Mae Martin’s First Solo Netflix Special Is Rooted in Improv, Therapy, and Pushing Back

Comedy Features Mae Martin
Mae Martin’s First Solo Netflix Special Is Rooted in Improv, Therapy, and Pushing Back

Ask Millennials for a comedian that is speaking to their times and Mae Martin is going to come up. The non-binary comedian began working the Toronto, Canada stand-up comedy circuit at the tender age of 11-years-old. An outlet for their rebellious impulses, the scene also led them to a drug addiction that took a decade to overcome. Firmly on the other side of that period of their life, Martin has since used those experiences to create a BBC Radio 4 series, Mae Martin’s Guide to 21st Century Addiction, and the successful, semi-autobiographical Channel 4/Netflix series, Feel Good. But stand-up has remained a constant through it all as reflected in their first solo, one-hour comedy special for Netflix, SAP. 

Paste got on a call with Martin to discuss how this show reflects their musings on post-pandemic life, working with Abbi Jacobson, and the need to address other comedians punching down on LGBTQ communities.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Paste Magazine: You’ve been doing stand-up since you were a teen and had great success with your Netflix series Feel Good, so how did that impact the framing of your first one-hour, solo stand-up special?

Mae Martin: I think I could so easily get too in my head about it. I’m aware of that starting to happen and feeling like I was editing myself more than I used to. It just felt like there was a little bit more scrutiny, or something. After the second season of Feel Good came out, I started doing improv again. Then I was touring around the UK just doing an improvised stand-up show, improvising with friends. I found that really helpful because it gets you out of your head and you have to not be as cerebral. You just have to be dumb and clownish. It really reminded me why I started doing comedy to begin with, so that was really fun. The show kind of evolved from that and a feeling of fragmentation and chaos in the world after the pandemic. Just a sense of confusion, that we have so much information available to us and we can really see how flawed the systems are that we operate in. It was kind of like, how do we deal with that and keep going? So that was where it came from.

Paste: You said in recent interviews that you are thriving at age 35. Some comedians need conflict to tell stories and are afraid of feeling happy as it might dull their act. Has contentment ever been that kind of a creative concern?

Martin: Well, I think maybe in my 20s I really bought into that idea that you have to be tortured to be creatively productive. And the truth is, I’m never as productive when I’m miserable. I hope that I’m over that. I feel totally inspired and galvanized and energized. I hope that continues because it’s not like I’m euphoric. It’s just that there’s this sort of discomfort that is gone, that was there before I figured some stuff out. 

Paste: You talk about loving doing improv shows. Was there ever a version of this special that was in that format?

Martin: I would love to do an improvised comedy special at some point. But, no, this was more that there was material generated through the improv and audience questions. That’s always interesting and helpful because you get a sense of what people want to hear you talk about. But in general, I love improv. I think it loosened me up. It made me less precious about things and sillier.

Paste: With the audience questions, was there ever a discordance in that feedback of what they wanted you to talk about in the show?

Martin: I guess it’s a mix. Sometimes in live shows, I get people who come in primed with, “What’s your trauma? Let’s hear it.” They want that experience because maybe they have seen me in another medium and so they’re not necessarily stand-up fans, so that’s interesting. But no, you gotta just do what feels good. So I think it became a nice blend of more personal stuff with more outward facing stuff. Improv is a good way to do that.

Paste: You toured with SAP and I’m curious when that title made itself known to you?

Martin: Titles are really hard. I knew I wanted to tell that anecdote that comes at the end of the show because I’ve always loved that story. It started to feel like there was a running thread in the show about optimism and pessimism and how we keep going in a world that’s so palpably twisted up. I was just trying to think about if we reframe the lens that we’re viewing everything through, there is actually a lot of positive and great stuff happening outside of this negative feedback loop that we’re all stuck in.

Paste: You are now in therapy and talk about it in the show. How do you balance sharing the things that come up in that process as part of your act and not oversharing to your detriment?

Martin: I think for years I sort of thought comedy was therapy. And it’s so not. You might be feeling like you’re working through stuff and talking about it, but I didn’t anticipate how useful it is having someone to bounce things off who is qualified. My main thing is trying to keep my therapy so separate from the narrative stuff I tell about my life on stage. When you’re narrativizing your own life, it can become its own entity, kinda. You start looking for useful narrative patterns of things and that’s not always what’s actually going on. I’m trying to make sure that I reserve actual self analysis for therapy. It’s interesting, because on the one hand, it is me and it is true, a lot of the conclusions that maybe I come up with in therapy. But it’s also not me and it’s so important to separate the two.

