At the beginning of the pandemic Mae Martin’s first TV series, Feel Good, was broadcast on Channel 4 to great acclaim. Just recently, the second series came out on Netflix to even greater acclaim. While most of us have disappeared in lockdown, Martin has become a star.
Feel Good is a disarmingly autobiographical love story. It tells the story of a character called Mae struggling with relationships, addiction, identity and life on the comedy circuit. Mae is attracted to men and women, but to women more, particularly women who identify as straight. The first series focuses on Mae’s relationship with Georgina, a teacher who had previously only slept with men and is reluctant to admit to her super-straight, super-posh friends that she and Mae are living together. Mae is a mix of streetwise and naive – reckless, precocious, promiscuous, self-absorbed and a bag of nerves.
By the end of series two both characters have evolved. George is happy with her bisexuality, while Mae changes from she to they, announcing: “I think I’m transgender or non-binary or whatever the term is these days.” Mae has also begun to understand that their teenage relationships with older men were abusive and exploitative.
Last week, Martin discovered how popular Feel Good is when visiting Trans Pride in London. “It felt amazing. People were being so nice. They were just coming up and talking to me.” Has Martin ever experienced this in the past? “Yes. I guess before Feel Good it was once a week-ish, and now it’s a couple of times a day.”
Martin says when strangers approach, they act as if they are friends, asking the most intimate questions. “They feel like they really know me. And the mad thing is they kind of do. So we have deep conversations. They get right into it asking about addiction, relationships and gender.”
It’s not surprising people react like this when you write and star in a TV series using your real name and telling a version of your life story. But this is where things start to get complicated. As Martin reminds me, it is a fictionalised version. So whereas in Feel Good, Mae talks about being trans or non-binary, Martin is non-binary but not trans.
The Canadian standup thinks of Feel Good as a dramatised version of life 10 to 15 years ago. But while the addiction at the heart of the story goes back that far, the decision to identify as they rather than she is recent. And we’ve not quite done yet with the complications. While most interviewees tell you their life story, Martin is at times reluctant to, because it inevitably leads to a compare-and-contrast with the show, and becomes reductive. “You spend so long crafting what you want to put out there, and what would be the point of doing that if I’m going to go: ‘Actually, this is what happened.’”
It may make Martin hard to write about, but it certainly doesn’t make Feel Good hard to watch. Martin is right – it is beautifully crafted. The script, by Martin and co-writer Joe Hampson, is spare and by turns funny, romantic, sexy, disturbing and moving; the performances (including Martin as Mae, Charlotte Ritchie as George and Lisa Kudrow as Mae’s mother) note perfect. If you mashed the comic absurdities of Fleabag and Catastrophe with the erotic intensity of Normal People you might get something like Feel Good.
Martin lives in a chic flat in east London. On the floor is a rack of guitars; on the walls are photos of heroes such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan; and at the back of the living room is a cabinet of tiny trinkets, from brass pigs to a Victorian feng shui compass. On stage, Martin jokes about feeling like a member of the boyband Backstreet Boys. Today, at 34, they still could pass as one – beansprout-skinny, lithe and twitchily energetic.
Martin grew up in Toronto to middle-class parents – a British writer father and a Canadian teacher mother. A recurring theme in Feel Good is Mae’s guilt about coming from privilege. In rehab, Mae meets people who didn’t stand a chance in life – they grew up in poverty; their parents were addicts. Both Mae the character and Martin the person were given every chance. Their parents were ex-hippies who gave their two children (Martin has an older brother, who recently completed a PhD) all they could have wanted. They were open-minded, creative and fun. This is where Feel Good diverges from reality. The TV series shows far more of the parents’ angst than their free spirits.
In one standup monologue, Martin says that their mother drew diagrams for her young child to illustrate everything from the missionary position to anal sex. On stage, Martin says that on the first day of school, aged four, they told any pupil who would listen how to perform anal sex while delivering the savage blow that Father Christmas didn’t exist. Martin admits there was comedic licence there – it wasn’t quite the first day, but the essence of it was true. “I was delivering a lot of hard truths to the kids. I was just like: I can’t believe we’re all living in this charade.”
