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One Line At A Time

Comedic wordsmith Demetri Martin's affinity for writing one-liners will entertain at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse on Friday.

by Chuck king
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FORT LAUDERDALE – The pleasure Demetri Martin derives from a joke-driven life lies, unexpectedly, within something as mundane as a process.

It’s the writing of a good joke – the creative process – that’s fueled a quarter-century career in comedy.

“For a long time it was sort of my favorite part of being a comic. It might still be,” Martin said. “I just like the daydreaming and sort of catching jokes, pulling them out of the air.”

The writing process captivates Martin. It’s what drew him to stand-up, and contributed to him stepping away from law school to pursue a career making people laugh rather than, potentially, cry.

Martin is the modern master of what has surreptitiously become a casualty of modern comedy – the one-liner. Within Martin’s subset of stand-up, each joke has to stand naked on it’s own and be judged.

“One-liners is like, live or die,” Martin said. “In that sense it’s a tightrope, I’d say, with the one-liners.”

Far from the prototypical high wire act, Martin isn’t flashy – either in everyday conversation or on stage. His delivery is, at its most energetic, deliberate and precise. But it’s not devoid of style, or showmanship.

In its purest form, stand-up comedy is minimalistic, involving a comic, a microphone, some form of amplification and an audience. Martin, a Yale graduate, isn’t afraid to incorporate elements like drawings or guitar play into a set, keeping an audience off balance.

Following a path blazed by “The King of the One Liners,” Henny Youngman, Martin’s often compared to Mitch Hedberg. But he is most flattered when likened to Steven Wright, who’s dry delivery and offbeat ruminations enthrall audiences by keeping them off balance.

Martin isn’t a baseball fan – growing up in a Mets household may go a long way to explaining that – but he’d certainly appreciate being compared with cerebral Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux as opposed to fireballing Met Jacob deGrom.

“When it works, often it can be like a slow pitch,” said Martin, describing both his and Wright’s delivery. “I’m not really throwing fastballs even, I’m just throwing the pitch and if you don’t see how it’s going to curve, it’s still interesting. I think there’s something satisfying when it’s like, I can still sort of get away with it.”

A former staff writer for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and regular on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Martin has three stand-up comedy albums and four hour-long stand-up comedy specials, including “The Overthinker.” Martin created and starred in his own television series for Comedy Central, and his books, “This Is a Book” and “Point Your Face at This,” are New York Times Best Sellers.

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Succinct writing – perhaps what drew him to law school, perhaps a product of that interest – is the heartbeat of Martin’s projects.

“It’s probably why I’m still interested in writing jokes 25 years into this because it’s still challenging – especially if you add certain constraints like, Hey, I want to write jokes that are less than 10 words,” Martin said. “How’s that going to work? What can I come up with?”

Once Martin is pleased with a collection of jokes, he’ll perform them in local comedy clubs near his Los Angeles-area home and let audience response dictate their fate.

“It’s like a tournament or something – they all have a chance to advance or they die,” Martin said.

When enough jokes survive the cut, Martin is ready for the road. And Martin is once again ready.

Touring for the first time since the pandemic’s onset, Martin brings those tournament winners – top seeds, underdogs and Cinderellas – to Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse on Friday. Like most nights he’ll take the stage with a set list, but if he has an untested joke, he’ll insert it at opportune points. He’s strategic about the placement of such jokes, respecting the power of three.

“I have found that if I do three bad jokes in a row, then I’m in trouble,” Martin said. “I feel like I can get one or two [bad jokes] and the audience will stay with me. They’ll be like, ‘OK, we still believe in you.’ Once they get to three or four, there’s a problem. They are like, ‘What happened? I thought he was funny? What’s going on here?’”

Packed with one-liners, Martin’s show elicits laughs without getting overly personal.

“When I started, I do think joke telling was a little more in style,” Martin said. “I think there are still joke tellers. I’m one of them. I don’t think it’s gone or anything. But with the rise of podcasts and social media, it’s just like a lot of people talking about themselves – which is fine. If it’s funny, great. It’s just not my sort of default – to go up there and be like, here are stories about myself.”

Though unlikely to ever turn his entire set into story time, Martin is sharing more personal stories with his audience. He’s also experimenting with more crowd work and audience interaction. Essentially, he’s incorporating the writing process on the fly.

“To do stuff that’s not so planned and be a little more spontaneous on stage, if I can do that and it works, it’s a challenge and it’s satisfying,” Martin said. “I like that.”

Martin’s Friday show at the Lillian S. Wells Hall within the Parker Theater begins at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $27.50 to $47.50.

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