Roxy Bourdillon visits the set of Mae Martin’s hilarious and heartfelt new sitcom
BY ROXY BOURDILLON
I’m at a narcotics anonymous meeting surrounded by famous people. In the centre of the innocuous community hall, wooden chairs are arranged in a group therapy circle. Sitting on those seats are stars of shows like Call The Midwife, Humans and Flowers, and films like Four Weddings. “Welcome to our first friends and family meeting.” Ok, time to come clean, as it were. I’m not here as an undercover reporter investigating celebrity rehab programmes, neither am I related to an A-lister with a dependence on Class As. I’m on the set of stand-up comedian Mae Martin’s loosely autobiographical new sitcom for Netflix and Channel 4. The title? Feel Good. The premise? Mae navigates her blossoming same-sex relationship, a burgeoning stand-up career and a secret addiction to cocaine, all with hilarious consequences.
I spot Mae as soon as I arrive, with her flash of blonde hair and baggy black hoodie. In the show, she describes her appearance as “a kernel of corn that somebody glued on to some sticks”. Next to her is Charlotte Ritchie of Fresh Meat fame. She plays Mae’s onscreen girlfriend, George, an English teacher who’s never dated a woman before and looks like “a dangerous Mary Poppins” to Mae’s “Bart Simpson”. This really is quite the cast. And Friends superstar Lisa Kudrow, who plays Mae’s mum Linda, isn’t even in this scene. Mae and her screenwriting partner Joe Hampson created the role with her in mind, never in their wildest dreams imagining she’d deign to read the script. But read it she did, describing it as “sweet and very funny and awkward and well observed”. High praise from a comedy legend. I can’t resist asking Mae what the woman who gave the world Pheobe Buffay is like in person? “So chill, so kind and intelligent and thoughtful about the part. She’s so low key, you forget how immensely famous she is.”
There are even more crew members here than actors. They scurry around industriously, rigging this and lighting that as I try desperately not to get in their way or step on anything expensive. Someone efficient hands me a colossal pair of headphones and I’m ushered behind a thick black curtain to sit with the script supervisor and watch the action through the monitor. “We’ll shoot from the top,” announces Canadian director Ally Pankiw. The chatter and clatter comes to an abrupt stop. “Action!”
Born in Toronto, but now living in London, Mae did her first stand-up gig when she just 13, before dropping out of school at 15 to pursue comedy full time. This September, she’ll have been performing for 20 years. During that time, she’s seen huge changes in the industry. “When I started, I was often going up after people who’d made homophobic jokes and the audience had loved it. Public opinion has shifted, so it’s not cool to be a bully anymore. Comedy is better now than it ever has been.” With a string of acclaimed stand-up hours under her belt, a Radio 4 series, non-fiction book Can Everyone Please Calm Down? A Guide To 21st Century Sexuality and now her very own sitcom, it really feels like Mae’s time to shine. With its nuanced exploration of identity and fluidity, her delightfully idiosyncratic brand of humour seems to plug directly into the zeitgeist.
After grabbing a quick bite on the catering bus, I head to Mae’s trailer, where we’re joined by Charlotte and Joe. They all go way back. Joe and Charlotte met at Bristol uni, studying Drama and English and performing in a sketch show called Bristol RevieUNIONS. Mae and Joe’s paths crossed two years later, when they shared a house for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe. Mae recalls, “We had an identical haircut and we hit it off right away. On the day I met Joe, I tried to get a tattoo of his name. I thought I’d know him forever.” Joe jumps in, “No. She made a joke about, ‘I’m gonna get a tattoo of this guy’s name’, because she assumed she’d never see me again!” Whatever her intention, she never did get that tattoo. “I’m still thinking about it. Maybe Joe’s face on my face!”
These two bezzies write during the week and hang out most weekends. “I spend more time with Joe than with any other human. It’s a very rare friendship. We have the same internal palette. We find the same things funny, the same things romantic.” I ask Joe what it’s like working so closely with Mae. “It’s awful!” he quips, before giving his truthful answer. “I mean, it’s a dream. Hanging out with your best friend and coming up with a TV show – what could be better than that?” In the writing room, they read scripts aloud with Joe playing everyone except Mae. They shows me a video of Joe in full drag giving his best George. There’s no denying it’s an impressive performance, but in the end they decided to stick with Charlotte.
The talented TV veteran was a fan of the script from the start. “The main thing about George is that when you meet her she’s quite closed off romantically, intimately. When she meets Mae, something completely sets a light for her that she hasn’t felt maybe ever. Mae changes her perspective on everything, but it’s quite a battle for her to do that.” Mae nods in agreement, “I like that a lot of their issues are internalised. My character struggles with internalised homophobia, which is so ubiquitous, isn’t it? Even though intellectually people are very progressive, internally they do carry some shame. They’re very shame-based characters. Everyone is though, right?”
Mae is acutely aware of the power of representation. “I still so rarely see anyone who looks like me on a TV series. I remember how important things were to me when I was a teenager, like Buffy. I even related to that and I’m not a witch.” But while Mae and George are in a same-sex relationship, Feel Good is about much more than just sexuality. “It’s about three-dimensional characters, where that doesn’t define them. There’s sex, which I hope feels weird and representative of being told through a queer gaze. I hope it doesn’t feel pandering. It’s fit and funny… I hope!” As Mae and Charlotte have known each other for so long, does that make it easier or harder to play lovers? Charlotte reckons, “It really varies. There are bits where there’s a real shortcut. But there’s a freedom about not having met someone before, because you don’t know what they’re like. For me personally, it’s amazing to know Mae as a friend. It adds another level to it.”
