Comedian Mae Martin has made a career from wearing her heart on her sleeve.
Her colourful life has served as a launch pad for her two biggest stand-up shows Us and Dope and their spin-off podcasts for Radio 4.
Where Us explored sexuality and society’s impulse to define people by who they sleep with, Dope delved into the nature of addiction in all its guises, including love itself.
Now she’s merged these themes in a book for teens called Can Everyone Please Calm Down? (its subtitle – A Guide to 21st Century Sexuality – taken from her podcast of the same name).
“I wanted to write a book that I would have found helpful when I was 14 and approach the subject of sexuality, which these days can seem so fraught and serious and weighed down in debate, with humour and a lighter touch,” explains 32-year-old Martin.
“Sex, dating, love, discovering what turns us on, that’s all meant to be fun and exciting and I worry that sometimes for young people, when these things are tied up with the stress of coming out or the pain of discrimination, or are overly politicised, you can lose out on the fun and joy of those early experiences.”
With her characteristically jaunty and self-depreciating style, Martin uses a blend of personal anecdotes, embarrassing teen stories and social commentary to show young people it’s OK to be attracted to whoever they want.
Sexuality can be on a “spectrum”, it can be fluid, says Martin. She enlists, by way of example, the help of the ancient Romans and Chinese.
She also cites celebrities, from Marlon Brando to Miley Cyrus, as being among those who reject defining their sexual preferences.
The background to all this is that, although Martin is open about dating both men and women, she has also stood her ground on not being sorted into any one tidy LBGT box. She’s less concerned by a person’s gender than their talent for diving or winking.
But that hasn’t stopped people trying.
Even her very first comedy review carried the headline “Introducing Gay Mae”. The basis for this, one can only assume, was her cropped hair and androgynous dress.
“It was a shock to the system because I’d always been just ‘Mae’ in my family. I was really lucky,” says Martin.
Martin says she understands the importance of “labelling in terms of community, fighting discrimination and communicating ideas”.
“But there’s a difference between self-identifying proudly, versus feeling pressure to do so because other people are confused and want to label you based on assumptions they’ve made, without your consent,” she adds.
“I do hope we’re moving toward a place where people feel less pressure to label something as complex, dynamic and downright mysterious as who we fall in love with. A huge percentage of young people today no longer identify as gay or straight, and I think that’s progress.
“I’m attracted to funny people with nice hands who smell good and are kind to people. I’m attracted to people of all genders… But I’d rather just be a person in the world.”
Martin has faced homophobia. An example she’s recounted in her sets is when a group of girls became abusive in a pub when she used the women’s toilets.
Martin says she tries to rise above such experiences.
“I have the armour of self-worth that comes from having open-minded parents who felt there was nothing wrong with me,” she says.
“But for sure, the constant onslaught of questions about my gender and occasional homophobic abuse does chip away at that armour. In general though I’m a happy person and get on with things.”
Martin lives in London but grew up in Toronto and her “absolute legend” parents Wendy and James brought her up in what she calls a “liberal utopia”.
When she was five, they taught her the “birds and bees” and that an orgasm was like an “explosion of rainbows”.
They never questioned her various crushes, including Bette Midler (still ongoing), Frank N. Furter (aka Tim Curry) from the Rocky Horror Picture Show), and the candlestick Lumiere from Beauty and Beast.
Her father walked around the house naked, as did Mae every Christmas Day until the age of 11.
Kept on what Martin describes as a “long leash”, she indulged her love of Midler to the point of obsession, seeing Hocus Pocus 10 times at the age of six and plastering her bedroom with her image.
Later, from 11, it was stand-up that became all-consuming – and, as it turned out, self-destructive. Hooked after seeing just one show, Martin was at the local club four or five times a week.
The adult comics made her feel it was OK to be a “weird” but these new “friends” got her hooked on drugs. She found herself dropping out of school and into rehab, only afterwards finding the equilibrium to change comedy into a personal force for good.
Now “comedy, therapy, friendship, crisps and perspective – trying to think about how everyone else is feeling”, are Martin’s methods for keeping on an even keel.
“It’s definitely therapeutic to say out loud (on stage) things that you’re embarrassed about or your fears and have everybody go ‘oh my god, me too!’
“Making someone laugh is a good way to get their defences down so that they might then be open to new ideas, especially when they’re laughing at some common ground they relate to. Comedy’s always been an amazing tool for social change.
“I’d love to write more observational comedy but the stuff people seem to respond to is the most personal so it’s snowballed from there.”
If that’s the case then Martin’s next project looks likely to do well. She’s in the midst of filming a comedy drama for E4 and Netflix, which is again “semi-autobiographical”.
The working title is Mae and George and co-stars Lisa Kudrow, of Friends fame, as Mae’s force-of-nature mum.
“It’s about love and addiction and where those two things intersect, what’s healthy [and not]. It’s really just a love story that I hope people really get on board with and connect with,” says Martin.
“My character struggles with things that I struggle with – addiction, relationships, romanticism – but dialled up to 100 so she has a much more tenuous control of her vices than I currently do. I’m doing OK and my character is hanging on by a thread.”
After that, she’s back gigging in London in June. So does she worry about running out of material – and steam?
“For sure, but life is infinitely rich,” says Martin. “And I remind myself every morning to immediately have a massive breakfast – everything feels scarier when you’re hungry.”