Mae Martin’s Sap Is a Warm Reappraisal of Our Messy Times

Comedy Features
Mae Martin’s Sap Is a Warm Reappraisal of Our Messy Times

In their 2017 stand-up special Dope, comedian Mae Martin likened addiction to an intemperate French-Canadian shrimp curled inside our brains, constantly dozing off and jolting awake, itching for pleasure when conscious. The slimy little Francophone is a hedonist and, as any addict will tell you, a light sleeper. “When your shrimp wakes up, it’s bad news,” said Martin. “He will eat the rest of your brain.”

Compulsions, in one way or another, have informed all of Martin’s work to date. Their past addictions (chiefly, narcotics and love) are the thematic underpinnings of their acclaimed Netflix series Feel Good, a semi-autobiographical account of Martin’s past relationship with a previously heterosexual woman. The series explores how shame shapes intimacy and how easily one addiction can be swapped out for another, with its second and final season reckoning with sexual abuse and misplaced love.

Feel Good fell into my lap at the right time, when seeing an unequivocally queer and flawed relationship had the power to rock my shit in more ways than one. I was suddenly kinder to myself and more forgiving to those who forgot to extend me that same kindness; I began to understand how abuse necessitates repression; I stopped fearing closure. My brain shrimp picked up night shifts.

It would be a gross disservice to relegate Martin to a “type” of comedy when their work is so intimate. But addiction and queerness are paramount to their storytelling, onstage, onscreen, and in print, as they also penned the 2019 novel Can Everyone Please Calm Down: A Guide to 21st Century Sexuality. As such, the comedian-writer-actor has accrued a decidedly queer following, the likes of which eagerly packed into Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall for their new show Sap.

With Sap, Martin launches into new material—the plight of being conceived doggy-style, snowglobe insignia, fabled moose encounters, and the non-binary potential of Beauty and the Beast’s Lumière are all highlights—as well as past anecdotes about daytime rehab and being a long-limbed pubescent. The show is thematically lighter than Martin’s past work, with the title’s double meaning of sticky, romantic sappiness and literal tree sap being plucked from a Buddhist parable about finding the good in impossibly bad circumstances.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Martin’s comedy hopeful; their humor seems to percolate best with anxieteens, but still see-saws between conceptualizing the future as a throbbing question mark and a kinder, remediable place. Even post-COVID, their approach doesn’t clamor onto isolation politics or doomism (“Well, well, look who’s inside again,” et cetera). Rather, it signals a turn toward something warmer, unmarred by present divisiveness though still clearly politically conscious.

Martin acknowledged the heft of trans and non-binary visibility which their job necessitates. Perhaps the most well-received portion of the show was dedicated to a spoken fantasy of Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais coming to terms with their own infantile politics, cosseting each other after realizing they’ve been wrong all along.

At another point during the show, an audience member cried out “I’m proud of you!” to which Martin briefly froze, seemingly trying to place the kind heckle as belonging to a former classmate or stranger. It didn’t matter much though, as the venue was buzzing with proud patrons, some peers, camp counselors, friends of Martin, and others like myself just happy to be there. It would be ugly and sentimental to say we were somehow all friends, but I hadn’t felt that kind of affection for strangers in a long time.

All the better, then, that Sap wasn’t simply a fine show, but a warm reprieve from the exhaustive COVID comedy cycles and transphobia peddled by allegedly respectable comics. The show represents a maturation in Martin’s work, less about curbing addictive behaviors than recasting one’s gaze entirely. As they’ll tell you, the sap we’re searching for—those things which make our insides glow—is everywhere, if you’re not beyond feeling for it.

Saffron Maeve is a Toronto-based writer and critic who once had to be talked out of getting a Sy Ableman tattoo. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, MUBI Notebook, Screen Slate, and Girls on Tops, among other corners of the internet. You can unfortunately find her on Twitter.

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