In the sitcom, Mae plays a fictionalised version of herself, taking aspects of her personality and “dialling them up to a hundred”. “It’s like shining a magnifying glass on the deepest corners. We tried to narrativise feelings rather than specific events. It’s a lot of where I was at 10 years ago. I’ve definitely been in multiple relationships, as many queer people have, with people who are at a different point of self-acceptance. That’s an interesting, torturous and romantic dynamic. It’s kind of intoxicating.” The addiction storyline is also informed by her own experiences. Mae started taking cocaine as a young comic at the age of 14. By 18, she was in rehab. “It got pretty dark, but it’s been at least a decade of feeling solid now. It’s just something I have to be vigilant about.” She admits that revisiting that troubled period of her life was “pretty grim”. Gender identity is another challenging topic explored in Feel Good. “Now that we have more language around it and this younger generation is changing the way we think about it, it’s definitely something I think about more. It’s definitely something that has caused me anxiety in the past. I feel different on any given day, but I feel somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, I guess. If I was growing up now, I might say I was non-binary. I’m just taking it day by day.”
Several months later, I see Mae again at her production company’s office. We’re in the room she and Joe write in. They brainstorm, riff and play “weird games” to come up with potential story ideas. An enormous whiteboard is overloaded with neon post-its, yellow for Mae, pink for George. The first season is now in the can, and I confess to Mae that I binged the lot the night before. She looks relieved, “Oh good. It’s meant to be binged,” before adding slightly anxiously, “What did you think?” There’s something about Mae that makes you want to give her a reassuring cuddle. She knows she has this effect on people. “I love hugs, but I’m definitely not as vulnerable as I might appear in my comedy. It takes a level of confidence to do this, right?
She’s keen to hear my reaction to Feel Good, so I tell her I loved the rawness and romance of it all. There’s an adorable montage in the first episode with Mae and George being all cute and coupley, but in a totally non-nauseating way: snogging on the windowsill, watching films on a laptop in bed, mucking around being silly together. “I love a good montage,” grins Mae. “I wish my life was just a musical montage.” One of my other favourite things about the show is the casual comedy they mine from the frisky central relationship. In an early scene they’re out clothes shopping. Mae is waxing lyrical about the transcendental power of marriage when George interrupts her, “Do you want to finger me in the changing rooms?” It’s marvellously unexpected and a real treat to see queer sex being discussed in such a frank, funny way. “Often queer sex is portrayed as very tender, but actually girls fuck. They bone, you know, and they’re horny. Often I feel like I haven’t seen my sex life represented really.”
In another scene, Mae grapples with her gender identity, scrutinising her reflection in her bedroom mirror. She tries on a dress, before quickly ripping it off and donning a strap-on instead. “I found it way more exposing wearing a dress. This character doesn’t feel comfortable in who she is, so I found it really important to show that. I felt really embarrassed, so it was kind of a relief to take it off and be topless. I’m naked all the time, so I didn’t mind that so much.” In this scene alone, Feel Good deftly flips back and forth between comedy and drama, with killer one-liners, emotional angst, an exploration of gender dysphoria and an authentic depiction of queer sex unlike anything I’ve seen on TV before. “Part of what’s great about queer sex is that it can be multifaceted and you can play with gender roles and power dynamics in an interesting way. That’s always been part of my sex life.” I suggest the show might be a good personal ad for Mae. “Or is it? It might be the opposite. My character is a manic, absolute trainwreck!”
In conversation, as in her comedy, she comes across as charmingly goofy and almost compulsively honest. When I ask how she feels about her growing fame, she reveals that when fans ask for photos, she gets so into it, chatting away and taking multiple selfies, they frequently start glancing at their watches and making excuses to leave. “I overstay my welcome. I need to chill a bit. But it’s so nice. People are so nice.”
The power of visibility has been on Mae’s mind a lot lately. Upset by headlines about the homophobic attack on 20-year-old Charlie Graham, she tracked down her number through her PR and called her up. “She just kept saying on the phone how shocked she was by the supportive response, that she felt so isolated and that she had no idea how many people like her there were in the world. It made me think about representation and how important it is to have your experiences reflected. Because she’s so not alone. There is this massive community.”
Mae is keen to provide some of that much-need representation through Feel Good. But after pouring so much of herself into this project, I wonder how she’s feeling about finally putting it out into the world? “I feel like I’m in the queue for a self esteem firing squad. It’s a very public forum to explore some of these things. It is really personal, but I’m really excited. I’m gonna try not to read reviews. Maybe.” I’m sure the reviews will be glowing and, perhaps more importantly, that this is a show that will resonate with viewers. In addition to being hilarious and heartfelt, it’s offering a distinctly queer perspective that’s still a rarity on TV. “Everybody is carrying around stuff, right? Pain or things they find funny. And when you don’t see that reflected, it can be isolating. So it was a relief to be like, ‘Ah, those are the things in my brain and someone will see them and that’s cathartic in a way’. But it wasn’t just a cathartic exercise. It wasn’t therapy. I just wanted to tell a really engaging story with really funny characters. It’s a great by-product if people connect with it.”
Feel Good is available on Channel 4 now
This interview first appeared in the March 2020 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!