This Is a Book

This Is a Book BY Demetri Martin. Grand Central Publishing. Hardcover, 288 pages. $24.

The cover of This Is a Book

New York alt-comedy darling Demetri Martin's smart, straightforward sensibility and affirmative, PG-rated humor have recently earned him wider audiences as a correspondent for The Daily Show and as the star of Comedy Central's Important Things with Demetri Martin. The whimsical wordsmith peppers much of This Is a Book, his debut collection of essays, stories, diagrams, and more, with wry references to romantic misfires, including the self-awarded "Nobel prize for chemistry with very cute women who turn out to already have boyfriends." It's tough out there, but no matter: The comedian has already found true love in the glorious ins and outs of the English language.

Martin's trademark is to carefully observe, and subsequently distort, our everyday manner of speaking, and in this way he simultaneously jabs at and makes paeans to the basic elements of human communication. As an author, he aims his scrutiny at our most oft-uttered vocabulary and turns of phrases. A droll statistics section, formatted in Harper's Index–like fashion, includes the clever paraprosdokian "Nearly 1/2 of all people in the United States are torsos." Conjuring images of floating, truncated bodies, the quip's visual trigger segues neatly into an impressive set of drawings, which, unsurprisingly, also toy with basic terminology and speech. A caption to an illustration of a young steed, its mane projecting awkwardly upward, reads, "Pony with 2nd Ponytail." In another instance, a diagram monitors the "growth" of the letter r as it moves from lower- to uppercase, including the gangly "awkward teenage stage" in between.

Like live comedy performance, This Is a Book relies on good timing both within and among its sections. In a portion devoted to "Palindromes for Specific Occasions," a thirty-two-line palindromic poem about a psychotic mailman (more impressive than actually humorous) is immediately followed by the short and sweet "A thing that all people long for when they are born, that some people will pay money to enhance when they are older, and that other people will never fail to notice when it is jiggled in front of them: Boob." We are back to third grade here, and we're OK with that. The laughter Martin provokes is twofold: first at the joke's punch line, then at ourselves for having laughed in the first place.

Demetri Martin.
Demetri Martin.

Fittingly, one section of the book is devoted to something called "The Word Awards," a nerdy opportunity for even more linguistic send-ups and shout-outs: "The Award for the Word Used the Most Frequently When It Is Not Actually Justified went to AWESOME, which narrowly beat out GENIUS. Many were disappointed that LITERALLY was not nominated, literally." Another good one: "ALBEIT won the award for the word least likely to appear in a tattoo." And my favorite: "Your and you're performed a short comedy routine about just how stupid people on social networking sites are. Yore, who is famously reclusive, delighted the assembled crowd with a surprise cameo during the routine." Martin offers readers a gratifying sense of insiderism without a whiff of negativity; he makes fun of those like himself who care deeply about spelling and good grammar, as much as those who do not.

Still fresh-faced, Martin is already a master of short-form comedy: He shines in staccatos. Although the book features several impressive longer pieces, including "Sheila," the story of a dead woman who falls in love with a man who lives on earth, and their subsequent relationship woes, and "We're Pregnant," an essay about an expectant couple's affected misuse of pronouns, much of the lengthier prose hits the same notes over and over again. Overall, this collection is best suited to being left around the house in conspicuous places and read sporadically, in bits. Luckily, This Is a Book has a lovely cover.