Demetri Martin and the obsessively examined life

The pieces of media I wrote about in my last two enthusiasm posts, Owl City’s Ocean Eyes and the movie Hoot, are at least reasonably well-known even if most people are apathetic about them. But when I ask people about the subject of today’s post, Demetri Martin’s stand-up set If I, almost nobody has heard of it. To me, this performance is the pinnacle of the philosophical comedy genre I wrote about a while back in a post about DC Pierson. It’s a comedy show, as Demetri Martin is nominally a comedian, but it provides more introspection than laugher and that’s not a bad thing in this case.

Demetri opens the performance with this gem: “The unexamined life is not worth living. Socrates said that. I would just add one thing – man. The unexamined life is not worth living, man!” This is the tone of the show distilled. It’s obsessive self-analysis and urgent soul-searching, softened by deadpan humor. It rules.

Throughout the course of the 50-minute set, Demetri examines five definitions of the word “if” and how each of them has played a role in his life. The show is about aimlessness amidst infinite possibility, and about a bizarre interplay of internal and external motivations. In one of my favorite parts of the set, Demetri recaps his time in law school and explains that as he noticed himself becoming disconnected from the material taught in class, he turned inward for motivation. He and his classmates created “word of the day,” a game to see who could first manage to squeeze a predetermined word into their answer during class. This strange ritual refocused Demetri on his coursework, but instead of studying so he could become a good lawyer, he was studying so that he could plausibly inset the word “cupcake” into a verbal response in class.

Demetri left law school before his last year, realizing that the only thing pushing him through was the mental challenge of games like “word of the day.” He had no desire to actually practice law, and he recognized that and bailed. Demetri ends the bit with a joke, sort of: “Sort of is a harmless thing to say…sort of. It’s just filler, it doesn’t really mean anything. But after certain things, sort of means everything. Like after ‘I love you,’ or ‘you’re going to live!’ What I’m trying to say is I went to law school….sort of.”

This resonates with me in a disquieting way. I think of myself as a generalist, a person with a lot of hobbies and interests, but I’m not great at anything. All my life I’ve told myself that I’d rather be decent at many things than great at any one thing. But what if I only think this as a defense mechanism? What if I throw all my effort and time behind one thing, and then I’m still not very good at it? Maybe this mental framework is a subconscious strategy to insulate me from failure. What if I’m only doing my best…sort of?

In another bit, Demetri standardizes self-improvement and applies a set of external rules to his internal machinations. He creates a point system of things to do each week, things like “eat 3 fruits a day” and “help someone solve a problem.” This list is supposed to be a way to quantify improvement, but Demetri finds that it’s futile. The checklist motivates him to do good things only so that he can cross of an item on a list, and this removal of intent cancels out of lot of the good he was trying to do. Just like “word of the day” at law school.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never done this in some form. I struggle without external motivators as indications of internal progress. In college, I had tests and projects, convenient checkpoints that I could look at and say either “I’ve improved” or “I need to do better.” After college, I had architectural licensing exams that provided the same framework for self-improvement and learning. But now that I’ve cleared all those checkpoints, I’m a bit rudderless. I need to impose my own form of measurement so that I have something to strive towards, but I’m not sure how to come up with a system that works. I know I can’t run back a weekly checklist; it didn’t work for me the first time and it didn’t work for Demetri (even writing out the term “weekly checklist” seems colossally stupid).

Demetri’s craft throughout the show is fantastic. Like Aziz Ansari or Norm MacDonald, he chooses every word carefully, and sometimes you don’t realize how carefully until the story is over and it all comes together. Near the end of the set, he brings us to the fourth definition of the word “if”: “used to introduce an exclamatory clause, indicating a wish. If I could just figure out my life – that’s the point I’m getting to. That was the big question. I realized I don’t want to be some guy who has no purpose.” It’s personal for stand-up comedy. Comics often mine failed relationships and failed career ventures for material, but those bits are rarely as introspective and as open-ended as If I. There isn’t really a conclusion to the show – Demetri says that “I” is a sum of life’s “ifs,” and while there were many “ifs” that led to your current version of “I,” there are many more to come and several distinct “Is” available in the future.

If I is great because Demetri’s perspective and his handling of the subject matter are truly unique. If I doesn’t pretend to have all the answers – it’s about the thoroughly examined life, not the fully actualized one. Demetri knows that retreat into his own mind won’t provide purpose or a road map for life, but he can’t help trying – it’s his nature, it’s what he’s always done, and it’s what he’s good at. This show resonates with me so much because in every moment of indecision or doubt, my instinct is also to analyze my own thoughts and hope that the next step will reveal itself. More often than not, it’s fruitless, but it’s such a part of who I am that not to do so would feel dishonest.

Because of that, If I is both a challenge and a comfort. If you’re like Demetri and you think that the unexamined life is not worth living, man, If I is for you. It dares us to do better, but it tells us that our instincts are valuable. It’s fantastic, and it’s one-of-a-kind.

You can, and should, watch the set here.

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