Martin frequently revisits the family setup in standup routines. In one, the family is seated around the breakfast table, their father naked with his huge penis (labelled a “monstrosity” by their mother) dangling under the table. Martin’s brother, then a toddler, wanders under the table, and decides to take a bite of this fleshy delight. Martin re-enacts the unearthly scream their father emitted.
How does their father feel that some fans will know of him primarily for the size of his appendage? “I don’t think he was thrilled. It mustn’t be ideal having your kids telling really personal stuff about you.” And how old exactly was your brother when he had a nibble of your father’s penis? Now, Martin looks wary and says with an uncomfortable laugh: “Look, I wasn’t there. This is a story I have heard. I think you’re looking for the scoop!”
In another sketch Martin mentions that the only thing young Mae asked for at Christmas was the right to turn up at the extended family dinner naked. Well actually, Martin says, the reality was somewhat different. “I loved to be naked. I was naked a lot as a kid – it wasn’t just Christmas. That was a joke.” Now I can see why Martin is so reluctant to be asked about the truth of their comedy. Personal comedy is a retelling of reality with bells on. To literalise it is to suffocate it.
Martin seems happier chatting about day-to-day stuff than trying to deconstruct the past. So an apology for having no milk leads to a conversation about coffee consumption that leads to another about dreams. Out comes their phone, so they can show me the latest in dream technology. “I talk in my sleep, and this app records everything I say,” Martin grins, and starts to play highlights. “What is the fucking point?” This is Martin last night, in angry despair while asleep. “Sorry, I’m just monologuing at you,” goes the next sleep soundbite. “It sounds like a work situation, trying to pitch something.”
Why did you start doing this, I ask. “Because I often wake myself up talking or people I sleep with say: ‘You’re talking absolute shit.’” Always? “Yeah. This is so weird.” Martin scrolls to the next recording. “You know who’s killed at alarming rates? Trans women.” This time, Martin’s voice is deep and distressed. “I don’t sound like myself.” You sound like your mother in Feel Good, I say. “I do, actually, that’s true. It’s raw emotion unfiltered.”
Martin is too aware of their own anxiety to be alarmed by all this, and it’s not all horror. “There are lighthearted ones, too. This is the happiest one I’ve got.” Again, Martin scrolls forwards. “Oh boy, I’ve got a puppeee. Wheeeeeeee!” I’m sure these snippets will make it into a future standup routine.
Martin says their young self was an incorrigible showoff. “I was really extroverted till I started doing comedy full-time. When I was eight I was doing shows at lunch and giving tickets out to the other students. I was doing Ace Ventura impersonations and showing people how many pushups I could do. So irritatingly extroverted. Then as soon as I started doing comedy I calmed down. Now I think I’m pretty introverted. I save all my energy for getting out on stage.”
As a six-year-old, Martin became obsessed with Bette Midler after seeing her in the film Hocus Pocus. It was one of several obsessions that also included Pee-wee Herman and the Rocky Horror Show. Martin didn’t realise it at the time, but now sees it as an expression of an addictive personality. The family adored comedy, and Martin grew up surrounded by their parents’ records and videotapes – Monty Python, The Goon Show, Blackadder, Steve Martin. At the age of 11, they went to their first comedy club. “These comedians just seemed like rock stars. I couldn’t believe it. A summer camp counsellor said, ‘You should be a comedian’, and as soon as he said that I thought, ‘How do I do it?’, and signed up for some classes.”
Along with two school friends, Martin went to the Toronto sketch show Family Circus Maximus 160 times in a single year. Newspaper features were written about the trio, who became known as “the Groupies”. Martin began to do their own standup, in school uniform, at 13. “I felt my whole body vibrating with excitement and euphoria. I found the adrenaline addictive, and the camaraderie and the feeling of inclusion into this club of cool people that I admired. I couldn’t believe it. It felt amazing.” You can sense their euphoria, as Martin recalls it.
