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Demetri Martin's New Show: A Seriously "Important Thing"

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NEW YORK — No one would dispute the importance of things like Power, Safety or Chairs. But to build a half-hour of comedy around any of them _ that's a whole other thing.

All the more reason for Demetri Martin to be doing it. As he proves anew in "Important Things With Demetri Martin," this important rising comic has a gift for the shrewd but daydreamy. His material tingles with random micro-truths, each observation a dotty shared discovery with his audience.

He's a guy who saw a sign on a door that said: THIS DOOR MUST REMAIN CLOSED AT ALL TIMES. "And I was like, 'Dude! You're thinking of a WALL!'"

Or, in this hurry-up world, he envisions a One-Hour Photo shop put out of business by a 59-Minute Photo shop.

At the launch of Martin's seven-week series (Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. EST on Comedy Central), his chosen important thing is Timing.

"Hey, timing is everything," he says, then allows, "That's a cliche _ now. But if I said that a long time ago, I would have been really original."

In one of the episode's sketches, he plays an actor afflicted with poor timing as he tries to film a drama. In another, "Time Gigolo," he's a janitor-on-the-make who uses a time machine to hit on women from the past.

Each edition of "Important Things" has interstitial comic sequences, animation and Martin doing his standup before a studio audience. Sometimes, he accompanies himself on one or more musical instruments, or with his whimsical drawings on a flip chart that stands beside him. (A single pen stroke is labeled: "Unfinished Drawing of Porcupine.")

In performance, the 35-year-old Martin projects a boyish but assured air, a Beatle-y haircut and large brown eyes that seem full of wonder.

He's not so much different during a recent interview, even absent his signature jeans-and-T-shirt combo on this raw snowy day.

He's about to wrap postproduction on "Important Things." It's been a long haul. There were interruptions by the writers strike a year ago and then, a few months later, for his starring role in the Ang Lee comedy "Taking Woodstock" (due for release this summer).

Along the way, he and his creative team were playing trial and error with the series' many elements, which eventually inspired the Important Things format.

"It forces you to say, 'Now, what is that joke about? What category could you assign it to?' You start seeing something coagulate around the idea. Or it might fuel a cool idea for something else."

Martin used to be a staff writer for "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." He began his occasional "Trendspotting" feature on "The Daily Show" in 2006 and a year later scored the Comedy Central standup special, "Demetri Martin. Person."

This was all quite a departure from his original career track. But soon after enrolling with certainty (and on full scholarship) at New York University School of Law, he was racked with doubt.

"So I began reading the Transcendentalists _ Emerson and Thoreau and all this stuff. It led me to the idea of having a calling: 'What would I do if I didn't have to worry about money or status or disappointing anybody?' And the answer was: 'Well, I like joking around.'"

But there was more to the answer than that, which helps explain what sets Martin apart. A fan of standup comic Steven Wright and cartoonist Gary Larson, he says his favorite comedy "seems like art to me. Not in a pretentious way, but there's an aesthetic to it. I approach comedy that way, kind of make it an art-thing, you know?"

A one-time high school student council president and the son of a Greek Orthodox priest, New Jersey native Martin grew up comfortable in front of people.

"I don't need all the attention, but once I'm up there, I like it," he says. But he hastens to add that the main part of his job (and the part he savors) isn't telling jokes for an audience, but recognizing comedy as it unfolds before him in real life, then puzzling out how it might be reconfigured for his audience.

Just days earlier, he had had a private real-world moment: the awkward, startling instant when your buttocks happen to graze someone else's in a crowded space such as a subway car. He wrote a hasty memo to himself (still visible, though faded, on his hand). It says: "Cheeks."

Just how, or if, such a thing might find its way into performance is yet to be seen, but Martin has already found his pleasure in the joke.

"By the time I tell it to an audience, I hope I've worded it correctly and its presentation is something people can relate to _ and that I get a laugh," he says. "But by then, the primary creative act is over. I already had the encounter, in the daydream of just walking around and seeing jokes in the world."

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Comedy Central is owned by Viacom.

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On the Net:

http://www.comedycentral.com

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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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