There’s also a delay. It takes me a couple of years to process anything. So usually, what I’m talking about on stage is not what’s going on for me that day. It’s usually at least a few months have passed.

Paste: Abbi Jacobson directs your special. Had you been looking for a project to do together, or was this a new collaboration?

Martin: We hadn’t known each other that long. Actually, I think Lisa Kudrow set us up as friends. She was like, “You guys will love each other and have a similar vibe.” I think we met in London. I hung out with Abbi and Jodi [Balfour]. We’d seen each other’s stuff and just got along right away. I really think she’s such a great storyteller and so funny and analytical. I really liked the idea of having someone who isn’t a stand-up directing it and looking at it through a different lens. She came to previews. It was great having someone else care about it as much as me and be smart in helping with things like the [show] order because I’d been doing the show for a while. I’d been touring it, so I got kind of rigid in it and stuck in my ways. She came in and we reshuffled things with fresh eyes. It was really helpful.

Paste: Whose idea was it to bookend the special with the campfire scenes?

Martin: I always wanted to bookend it with something in the forest. I love the idea of someone clicking on my special and the first thing they see is this bearded man’s face sitting by the fire and they’re thinking, “Did I click the wrong thing?” Phil Burgers was in my show Feel Good as my roommate and I like there’s a vague nod to it all living in the same universe. And I love his face. He just has an amazing face. It’s expressive. I’m really grateful he did that.

Paste: Do you have a favorite bit in this show?

Martin: I love the snowglobes bit. I love doing it. It’s sort of slightly different every time I do it and I really enjoyed doing it. That’s my favorite bit. I hope people cut out clips and spread them around. I’m bad with technology so hopefully they do that. The problem is that I don’t have many short jokes. They’re all long stories, so they’re a little harder to TikTok. 

Paste: As a Canadian from Toronto, why did you end up taping in Vancouver?

Martin: I knew I wanted to be in Canada. I just recently toured it to Toronto already, so I thought I hadn’t been to Vancouver since I was about 20. You can kind of feel online where there’s an appetite for you to [visit], so I hoped that there’d be enthusiasm. It’s just so beautiful there on the west coast. It worked out. 

Paste: Within the show, you address fellow comedians who punch down on gender issues and the LGBTQI communities. With the escalating rhetoric, is it a topic that you feel you have to address in your act?

Martin: It’s always bittersweet. I wish I didn’t have to talk about gender and identity and stuff. Because it’s not the biggest or most interesting thing about me. But I did feel a responsibility because it’s super important given everything that’s going on and all the legislation. It’s mind boggling to me that people can look at what’s going on and go, “Oh, this is a really dangerous time.” I truly just can’t believe that because it feels so archaic, like we’ve slipped back to the 90s with people attacking trans people in their shows. It’s very confusing to me. It feels like really willful ignorance because all the information is out there from the World Health Organization, doctors, parents, trans kids. We have all the information so I don’t know why we haven’t caught up in terms of policy and public opinion. It feels like bad faith, culture wars nonsense. But with real life consequences.

Paste: There’s likely a majority of your audience who already agrees with you and doesn’t need to hear the message. So is the hope that maybe someone stumbles into watching your show or is on the fence and comes away understanding gender issues in a new way?

Martin: That would be great. And that’s what’s so great about comedy is if you can get people’s defenses down and they’re laughing, and then hit them with the truth bomb then that’s great. I tried to put it later in the show so that hopefully I’ve earned some goodwill with all my silliness. The thing that would be really helpful, I think, is if people that you wouldn’t expect, or people who have a different audience would come out and support these issues and talk about it because then you’re going to really reach the people that need to be reached. If I talk about it, it’s lose / lose because it’s just like, “Oh, they never shut up about it. These people are obsessed with gender and it’s all they want to talk about!” But if someone massive, or with a different audience to me would wave that banner that would be super helpful.

Paste: You’ve got films and Netflix projects in development. Do you see stand-up remaining a priority going forward? 

Martin: I will always do it. But yeah, I’m happy that I have the luxury of taking a minute now to let it percolate. I do monthly shows at The Largo where I’m doing a lot of improv and new material. I’m in the phase of the cycle where I just get to see what I want to talk about and see if anything bubbles up. Maybe a show will start to take form. But I’m also really into improv. I wish there was some way to televise a new improv format. I keep trying to pitch it, but no one wants it.

Paste: How is that possible? Whose Line has been on forever, so why not make a new version with younger comedians?

Martin: Completely. We’ve got it to make it happen!

Mae Martin’s SAP premieres globally March 28 on Netflix.

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the newly released The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen.

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