Inevitably it had its downside. Many of the adult comics were fuelled by alcohol and drugs. By the age of 14, Martin was boozing, taking cocaine and selling drugs. “My parents had given me a very long leash; then, when I started getting into trouble and dropping out of school, they were very alarmed.” How tough was it for them? “It was really difficult for everybody. We’re so close now, but it was a really difficult time.” Did Martin lie a lot to loved ones? “Yes, I think anybody who has done drugs ends up lying to a lot of people about the things you’re doing for drugs. Very quickly, life became hellish. Nightmarish. I really went all-in. As soon as I started having relationships with older people that I wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle, that caused huge anxiety and then ... ” Martin trails off. “I was 14-15. They were like 28-30. And it wasn’t like lots of my friends were doing drugs, it was a very solo thing. Intense and lonely.”
Martin left school at 15. Their parents were distraught. At 16, Martin was full-time at the Second City comedy club in Toronto – in the box office by day to make ends meet; doing standup by night. In the end Martin’s parents threw their troublesome teen out of the home. By then Martin had developed close friendships with comics in their late 20s and early 30s. They offered the prodigy a place to stay and things went from there.
Much of Feel Good is anything but. In the second series, Mae re-examines those early relationships, and sees them from a new, disturbing perspective. In one devastating scene Mae visits a former mentor and lover who admits: “You’ve outgrown me.” Mae asks him whether his intentions were always dishonourable when he provided sanctuary. It strikes Mae that rather than being a partner, he was a paedophile preying on vulnerable people. Today, Martin feels there was an inevitability about it all. “If you put a teenage girl in any industry like that, there are going to be people taking advantage. I don’t think it’s specific to comedy. It’s night-time, there’s booze and drugs around.”
Did that conversation with the abuser happen in real life? Martin fidgets and umms and ahhs. “Yeah, but the character’s an amalgamation of two people. I just wanted to show the messiness and complexity of a situation where you really care about someone who’s hurt you. So often it’s shown as black and white – about outing people and people getting revenge, and then everything is peachy. But actually there are no winners and it’s also painful losing a friend.”
At what point did you realise the relationship had been abusive? “It was a pretty recent revelation. It was around 2016 when everyone was talking about reframing relationships, and there was that zeitgeisty moment about assault. That made me examine relationships in a way I hadn’t understood before.”
Martin’s tattoos serve as a shorthand for their remarkable life story. They consist of odd words and numbers – 416 is the Toronto phone code; “Oatmeal” was to impress an older woman Martin was besotted with at 16; “Basement” is to remind them never again to live in one; 28/05/07 is a reminder of the date Martin came across a close childhood friend by chance in Nepal, whom they had lost touch with.
Martin eventually got clean at 20. Life was transformed. Martin became more confident, embarked on a five-year relationship with an “amazing woman”, moved to England, worked in call centres, dressed as a giant tooth to sell dental pamphlets, and supported non-verbal autistic children. Meanwhile, their writing improved, becoming less sketch-based, more personal. Martin got regular work in clubs, did a couple of TV specials, and then came Feel Good.
Martin insists that there will not be a third series, that Feel Good has reached its natural conclusion. The show was about its two protagonists finding a way to feel good about themselves. And somehow they got there. To make another series, Martin says, would be a betrayal. “You’d have to undo all this personal growth that the characters have made.” So now Martin is writing a thriller with Hampson, preparing for a tour in autumn that may see a return to the character-based sketches of old, and relishing recent success.
Comedy has defined most of Martin’s life. It was a means of escape as a child, a catalyst for chaos as a teenager, and has ultimately provided a path to redemption. After 14 years clean, how has Martin changed? “I’m less manic, more aware of my addictive behaviour. That enables me to write about it with a bit of perspective.” Does that addictive behaviour express itself in safer ways now? Martin smiles, more with relief than anything else. “Yes, I think I’m a workaholic these days.”
Feel Good is on Netflix. The first series is also on All 4