his expectations by presenting neither a gay coming-of-age story nor the stereotypical ending of the heteromasculine coming-of-age movie — landing the perfect (i.e., compliant, self-effacing) girl or getting a justly deserved orgy. No, Taking Woodstock wandered the grey areas of sexuality, and critics were put off by that.

But what can we expect from a movie industry that takes a new generation’s approach to male gender — in which men are sensitive, fumbling, vulnerable — and slaps it with a degrading ‘mumblecore’ label? While overwhelming fame is coming slowly to Demetri Martin, it is coming — but will it stay? We’ve seen other young men like Michael Cera (Juno) and Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) wander that cute-sensitive-funny-smart realm; but Heder is still seen as novelty, his legitimacy as a genuinely desirable romantic or sexual object generally mocked, and Cera may soon be too old to be cute, his endearingly adolescent sensibility easily trumped by the Matthew McConaugheys of the romcom world.

It may be a matter of waiting for the film industry to play catch-up with the nation’s youth and get a clue about Demetri Martin’s potential as actor and comedian, but slowly, over time, recognition will emerge. And without the destructive forces at play that seemed a prerequisite for success in the world of old-school masculinity that cut short the health and lives of Kinison and Richard Pryor, et. al., Demetri Martin will be around and healthy enough to savor that recognition when it comes.

7 Comments so far
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i think this perspective on demetri martin’s alternative masculinity is particularly interesting in light of katie roiphe’s recent nytimes essay, in which she skewers the new emo-dude sexuality, essentially calling dave eggers and david foster wallace pussies, and celebrates what she sees as a more primal version of mansex a la Updike, Roth et al. stinks that heteronormative masculinity is still valued so highly despite the misogyny and homophobia that generally comes wrapped up in it; and what is the value in hierarchizing male sexuality in this way in the first place? doesn’t she realize that updike and roth’s versions are far from absent? the authors themselves still retain the cultural capital that they used to – and moreover, the ‘pussies’ of the man world have hardly ‘won’ – if we must think of it in terms of competition. ok gotta go-

Comment by megan m

Roiphe herself is incapable of taking any stance except a deliberately provocative anti-pc stance that she uses to try and get published, fame-seeking whore that she is. Meanwhile, masculinity is not a one-size-fits-all suit. Much of the stress on men measuring up to this stereotypical manly suit leads to a severe douche-bag syndrome seen and felt all across our vast nation. How can the feminist movement ever hope to bash the false boundaries of gender norms if men are not allowed to do the same thing?


Comment by Emo-Dude

hmm — your comment got cut off, it appears.
i am in accord here, totally – i’m generally not a fan of any of roiphe’s work – up until you get to the part about the feminist movement – it seems like you are implying that the feminist movement is AGAINST allowing men to bash “the false boundaries of gender norms” – which i don’t think is true in the least. but perhaps i’m misunderstanding your comment?

Comment by mildred pierce

and ‘fame-seeking whore’ seems a bit much, no?

Comment by mildred pierce

I’m implying that women can’t change how we regard women in society without letting society ALSO change how we regard men. It’s very common for young women in college today to insist that a) there isn’t any sexism anymore, and b) that they hate guys who cry. Until they get over their repulsion for emotionally expressive men, there will be sexism. (I mean, not to mention ALL the other problems of sexism in society that still rear their ugly heads here and there.)

And yes, fame-seeking whore is what I really meant. The only consistency in her point of view is to attack someone else’s point of view–provided that person just received notice in some highly public forum. Her reflexive provocativeness seems rote, and therefore smacks of insincerity to me.

How does she do this? Roiphe is a one trick pony, who only has to get a whiff of some new progressive spirit in the air before she starts to poke and prod at our insecurities about this potential change. No one else has quite her singular narrow talent for tapping on the vulnerable nerve of left-leaning individuals.

Comment by Emo-Dude

i think launching this critique at young women in college today is pretty unfair – that’s one symptom of a much larger problem.
maybe the broader question is whether “feminism” is or even should be equipped to de/reconstruct masculinities? maybe what we need here is a venn diagram of mutually overlapping political projects.
i find it tremendously contradictory (and detrimentally so in relation to the perceived strength of your arguments) for you to be discussing sexism while calling someone a ‘whore,’ a deeply gendered word that’s been used historically to degrade an entire professional class, not to mention ‘promiscuous’ women more generally.

Comment by megan m

I don’t know. You’re probably right. I did mean to use the term in a gender-neutral fashion, because haven’t we progressed to the point yet where we think of men as being sluts and whores too — esp. in terms of the professional classes? For example: He’s just whoring himself out working for Monsanto. ?
He’s a TV slut when it comes to watching back to back episodes of Two And A Half Men.

Yet I acknowledge that this is still using terms to indicate something slur-rish about sex workers, and that’s a bad thing.

You tell me then, what term, may I ask, should I use to indicate that someone is behaving in a sub-professional manner for their own gain at the expense of intellectual authenticity? Some phrase that will also connote the contempt I feel for being intellectually inauthentic?

Comment by Emo-Dude

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