With ‘SAP,’ Mae Martin looks for life’s little joys

The comedian discusses their new Netflix special, walking the red carpet with Elliot Page and recording a music album

Creator and star of Feel Good. Taskmaster competitor. Delicious cheese sandwich consumer on Last One Laughing: Canada. Buzzy red-carpet attendee. Prestige HBO drama supporting character on The Flight Attendant

For being just one person, Mae Martin has worn many hats in just the past three years. But in their heart, the 35-year-old is a stand-up comedian first, having performed on stage since they were a teenager growing up in Ontario. 

They bring those roots to the masses this week with the release of their long-anticipated, full-length Netflix comedy special Mae Martin: SAP. Taped in Vancouver in December, the hour-long show sees Martin dive into topics ranging from giant moose to gender to Scottish dungeons to getting the nickname “Bathwater” in rehab, all with their characteristic and charismatic charm. 

Having been there in the packed Vogue Theatre for the special’s taping, the ravenous hunger amongst fans for Martin’s comedy was palpable, particularly among the queer and trans fans. 

After working as a comic for a decade, Martin broke out in a big way internationally with Feel Good in 2020—the acclaimed two-season semi-autobiographical series focusing on a fictionalized Martin navigating recovery, gender and the comedy scene—and has swiftly become one of the most recognizable trans comics working today. 

But what makes them stand out is how little queer or trans issues often play into their work—something intentional Martin says, particularly when it comes to SAP. While they mention recently starting low-dose T and getting top surgery last year during the special, those are hardly central ideas—Martin doesn’t intend to wade into the culture war. 

“This is an hour that covers all kinds of stuff. And I kind of wait until the final quarter of the show to get into talking at all about gender” they tell Xtra over Zoom. 

“I like stand-up because I get to think hard about what I want to say and then say it with the level of lightness that I want to say it, and I get to try to make my point in a way that doesn’t get people’s defences up. So I think it’s a really useful medium for that.”

If anything, the special is about joy and self-expression, separate, but not unrelated to any ideas around gender or sexual identity. The show takes its name from a story Martin tells late in its run-time that centres on finding small moments of joy or levity in terrible situations. And while Martin knows that’s something queer and trans folks are intimately familiar with, especially in the current news cycle, they know the idea can be universal. 

“That’s sort of a running thread in the special, just trying to focus on the positive and how we do that and how we balance optimism and pessimism when we have all this information that is so overwhelming,” they say. “I think it’s possible. I think it’s doable … there is no alternative other than to try to fix the world. What’s the alternative, to sit in the gutter and wait for it all to light on fire? No, we’ve got to try.”

“That’s sort of a running thread in the special, just trying to focus on the positive and how we do that and how we balance optimism and pessimism when we have all this information that is so overwhelming.”

After growing up in Canada, Martin spent a decade in the United Kingdom before relocating to Los Angeles during the pandemic. During that time, following the conclusion of Feel Good, they said they fell back in love with stand-up and live performance.

“I kind of had to take a minute, I think, to recalibrate after doing something so personal like Feel Good,” they said. “I was really enjoying doing improv again for the first time, maybe since I was a teenager, doing, like, improvised stand-up and improv with friends. It was good. It reminded me sort of why I started doing comedy.”

In looking for the “sap” in life—the small moments of joy or goodness—Martin points to several things, including live performances that are “sap” to them right now, including the current season of Survivor, escape rooms and the L.A. sunshine.

“Oh, [also] music, like, playing the guitar. I just recorded an album, actually, and I’m gonna put it out in a couple of months,” they say. “It’s so earnest. It’s, like, a really earnest album.”

Martin says they wrote the album over the past couple of years, and recorded it with a full band and friends. They cite Paul McCartney, Half Moon Run and Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf as stylistic influences. The shift from stand-up to music, Martin says, was a learning experience.

“It’s really nice to be able to use metaphor and imagery and not feel the need to catch everything in irony and, you know, look for a laugh,” they say. “It was so fun to do and really enjoyed it … it’s like learning a new language.”

Credit: Courtesy Netflix

In putting together SAP, Martin collaborated with A League of Their Own and Broad City co-creator and star Abbi Jacobson as director. 

“I’ve been a fan of hers for so long, and her brain, and I think we have a similar kind of … like, we’re not allergic to heart, you know—packing an emotional punch, but also being funny,” they say. “I liked the idea of having someone who was not strictly a stand-up comedian directing it, who was coming at it from more of a storytelling lens and a filmmaking lens. That was really useful.”

Martin says Jacobson’s eye for structure helped shape SAP’s narrative, including two bookending scenes featuring Phil Burgers, who played Martin’s character’s roommate in Feel Good

“I really liked the idea of somebody clicking to watch my special and then the first thing they see is this bearded man roasting a marshmallow,” Martin says, laughing. 

I asked Martin what they thought about the viral images of them and friend Elliot Page at the 2022 LACMA Art+Film gala in November, which had legions of queer fans speculating about all of Canada’s dream T4T pairing. Unfortunately, those thoughts may have to remain relegated to fanfiction. 

Mae Martin and Elliot Page attend the 2022 LACMA ART+FILM GALA on Nov. 5, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.

Credit: Presley Ann/Getty Images for LACMA

“I’m still, like, so honoured if anyone speculates about my love life,” they say, laughing. “I’m also particularly honoured that anyone would think that Elliot and I were dating, so that was kind of fun. Everyone went nuts. But yeah, he’s the best date and I just get lucky I get brought as peoples’ plus-one into these things.”

The influence they have on young queer and trans fans isn’t lost on Martin, and they offer up some advice to younger generations of queer and trans folks trying to find that “sap” in their own lives. 

“Try your best not to let that culture war force you to think that your whole being is this conflict—that’s so exhausting and overwhelming,” they say. “Try to remember that your identity doesn’t have to be any more a part of you than a cis person’s identity is a part of them. Because it’s unfair that you’re being forced to defend it all the time.”

After such a busy few years, Martin is looking forward to what comes next. In addition to the upcoming musical album, they’re working on several TV and film projects in development, and will continue to perform live, including their regular sets in L.A. like Mae and Brett Make Love to One Another Live on Stage with their longtime friend Brett Goldstein (Ted Lasso).

But for fans settling in to stream SAP in the coming weeks, Martin hopes more than anything they find a little bit of that joy for themselves.

“I just want people to feel positive and uplifted and I want people to laugh,” they say. “I feel like the more vulnerable or personal I am, hopefully the more people relate to it and feel less alone themselves. So that’s always the goal. But mainly I just want people to laugh and think my hair looks okay.”

Mae Martin: SAP is streaming on Netflix starting March 28.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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