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It Shouldn't Be Up to Mae Martin to Call Out Transphobic Comedy

Martin's obligatory response to Dave Chappelle doesn't gel with the uplifting message at the heart of SAP.
  • Mae Martin in their first Netflix special, SAP. (Photo: Netflix)
    Mae Martin in their first Netflix special, SAP. (Photo: Netflix)

    Mae Martin will be the first to admit they don't want to discuss "the gender thing." As Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais double down on transphobic material, LGBTQ+ comics like Martin, who is nonbinary, have been forced to use their platforms to defend their community. But as Martin says in their first Netflix special, SAP, this expectation creates a "lose-lose" situation. On the one hand, it's difficult to debate something that "personally affects you and [that] you care about" without getting emotional, at which point "you've already lost." On the other, remaining silent means these "big, multi-millionaire comedians" will continue to "punch down," which threatens to do real harm at a time when trans rights are under concentrated attack.

    Ultimately, Martin comes down on the side of speaking out, and they spend about 10 minutes towards the end of SAP addressing specific points that repeatedly come up in the "debate" over hateful comedy. This plays out both as a history lesson — "It is a recent colonial fad to have this very rigid gender binary," they say, explaining it was Britain that criminalized homosexuality in India in the 19th century — and a cultural commentary. In a bit they previously performed at the Netflix Is a Joke Festival in May 2022 (which was headlined by none other than Chappelle), Martin compares the gender spectrum to Beauty and the Beast, with Gaston representing "extreme masculinity," and Belle, "who has Stockholm Syndrome," representing femininity. In the middle sits the candlestick, Lumière, whose presence only adds to Gaston and Belle's fun.

    Martin goes on to say they have a "fantasy" of Chappelle, Gervais, Louis C.K., and Joe Rogan watching this Beauty and the Beast bit and realizing they've been wrong about trans people all along. "I want them to hold each other gently, and just gently rock," they say. "I want them to re-parent themselves, basically. Just give a little [kiss.]"

    From there, Martin takes a page out of Hannah Gadsby's book and leads with emotion. In the most powerful moment of this particular segment, Martin implores these comedians to just "take my word for it that I know who I am," even if they don't understand it. "Like, I do not understand Wi-Fi. How does it work? What is it?" they say. "But I know that it's real. I know it exists among us. I just accept that it's there, whatever. I don't let it keep me up at night."

    Martin is absolutely correct: Chappelle, in particular, has become fixated on gender identity and expression, to the point that transphobia has come to define his comedy. He's made a calculated choice to dig his heels in on the matter, just as he's chosen to play the victim, claiming his words have been "deliberately obscured" by his critics.

    But Martin's remark also reflects the sad truth that the Chappelles and Gervaises of the world are able to select what keeps them up at night. LGBTQ+ comedians don't have that luxury — what these men are "joking" about is a direct attack on their existence. The one place where these artists can exercise complete control, where they can pick and choose how to respond to the world's ills and minor irritants, is on stage or screen. Having to respond to the garbage spewed elsewhere on Netflix denies them this right, which in turn denies audiences more hilarious punchlines about a Toyota Tercel fitting under the world's biggest moose, or the horrors of puberty.

    This kind of anecdotal comedy is clearly where Martin's interest lies. Save for the 10-ish minutes devoted to the mainstreaming of anti-trans rhetoric, SAP (which is directed by Abbi Jacobson) takes viewers on a journey through Martin's childhood and early adulthood, which have been marked by horrors big and small. They discuss the trauma associated with knowing the position in which they were conceived — "Nobody wants to be conceived doggy style. It's so bleak" — the lesson to be found in the story of a Dutch mailman who buried letters and bills in the woods, and the "embarrassing" reality of human interaction. Martin layers these stories on top of one another, building up to their conclusion: No matter how bad things are, we must "enjoy the sap," or the sweetness found in everyday moments, and "cultivate it where we can."

    The overt optimism of Martin's conclusion doesn't jibe with the idea that wading into the discourse around gender identity is a "lose-lose" scenario, or their acknowledgment that it's a "fantasy" to believe a few minutes of Beauty and the Beast comedy will change hearts and minds. The "sap" story also comes immediately after they call out these comics for punching down, which makes for a jarring transition. Martin's response to the debate that's overtaken comedy is by no means a distraction, but it is a detour, and in this case, it unintentionally undercuts the impact of the life-affirming special.

    Amid the backlash to Chappelle's 2021 special The Closer, in which he made a series of anti-trans jokes, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos defended the "highly provocative" special and pointed to Gadsby's comedy as an example of counter-programming for Chappelle's critics. Netflix bosses seem to think that hosting Martin's work — including SAP and acclaimed comedy Feel Good — and specials like Hannah Gadsby: Nanette on the platform cancels out the threat posed by The Closer, but this is a false equivalence. A special featuring a man who has been paid more than $20 million and given carte blanche to mercilessly mock a group of people will never be the same as an hour starring a nonbinary comic who feels they have no choice but to devote a chunk of their time to someone else's vile ideology. It doesn't have to be this way: Dozens of people, from the executives who control the purse strings to other mainstream comics, could step in at any point to relieve Martin of the responsibility of calling out transphobic comedy. Both SAP and the industry at large would be better off for it.

    Mae Martin: SAP is now streaming on Netflix.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Mae Martin, Netflix, Dave Chappelle: The Closer, Mae Martin: SAP, Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais