Friday, February 13, 2009

Demetri Martin's New Program Is a Bit Disappointing, But It's Much Better than "The CollegeHumor Show"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

With a bunch of new shows set to debut next month, I thought I'd dive into the world of basic cable to check out two new comedy offerings, "Important Things With Demetri Martin" (Comedy Central, first airings Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. Eastern) and "The CollegeHumor Show" (MTV, first airings Sundays at 9:30 p.m.).

Demetri Martin is, to my eyes and ears, one of the funniest stand-up comics working today. I have been lucky enough to see Martin perform around New York dating back to early in the decade, and it has been great to watch him develop his offbeat brand of observational humor. He's like a modern-day, downtown-hipster Steven Wright, with a killer deadpan delivery, but with Steve Martin's love of using music thrown in. (Two clips from Martin's last Comedy Central stand-up special, "Person," do a good job of demonstrating his very funny use of drawings and his use of music.) I'm not sure anyone mixes the silly and the smart any better than Martin does.

So it should not be surprising that I have been eagerly awaiting the debut of Martin's new series on Comedy Central. Alas, his talents don't seem to fit well into the format of the program, which mixes bits of stand-up with sketches and wacky interstitials, all built around a theme (in the premiere, "timing"). The stand-up segments, of course, were the strongest parts of the half-hour. Keeping close to his traditional modus operandi, Martin scored winners, including his comparison drawings (my favorites: a sunset or a bald guy behind a table, and how Christmas cookies can be eaten year-round, with an angel cookie becoming a "saggy hunchback" cookie), his charts (one tracked the ratio of age to urinating outside, with a big spike during the college years), and some nice wordplay around the subject of, of all things, Milli Vanilli.

Unfortunately, the sketches didn't live up to Martin's stand-up work. Amanda Peet was wasted in an extended riff on an actor who shows rage in-between takes, but can't muster the slightest bit of anger once the camera is rolling. A send-up of the shadowy De Beers diamond commercials started as a mild amuser, but then beat the concept into the ground until it was well past enough. Same for the footage of Martin, with wacky clothes and hair, dancing around New York City, with the on-screen super reading that he was a person way too early for a rave. In fact, running with a premise for far too long was the common thread of the non-stand-up material, ironic considering that onstage Martin's act consists almost entirely of short, clever one-liners.

Martin is an undeniably funny guy, and I will keep watching "Important Things With Demetri Martin." But I will be hoping the program's material starts to match the talent level of its star.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that I will ever watch "The CollegeHumor Show" again. In fact, the title of the show is an insult to universities and their students. I think the "JuniorHighScholHumor Show" would make for a far more accurate moniker. The premise of the program is that the actual staff of the real comedy Web site plays a fictionalized version of themselves. Think of it as a junior version of "The Office," only without the good writing and talented performers.

In tuning into a basic cable comedy show, I was not expecting "Thelma and Louise" level cinematography, set decoration on par with "The Dark Knight," and actors with the comic chops and chemistry of the cast of "30 Rock." But I was expecting minimal competence, and that expectation was not met. The show is so poorly shot and edited, it's hard to watch. It looks like a high school kid was given a $300 video camera and told to tape his buddies hanging out in an office.

The program just isn't funny. The debut episode was built around a rivalry between the site and a rival comedy Web outfit. One employee is lost to the opposing site, only to be hazed and mistreated. There is a subplot of one employee teaching two others to play beer pong that was lifted from the dodgeball training in "Dodgeball." Oh, and someone pees in a makeshift ball pit (don't ask) because, he says, it's just like being in a pool.

From time to time, a joke landed and had the chance of getting me to smile (laughter would be pushing it a bit), but since the cast had zero comic timing, even the decent jokes fell flat. The performers, every one of them, were downright amateurish. New York is filled with talented professional actors. The show should have hired some of them for this show.

The closest thing to a success was a faux rap music video (built around the concept of "awkward") that was mildly amusing. But like the rest of the program, the performances weren't up to par, and the whole concept was unoriginal. Andy Samberg and his crew at "Saturday Night Live" (and before that, Lonely Island) have been doing videos like this for years now, and they are superior in every way to what the "CollegeHumor" crowd put together.

"CollegeHumor" is just a mess, and it's not even a funny mess. Stick with Martin for your basic cable comedy. Where else can you see a guy operating a giant pad and playing a guitar, a keyboard, a tambourine and chimes all at the same time?