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Demetri Martin Confronts the Paradoxes of a Veteran Standup Career

A comedy career can be a tricky puzzle. You must evolve to stay relevant and interesting, but change too much and fans will revolt.

The prolific standup Demetri Martin, 50, has always had the mind of a puzzle-maker and a knack for paradox. A characteristic joke: “I am a man of my word: That word is unreliable.” In “Demetri Deconstructed” (Netflix), the inventive seventh special of what has become a major, joke-dense career, he seems to be answering a riddle: How does an eternally boyish alternative comedian mature into middle age?

Martin steers clear of common temptations like storytelling or culture war or revelation. He is now married with kids, but he’s not the kind of comic to tell jokes about parenting. After two decades, including three books and a movie, “Dean” (2016), he directed and starred in, we barely know him. The move he’s making with the new special is away from a lodestar: simplicity. His jokes always sought out absurdity in as few words as possible; the delivery was unvarnished and there was little physicality. His floppy hair and crisp bluejeans are so consistent that they have become a kind of uniform.

Embracing the increasingly cinematic aesthetic of stand-up specials, his new hour, which he directed and is actually closer to 50 minutes, takes his act and wraps it around an intricate high concept. The first step to this move was in his previous special, “The Overthinker” (2018), which was funnier, if less radical. The theme there was in the title, and he illustrated it through the formal device of occasional interruptions with narration that represented his inner voice.

In one bit, his narrator wondered what the cartoon sitting on an easel next to him onstage would like from the balcony, which led to a shot from farther back where you couldn’t make out the picture at all. This perspective shift was heady: It wouldn’t get a big laugh but made for a memorable critique of comedy in big rooms and a self-mocking joke about how not everyone would get him.

“Demetri Deconstructed” doubles down on such experiments. Instead of occasional intrusions of thought, the conceit here is that the special takes place entirely inside his mind, allowing for a more surreal visual language. A framing device has him hooked up to an EEG of sorts with a dubious doctor who wants him to imagine a comedy show. (Think “The Matrix” but for comedians.)

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