- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2011

By Demetri Martin
Grand Central, $24.99, 288 pages

The question “This Is a Book” hoped to answer was not whether comedian Demetri Martin is funny. Anyone who has ever seen his stand-up routines on the short-lived Comedy Central show “Important Things With Demetri Martin” knows Mr. Martin is easily able to bring laughs. What fans were wondering was whether this humor could translate to the written word. “This Is a Book,” Mr. Martin’s first foray into writing, is able to transition quite successfully while hitting only a few bumps along the way.

The book overall is precisely what Mr. Martin describes it as - a grab bag of one-liners, stories and cartoons. Mr. Martin arrives in the publishing world with ease, bringing Twitteresque quips (“4 out of 5 dentists who chew gum also have a small ponytail and an earring”) and his signature cartoons along for the ride. The book alternates between short chapters, sketches and random humor in forms like poetry and lists. The happy-go-lucky nature of the book can leave the reader’s head spinning, as the author abruptly switches from story to drawing to poem to story with no overlying theme or reason, but Mr. Martin manages to keep the reader entertained even with the somewhat bumpy flow.

Mr. Martin truly shines in his two- to three-page prose pieces, which read like stand-up routines written down. He manages to poke fun at aspects of culture without seriously commenting on them, thereby avoiding the all-too-common pitfall of comedians who double as philosophers. This is particularly shown in “We’re Pregnant,” in which the tone goes from gleeful (“We’re 12 weeks already. We’re so excited!”) to indignant (“We’re craving certain foods, which is fine. But foods that we know one of us is allergic to? And then eating those foods right in front of us?”) to tired (“We’re not sure if the sonogram technician was flirting with us, but we’re definitely going to have a fight about it tonight”) mirroring the attitudes of those expectant couples we all love to hate.

Mr. Martin is also skilled at creating humorous lists that translate well to the page. This, combined with his skill for making fun of himself, creates a hilarious list titled “Honors & Awards (for Which I Would Qualify),” which notes things such as “Gold medalist in sucking at each and every sport that could make someone popular in high school” and “A scholarship awarded to Greek Americans who have done very little for the Greek American community but definitely look Greek American, no matter what outfit they are wearing.” Others guaranteed to entice Mr. Martin’s fans include lists of a cappella group freak accidents and a slightly sadistic month-by-month detail of a calendar for cat haters.

However, a handful of Mr. Martin’s pieces fall flat without his boyish good looks and quirky tone of voice. A prose piece about a man falling in love with a ghost simply makes the reader feel awkward and uncertain of where to laugh. A chapter about a bugle player’s upcoming performance is too dense but probably would have been funny read aloud. A small but substantial chunk of the book merely illustrates that what does well in stand-up often has a hard time converting to the written word.

Mr. Martin’s drawings also lack shine without his perfectly awkward explanations. They simply resemble the sketches of a somewhat artistic 7-year-old with a big imagination, something interesting to look at but not exactly something you remember for more than a minute or so. However, they probably will be welcomed by his most devoted fans, who enjoy his well-known art style.

In contrast, some humorous moments in “This Is a Book” excel. Mr. Martin loves finding jokes in words as he composes an entire conversation written in abbreviations, a poem that doubles as an enormous palindrome and a crossword puzzle filled entirely with the letter A. Jokes even are found in the introduction, which is written as a stand-up opener. (“Please refrain from smoking during the show. Anyone who is caught smoking will be shot with our meat gun.”) A few mostly blank pages bear one-liners such as “Thanks for buying this book” and “This page unintentionally left blank.”

Mr. Martin’s attempt to cross over to the written word is mostly smooth. His ability to produce terrific one-liners serves him well even as he is slightly hindered without his usual physical fallbacks. But “This Is a Book,” which ends with a prose piece on Mr. Martin’s difficulty with goodbyes and a quick “What’s that behind you?” is an entertaining piece of comedy that will make even the most solemn readers laugh. It guarantees Mr. Martin a place in the world of comic literature.

Claire Courchane is an intern on the national desk at The Washington Times.

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