comedy review

Mae Martin’s Campfire Hour

Mae Martin in SAP. Photo: Rachel Pick/Netflix

Mae Martin’s new Netflix special, SAP, begins in a forest, twice. The first time, it’s a short opening sketch in which Martin sits down at a campfire in the middle of the woods and starts chatting with a man (played by Phil Burgers) who’s already there. Martin hands him a snow globe and asks him to introduce them. It’s a strange little opening based on the idea for a joke that the audience won’t understand until later, but its off-kilter, Twin Peaks–y vibe is enough to carry the sketch regardless. Then the special begins in earnest with Martin walking out onto a stage full of lush greenery: big pine trees and little shrubs, rocks, and logs. In lieu of the usual stool and water bottle, Martin stands near an upturned log with a camping mug on it. In the background, there’s a black screen dotted with little lights to mimic a starry sky.

There is an appropriately sappy reason for Martin to be standing in the middle of a forest: a closing story that hinges on an image of tree sap that’s meant to be literal but also meant as a metaphor for things that sustain us as human beings living in a disastrous world. Yet the campfire mood isn’t just about the explicit connection to that closing anecdote. It’s about creating a space that looks like a comfortable storytelling hour, that signals all the things we expect when we think about someone telling tales in front of a fire. It’s intimate. People say things when they’re gathered around a campfire that they may not otherwise say in broad daylight. It feels singular and closed off from the rest of the world. Horror stories are scarier. Personal revelations come more quickly and are met with more generosity. It’s the only setting where the song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” can exist free from mockery. You’re allowed to be sappy around a campfire, and that’s exactly where Martin wants to take this special. It begins in a place of mysticism and lightness, but by the end, it gets somewhere familiar from every other campfire revelation: personal disclosure, deeply felt frustration with the world, and declarations of sincerity because there’s no other choice that makes sense.

“We’re all gathered around this fire” is a mode that fits well with Martin’s style of comedy. They lean on casual, winding narratives with punch lines that get buried inside little observations. There’s a calm, assured confidence that a big laugh line doesn’t need to cover every moment of transition or observation. A couple of jokes, like Martin’s describing a graveyard of all the abandoned imaginary children they dreamed up with former partners, do have a punchier rhythm, with each new kid’s name, description, and creepy ghost-child voice building like a crescendo. For the most part, though, the jokes tend to slide in sideways or Martin says them then brings them out again to examine more carefully, not content to just let the laugh happen and be done with it. There’s a story about their parents claiming to have once driven underneath a moose that twists back on itself for explanatory emphasis and then pivots into Believing in Moose Stories as a particular kind of optimistic worldview. One of the early jokes is about a man who had a habit of burying the mail; Martin has a fantastic closing quip for that story, but it gets deliberately soft-pedaled — the thing that sticks afterward isn’t the perfect capper but their fascination with the guy who loves burying mail.

Martin’s is an unusually philosophical bent of stand-up, a self-awareness that’s not just about awkward self-consciousness or deprecation or the more familiar mode of comedian as commentator expounding on important issues of the day. Instead, it’s a philosophy born out of introspection. It’s tied to the period of teenhood Martin describes in SAP as being full of psychedelic drugs, the desire to leave their body behind, and the way most teens eventually realize that the world is broken and all the supposedly incontrovertible rules are arbitrary. So when they talk about their snow–globe theory of human interaction — the standout joke of the special — or they shift into frustration about needing to explain gender yet again, it doesn’t come off as flippant or a sudden twist into serious territory the rest of the hour can’t support. It’s mysticism from the beginning and mysticism all the way through, marveling at the oddity of their dad who loves the moon, at the graveyard of imaginary kids, at the story of one middle-aged lady on a tour of the Edinburgh Dungeon. It’s marveling at the strangeness of being a person.

So it makes sense that someone with Martin’s persistent impulse for self-examination would find it difficult to film a Netflix special as a nonbinary person without talking about making a Netflix special. It comes up first in the context of a goofy little joke about Netflix trailers, but Martin’s chief point is about what it’s like to be making a Netflix special as a trans person in the midst of enormous political backlash against trans rights. Even more pointedly, Martin is making a special that will live on Netflix right next to the Dave Chappelle specials that continually hammer on hacky jokes about gender identity and that fuel anti-trans sentiment for members of his audience.

Martin lets themselves engage in a little magical thinking about that, an acknowledgment that feels like futility but also like something they had to say anyhow. “I have this fantasy — it’s a really clear image in my head; it’s Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., throw Joe Rogan in there,” they say, after a joke about Beauty and the Beast and the gender spectrum. In the fantasy, the comedians are gorging themselves on a feast, then happen to turn on the TV and see Martin’s Beauty and the Beast bit. “Oh my God,” Martin imagines them saying to one other. “Guys! We were wrong!” They know it’s a false image, as fun to think about and as ultimately improbable as driving a car under a moose. But like Martin’s father, who makes them pray to the moon, and like the journey from teenage drug addict to successful comedian filming an hour-long Netflix special, it’s just plausible enough that the image can’t be entirely discarded.

The final 15 minutes of the special are a little rocky, and Martin’s unwillingness to either commit to a full collapse into sincerity or embrace jokes with a more sardonic edge makes it hard for the crowd to know how they’re supposed to react. They’ve been participating in a campfire-storytelling space that supports this kind of closing gesture of earnestness, but Martin’s chosen anecdote — about a man caught between two monsters and clinging to a tree branch — has such an unusually underplayed ending that there’s not quite enough emotional release, and the audience seems uncertain about whether to laugh or stay silent. Not at first, anyhow. Once again, Martin seems to run right over the big takeaway moment, but that allows them to then double back to that moment, pick it up, and inspect it a second time. The tree sap this man finds on the end of this teetering branch is Martin’s answer to the conundrum of that Netflix-special problem and to all the weird feelings of dislocation that come with trying to be a person in the world. It’s one temporary moment, and yes, there are beasts on every side. But the point is to get as much pleasure out of it as possible, when and where you can. Martin aims to make SAP one of those good, small, delicious moments, and they succeed.

Mae Martin’s Campfire Hour