Something about Demetri Martin’s comedy seems almost compulsive. The guy is absolutely funny — and has been for a while now — but the way puns and one-liners seem to tumble fully-formed out of his brain is remarkable bordering on worrisome. It’s reminiscent of a little-known neurological syndrome known as witzelsucht, a condition with a name borrowed from the German words for “wisecrack addiction” and characterized by an uncontrollable tendency to make puns and joke constantly. If Martin did suffer from the condition (he likely doesn’t, and never trust an armchair diagnosis) he’d be unique only in that he’s actually funny.
Martin has built an entire stand-up career on visual puns and clever one-liners like these: “The easiest time to add insult to injury is when you’re signing somebody’s cast,” or “What do you call someone who can’t tell the difference between a spoon and a ladle? Fat.” To be fair, we don’t know whether he’s like this offstage. But his onstage persona, a swoop-haired ball of energy, is eerily similar to the permanent persona of a compulsive comedian that University of California, Los Angeles researchers described in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences earlier this year. One patient showed up with over 50 pages of jokes he’d written down at the request of his wife, who was sick of waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of his uncontrollable laughter as he begged to tell her jokes: “What did the proctologist say to his therapist? All day long I am dealing with assholes.” “What is a pill-popping sexual molester guilty of? Rape and pillage.”
The fact that Martin can elicit a few chuckles and has generally achieved success as a comedian probably rules out an actual pathology here. Several overarching patterns jump out of the research on people with witzelsucht, but the most obvious is that their jokes are straight-up bad; one 2005 Taiwanese research paper actually includes this characteristic in its definition, calling witzelsucht the “tendency to tell inappropriate and poor jokes.” It’s a fitting description for the behavior of the other compulsive jokester described by the UCLA scientists, who was fired from his job for blurting out, “Who the hell chose this God-awful place?” Additionally, pathological jokesters tend to have a taste for highly sexual or scatological humor — hence, the proctology quip — which points to the actual root of witzelsucht: Brain damage.
Originally known as Foerster’s Syndrome, witzelsucht was first described by a famous eastern European neurosurgeon named Otfrid Foerster in 1929. The surgeon, who had pioneered the use of local anaesthetics to let him operate on the brain while his patients remained conscious, was attempting to remove a patient’s tumor, which had grown near the part of the brain that influences fear. The man was awake, face down on the operating table with his skull wide open when Foerster probed his tumor and he suddenly burst into a string of puns in Latin, Greek, German, and Hebrew; one author, writing about the morbid events, described it as “a gruesome kind of humor.”
Today, researchers point to damage in the frontal lobe of the brain as the main cause of witzelsucht. The UCLA researchers suggest it’s a combination of damage to the right lateral frontal lobe, which impairs humor, with injury to the orbitofrontal cortex, which causes disinhibition, that results in the endless stream of bad jokes referred to as “disinhibited humor.”
While he probably doesn’t actually have brain damage, Martin’s ability to spout puns and one-liners is still pretty uncanny. And you’ve got to give him credit for turning his unique brain patterns into a respectable career, like fellow punny comics Steven Wright and the late Mitch Hedberg, especially given comedy’s generally pun-averse climate. The dude is funny — at least, most of the time. Like Foerster’s original patient, it helps to keep an open mind.