Mae Martin’s “Sap” Is a Comedic Balm for a Difficult World

I’ll be the first to admit it: I dragged ass on getting into Mae Martin. Friends have been recommending their work to me since before the beginning of the pandemic, but I just kept stalling. I had only seen one, short set of theirs on the Netflix special Stand Out that featured a ton of other queer and trans comedians. I mean, I loved their set and even mentioned to friends that I’d start watching Feel Good, but then I didn’t. My friends, even some of my straight ones, would ask me how I wasn’t into Martin’s work already, and I honestly couldn’t tell them why. Something clicked in me when I saw that one, short set on Stand Out, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what. I laughed at all their jokes, and I even repeated some to my partner before I forced her to watch Stand Out with me for a second time. Earlier this month, I saw Martin’s new comedy special Sap, released on Netflix this week, and I finally gave in to watching Feel Good and their other short set on Comedians of the World so I’d be fully prepared for it. I loved every deeply uncomfortable, deeply beautiful, deeply human second of both, but I could feel that weird itch under my skin again every time my partner and I got the episodes fired up to begin watching them. It took us under a week to finish them all. And when we did, I was again confused about the itch. When I got through all of Sap (which took me three sittings to get through), I solved the mystery of the itch: what I was feeling was genuine familiarity. What I was feeling all this time was seen.

Sap begins with Martin meeting their longtime collaborator Phil Burgers at a campfire he’s set up in the middle of the words. Martin and Burgers exchange pleasantries for a minute and then Martin stands as if they’re about to tell stories around the campfire. The screen fades, and we see Martin running onto a stage filled with trees, coming to the audience to tell that story they were just starting in the shot with Burgers. The beginning of the show’s set up gives the audience a clue of what to expect: a set where the “jokes” are often minutes-long recountings of stories Martin uses to bring out some larger point about the world around us. Like most of their comedy, their work in Sap is a combination of confession and observation edged out with a little absurdism and some exploration of the wonder they experience simply watching people they know and don’t know move through the world. The stories tend to wind back and forth through their beginnings and ends. Sometimes, it’ll seem as if Martin is done discussing a particular idea, and then they’ll bring it back to examine it more closely. The punchlines aren’t in your face, but instead, they kind of slide in through the back door of your mind, making you laugh raucously but also think more intensely about the points that Martin is trying to make.

Toward the end of the set, Martin says they’ve been vacillating between pessimism and optimism, but I would argue that they’re successfully optimistic — even more so than maybe they believe — while also staying thoroughly engaged with how difficult it is to simply exist in the world right now. Some jokes are more deliberately uproarious than others, like a bit about their father’s obsession with the moon and how watching the moon one night led to the revelation that Martin was conceived while their parents were having sex doggy-style. This launches Martin into discussing how much differently they feel about themselves knowing this information and how they feel like they can tell when other people they encounter are also “doggy-style babies.” They even end up looping this back in at the end when they’re discussing the teenage angst they felt growing up. Another bit about discussing future baby names with a new partner also leads to some belly-pain-inducing laughter as they illustrate how it feels to wade through the “graveyard of dead hypothetical children” they’ve talked about having with other partners in the past. They act out how some of the encounters with the ghosts of their dead hypothetical children would go to illustrate the difficulties of forming and sustaining romantic relationships. But mostly, the show’s material veers on the philosophical side, usually using the stories Martin crafts to elucidate some larger concept they want the audience to consider more carefully.

Because of Martin’s masterful balancing act of all these elements, the turns into more serious stories and observations of their set don’t ever feel abrupt or out of place. Martin, of course, addresses their experiences with addiction as a teenager and now as an adult. They get into the ways their body dysphoria contributed to the urge they felt to seek out experiences where they didn’t have to think about their body at all. They discuss the ways in which being angry about the world as a teenager is a proper response to the world we’re living in, because the world around us makes us feel like we’re powerless to change it. They, expectedly, discuss the struggles of living as a trans person right now in the midst of all the work happening to limit trans people’s autonomy and talk about how they don’t really want to be talking about being trans but all these other “big, multimillionaire” comedians are talking about it in their specials, so now Martin has to, as well. They even let themselves give into some wishful thinking about Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., and Joe Rogan when they discuss imagining them all sharing a medieval meal together and turning on the TV to Martin’s special. In the fantasy, after watching Martin’s bit about gender, they all change their minds immediately and realize how wrong they’ve been.

By the time they get to the last part of the set, they’ve already gone through a crescendo of emotions and reactions from the audience. They haven’t been quite as vulnerable as some might expect, but they’ve been vulnerable to prove that they’re trying to be as earnest as they possibly can throughout the special. Earlier on, they described themselves as being as full of feelings as a Campbell’s tomato soup can is of soup — “just full to the brim” — and the struggles they’ve had in letting people get close to those feelings. Throughout, it feels as if they’re leading to some big cathartic or sentimental or impassioned pay off, and they eventually do get there but not without a little audience uncertainty first. It’s an interesting turn of what we’re used to seeing in comedy like Martin’s, where yes, Martin does plan on laying bare their soul for the audience at the end — but not without making the audience work a little bit first. If Martin is going to be perceived, they’re going to do it in their way, and that’s exactly what they do. In the final part of the show, they tell a kind of obscure Buddhist parable with an understated ending about a man in a life-threatening situation taking a minute to taste sweet tree sap before his demise. They use this story to explain what they believe is true about our role here in these one lives we all have to live: We can’t fight to make the world a better place unless we’re also savoring the parts of it that bring us pleasure and joy. It’s a remarkable set up — and maybe very predictably, my favorite part of the show — that doesn’t necessarily give the audience that release they may be looking for but instead leaves us with something to consider, reminding us of the effort it takes to do the kind of work Martin does.

When we finished Sap together, I looked at my partner and said: “I think I know I was so anxious to watch this” and before I could finish, she said, “Yeah, it’s because you both think exactly the same.”

For most of us who have been through some serious shit like Martin has, being vulnerable — especially in front of large audiences — is one of the most heart-wrenching tasks in the world. And if you take all of Martin’s work, Sap included, as a whole, you can see how they’ve been trying to illuminate this fact in a way that is easy for people who don’t have that experience to understand. In Sap, Martin meets every story, every observation, every aspect of their set with a kind of hard-earned self-confidence that could only come from a person truly trying to navigate a world that makes it so arduous to be a person in it with some level of dignity, grace, tenacity and generosity. They aren’t just bringing out the weirdness of being a person in order to poke fun at the fact that we’re all ridiculous in our own ways. They bring it out to remind us that the weirdness of being a person is an experience we all share universally, so shouldn’t that connection we have mean something to all of us? Shouldn’t we all look at each other with care and admiration and absurdism and a little bit of magic? As Martin’s set points out, it’s such a simple question with an even simpler answer, yet we’re still not able to get it together on a scale grand enough to change the way we’ve been living. The answer then, according to Martin, is to never forget to taste the sap.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 81 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. My partner and watched this the other night, it was such a treat. Absolutely loved the last scene, it really made us cackle. (Also just so you know, there’s a “her” pronoun where you’re talking about their parents)

  2. I loved this special! Mae is so funny and so vulnerable all at once, it’s so miraculous to watch.

    there were so many great moments but the bit about “this is my room! this is me” in that little kid voice had me in hysterics

  3. I am late to the party on this, but my partner and I are watching Feel Good right now after I watched Sap a couple weeks ago. Even in the most positive and beautiful queer representation I’ve seen in media, I myself haven’t felt “seen” the way I have watching Mae do their thing. It’s been beautiful and devastating. Thank you for the recommendation <3

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