REVIEW: Mae Martin’s ‘Sap’ (2023) Offers a Sliver of Hope in a Disastrous World

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Sap is a satisfyingly heartfelt special that covers the highs and lows of being alive”

After receiving a big international break with the immensely personal and critically acclaimed Feel Good (2020-2021), Mae Martin gained a substantial fanbase. Sap, their long-awaited hour-long comedy special debut directed by Abbi Jacobson, will surely leave any fan of Martin satisfied with its honest material and playful delivery.

Intertwining the personal with the silly, Martin dives headfirst into a vast range of topics throughout the set, from the quirkiness of their moon-loving father and an encounter in the Edinburgh Dungeons to a peculiarly specific nickname in rehab and an odd mailman in the Netherlands. There’s also an account of a fabled moose meeting with a Toyota Tercel, the gender spectrum in Beauty and the Beast, and a hilarious bit originating from the innocent question of potential baby names.

At the age of just 35, the Canadian actor, comedian, and writer has been performing stand-up for more than two decades. From the moment Martin enthusiastically enters the stage, there’s an evident confidence—without cockiness—in their ability to hold the audience’s attention. Moreover, there’s a great interplay between audience and performer, with the crowd being very engaged with the material. When Martin suggests early on that they should all introduce themselves—with the audience happily yelling out their names indistinctly—they immediately set the warm and inclusive tone of the special. 

However, this openness also means that the audience is able to be more brutally honest. During the finale, they are uncertain whether to laugh or stay silent. Yet Martin doesn’t try to smooth over the awkwardness of it all. It’s refreshing to see, as other performers might have deleted any moments of uncertainty. This straightforwardness and casualness is something that runs throughout their set. Whilst other performers might have benefitted from a tighter delivery, the looser structure fits Martin’s comedy as it allows the set to unravel naturally without feeling too staged. Still, it’s undoubted that Sap will not be for everyone. The stories are seldom about one punchline, but rather little details and fun observations scattered throughout. 

Mae Martin standing on stage performing 'Sap.' A medium close up showing their face in profile. They are in the midst of talking about something, with a focused facial expression and one arm stretched out in front of them whilst the other is holding the microphone close to their mouth. They are wearing a black t-shirt and yellow/beige pants. Behind them, trees and greenery are shown as part of the stage.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Martin covers both the big and small horrors of being human, moving from the struggles of attending an all-girls school during the popularisation of the Internet to the distinction between normal versus big exes. They also talk specifically about their nostalgia for life before puberty hits. While an openness for their adolescent struggles will certainly feel comforting to anyone who has ever experienced gender dysphoria, the experiences discussed are also a universally relatable phenomenon regardless of one’s specific experiences. Adolescence is a time when most things feel very alien and confusing.

Towards the end, a frustration is conveyed on being forced to, yet again, explain “the gender thing” before following it up with addressing the dangers accompanying the transphobia some comedians spew out. These comics recklessly use their platforms which results in real-life consequences for the non-binary and transgender people they target. Besides the sheer terror of being attacked purely for existing, it’s tiring to see LGBTQ+ comedians consistently being forced to defend themselves and/or asked to answer for someone else’s actions. At one point, Martin mentions that they watched the specials of these comedians for context, solely because they’re asked in every interview to talk about them. This is terrible on several levels, one of them being that Martin’s queerness is far from the most interesting aspect of their identity. 

Even though comedy specials usually do not feature particularly imaginative scenery, Sap is nothing short of stunning with its majestic woodland stage and starry sky. Besides its charm, the wilderness works beautifully in combination with the material. Creating an atmosphere that adds to the viewing experience, Sap is structured as if Martin is getting personal whilst sitting around a campfire—something that works very well with their style of comedy and delivery. During their relatable storytelling, the charismatic Martin is both generous and vulnerable. They convey a space of intimacy, a safe place closed off from the rest of the world where they can share their most personal—albeit sometimes also silly—experiences and thoughts. 

Close up of Mae Martin smiling big with teeth as they are looking at a snow globe they are holding up in front of their face. They are sitting outside, wearing a jacket, and there's a warm light lingering on Martin's face from the campfire in front of them (that is outside of the frame).
Image courtesy of Netflix

The narrative structure of storytelling by a campfire is further emphasised by an opening and closing bit featuring Phil Burgers as a bearded man roasting marshmallows in the middle of the forest and listening to Martin. “It was all just so sad,” he sobs at the end. “It was supposed to be funny,” a perplexed Martin replies. It’s a great ending, emphasising the difference in how people react to material and what one might consider funny, hinting at the fact that Martin already knows that their comedy is divisive. Primarily though, it underlines the importance of someone listening—even if not fully agreeing or understanding.

Whilst the camerawork and editing at times leave viewers wishing for something smoother (the uneven tracking of Martin’s movements feels at times somewhat jarring due to the majority of shots being medium shots, as do the sudden intimate closeups of audience members), Sap is a satisfyingly heartfelt special that covers the highs and lows of being alive. It encourages the audience to look for the little joys in life, a message that is emphasised in the final anecdote of finding “sap” where one can, despite being caught in a terrible situation. It’s a generous act, dedicating one’s life to personal storytelling in public. As Martin approaches their material with vulnerability, the material itself will make people feel less alone, thus successfully offering comfort and relief—some sap—for any viewer needing it.

Director: Abbi Jacobson

Producer: Cameron Fife

Release Date: March 28, 2023

Available on: Netflix