It’s a compelling proposition: in her latest stand-up show Dope, Mae Martin details the significant addictions of her life, one by one. First, as a child she becomes obsessed with Bette Middler’s performance in Hocus Pocus, coaxing her parents into taking her to the cinema to see it over and over again. Her next fixation is live comedy, as she attends clubs around her native Toronto five nights a week, “a creep hanging around stage doors”. Then, at the age of 13, she becomes a stand-up herself, soon dropping out of school to focus on it entirely. A child in an adult world, Mae becomes addicted to pot and then cocaine. Still only in her late teens, she gets sober after her family learns that she’s been dealing drugs to supplement her income.
The presence of Bette Middler aside, Mae’s early years have the potential to be bleak, heavy subject matter, which perhaps explains the time delay in her work. “It seems to take me a decade to talk about things”, she observes, “My last show was about my childhood and puberty, and then this is about the period that came right after. I hadn’t felt ready before now. I hadn’t processed it”. Her tarrying is understandable: Mae felt it was crucial to get the tone exactly right. “I think audiences can sense when you’re not being honest. It’s difficult to find the balance – to not be too flippant while also making it funny. You want to make sure that you’re able to go to that dark place and then bring people out of it again, to feel really in control of it yourself”.
To meet this challenge Mae decided to initially write the whole show “like a TED talk”, without any jokes in it at all. She spent time researching addiction, becoming interested in the work of Dr Gabor Maté, a physician who argues for a broader definition of addiction beyond substances. “It was the first time I’d thought about how addiction is really a pattern of behaviour that’s in different parts of your life”, she says. Mae found her research provided a way to temper the darker material (“it’s funnier to talk about being addicted to Bette Middler than it is to talk about being addicted to cocaine”), but this was also useful on a personal level. “I didn’t realise that you can alter your brain chemistry with things like exercise. I’m now going to the gym for the first time in my life. When I was a teenager I just chose cigarettes over any sports or physical activity. I’m still working through it all. I think that comes across in the show; I don’t really know the answers and it’ll probably be an ongoing thing forever, but that process is valuable. I haven’t had severe addiction problems in so long and I’m pretty vigilant about it, but it’s definitely something that comes up elsewhere in my life. Recognising that has been helpful”.
One of Dope‘s central arguments is that it’s important to understand the positive effects of an addiction as well as the negative ones, to locate what problem someone is attempting to deal with via their addiction. She uses the example of comedy in her own life: “When I found comedy it was filling a certain need, and that’s not a healthy relationship to have with anything. I felt like such an outsider and then I discovered this community of people who were not only openly saying what made them weird and gross and embarrassing but were actually being applauded and rewarded for it. It was such a revelation and I became obsessed. It’s all I would think or talk about. That was pretty damaging to me. It was less physically dangerous than a substance, but just as consuming”.
Although her obsession with comedy prefigured the burdensome addiction to come, Mae is equivocal on the consequences of starting her career so early. “I went through puberty on stage. I did the worst comedy. Thank God that YouTube wasn’t a thing and people weren’t filming on smartphones back then because I was super embarrassing, but Toronto was a great place to learn comedy in a safe environment.” She admits that comedy has ultimately been good for her, but this could only happen once it stopped having a monopoly on her thoughts. “I’m still passionate about it but now my life is pretty full so it’s just one part. I’ve been doing stand-up for 17 years and it mellows out. You don’t get the same huge high. I’m lucky that I’ve managed to turn that particular addiction into a career, but also I dropped out of school so I have no other qualifications. I had to make it work”.
Even without the difficulties of being a young adult in recovery, it was a complicated transition from child prodigy to just another working comic: “Later on I had lots of day jobs, but in my teens I was able to do it full-time”, she says. “I got tonnes of gigs because of the novelty of my youth. There were newspaper articles and buzz because I had braces and was talking about my parents and school. I was a weird circus act of a kid. I coasted for a long time and then I had to start writing. Suddenly I had to try to be good.” It was one of the many tough experiences that Mae weathered, coming out stronger on the other end. “It took me until my mid-twenties to be comfortable with being myself on stage. I always felt confident but I used to physically shake, I’d get so nervous. Now I don’t feel like I’m on a knife-edge where I could slip at any minute. There isn’t the fear that I might actually melt into a puddle on the stage or burst into tears. I still bomb sometimes and get nervous before big gigs but I’m okay. I know I can do it”.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight. Portrait by Liz Seabrook.