How Mae Martin Mined Her Life Story for Her Bingeworthy Netflix Comedy
Canadian comedian Mae Martin knows that addiction narratives are often extremely dark. Words like harrowing get tossed around. She also knows that's not everyone's experience. That's why in her new Netflix series Feel Good she tells a different kind of addiction story, and it's one that equally charming, sad, and bingeable.
Martin translates topics from her own life and stand-up -- her cocaine addiction, her romantic foibles -- in to a tight six episodes. In the opening moments, the fictionalized Mae meets George (Charlotte Ritchie) after one of her sets. It's a perfect meet cute. George has been coming to the club to see Mae for a while and she lingers behind after her obnoxious friend Binky (Ophelia Lovibond) ditches. They chat, they make out, and they dive head first into an intense relationship. The only catch? George has never dated a girl before, and Mae hasn't been exactly upfront about her past drug use.
The show traces their rocky relationship as both are forced to come to terms with innate truths about themselves. But for as serious as the subject matter might get it's also just a breeze to watch, a mixture of Martin's wry style with some familiar British cringe comedy. It's a worthy successor to Fleabag on your list of shows to watch. Speaking by phone, Martin walks us through her thoughts on Lisa Kudrow playing her mom, Sum 41 tattoos, and what she has planned for season two.
Thrillist: A lot of the topics you discuss in the show are semi-autobiographical. But what brought you to the structure of the show?
Mae Martin: Yeah, those are the themes that I talk about in my stand-up: Addiction and love and where those two things intersect, so we knew thematically the vibe. I'm a diehard romantic and I feel like my twenties have been defined by relationships, so I wanted to make a love story. We filled the world around that central couple and we wanted to write a really messy and honest modern love story. I hope people invest in the relationship.
I definitely did. I was surprised how fast things move in that first episode. Why did you zoom past the courtship of Mae and George so quickly?
Martin: A lot of my relationships have moved that fast. We wanted to get that frenetic energy when you have a character at the center who has these really addictive tendencies and is constantly looking for stimulation and they both fall into it in a whirlwind and then realize really suddenly that they don't really know each other and then see if they can make it work. And I love a montage? Who doesn't love a musical montage?
You're Canadian. The show is set in the UK. What is your relationship to England?
Martin: I moved here 10 years ago. My dad's British so I had a British passport and I was dating someone at the time in Canada who was coming over here to do a master's degree. I came over and just fell in love with it. As a kid I lived here for a year and I used to come every summer and every Christmas. I've always had a relationship with it and I think British comedy and Canadian comedy are pretty tonally similar. They are both self deprecating instead of aggressive and also really character driven stuff. The stuff that my dad loved is all the stuff that I loved.
The show is as much about Mae as it is about George and her coming out. How did you balance the two sides of the story? Was she based on anyone in particular?
Martin: She's a composite of lots of people. I've dated several people especially since moving to England who have never been with a girl before and I've been through that process with them. It can be painful and funny and both of those things and romantic and stressful. It's a dynamic I feel like I can understand. We just wanted to show the reality of sexual fluidity. She had never considered this for herself, and then she falls in love with someone and suddenly she feels this pressure to reframe her identity when really she shouldn't have to she's just fallen in love with someone. She has to then dismantle these ideas and structures that she just never really examined before. She just was born into and then she has to suddenly reassess a lot of things. Not just her sexuality but how she sees the world and intimacy. We really wanted to make sure there was a real power dynamic shift halfway through the series where suddenly we really empathize with George. We were writing with Charlotte Ritchie in mind. We were able to write specific things for her and she brought so much of herself to the part as well. I'm really happy with how it turned out as well.
George's friends are hilariously awful as well. Were you looking to satirize a specific type of person?
Martin: I like them because they are people who are casually homophobic but they don't mean to be they are not bad people. They are just totally oblivious they are totally in their own bubble and they can't emphasize with anyone else. So yeah that's all based on interactions that I've had, infinite number of times in my life. I hope that even they're not two dimensional. If I can make another series I'd love to get into Binky's mind a bit more.
This is not a recovery narrative and you end the season with Mae's sobriety in a very tenuous place. How did you think about her arc?
Martin: Initially, it was important for us to humanize addiction. I think a lot of stories about addiction that we see are so harrowing and grueling and so dark. And actually it makes it difficult for people to relate because they are like, "Well, I've never done heroin in the Viper Lounge." I think everyone can relate to doing things compulsively because they feel good even though they are having a detrimental effect on your life. In varying degrees we all do that. I hope that it's humanizing addiction in a way and we didn't want to sugarcoat it either. I feel like it's not necessarily a love letter to Narcotics Anonymous. She takes some things from it and other things it's not like a one size fits all solution.
Did you always have the idea of bringing the story to the cliffhanger you end on?
Martin: Yeah, I think so. We would love to do a second series. We've got tons of stuff we still want to say with those characters. But also we're really into ambiguity with all areas of the show. So her character is never just good or bad. I think there's a bit of ambiguity about whether they are even good for each other and whether they bring out the best in each other but I hope that we root for them because everyone's been madly in love with people who are not necessarily at first even the best for them. It's a love letter to that type of love.
How did you get Lisa Kudrow to play your mom?
Martin: We weirdly were writing with her in mind just because we found it easier to if we had an actor in mind. Then we could imagine the voice and everything. We knew we wanted a kind of iconic antagonist. We kind of sent them to her not ever thinking she would have the time to read them and then she got back in touch relatively quickly and she's been so supportive from the beginning and so amazing. We're still pinching ourselves me and [co-creator] Joe [Hampson]. It's so amazing. I want to stress that my parents in the show are very different than my actual parents who are incredibly, infinitely patient and supportive and kind. That doesn't make good TV, you know.
Why did she pop into your head?
Martin: I feel like she's one of a kind. I'm a huge fan of The Comeback, which is the show she did after Friends. I think season two of The Comeback is perfect television. I think tonally, in a way there's a similarity. Some of those scenes in The Comeback are so ridiculous. She's saying the most ridiculous stuff or she's throwing up on someone or doing something insane, but then she can turn on a dime and hit you with this emotional gut punch We knew we wanted someone with that insane comedic timing, which she has, but also with that ability to suddenly be really truthful and emotional. That's what we wanted the show to be like in general. And that's what she did so expertly. She can say a line in just a really unexpected way. She has a really unique pattern of speech. Like the way she says, "I'm in the middle of my scotch egg." You're like, "What?" We laughed a lot.
In the show you call yourself "corn." That's also in your Twitter bio. How did you come to define yourself as corn?
Martin: Actually that is something that an ex-girlfriend identified early on when we were dating. She said that I looked like corn and then it's something I internalized and held onto for the rest of my life. But I have to credit an ex.
And you just held onto it?
Martin: And yeah, my head is just very round and yellow. It's like a vibe thing. I can't explain it. I feel like I am corn in my core and in my soul.
Seeing Mae, the character, relapse is very upsetting, but in the very last minutes of the series there's a very funny moment where George discovers that Mae got a Sum 41 tattoo. Why Sum 41?
Martin: We just thought of the most adolescent band we could think of and we liked the idea that my character had held onto the idea of Sum 41 since adolescence as her favorite band. My co-writer Joe and I both play guitars and during filming we brought our guitars up and we would play Sum 41 songs. Charlotte plays the keyboard, so she would join in.
So would you say you too have held onto Sum 41?
Martin: I think Sum 41 is more my co-writer Joe and for me it would be more Third Eye Blind.
Fair enough. Not as funny a tattoo.
How did you go about crafting the Narcotics Anonymous scenes?
Martin: I go to NA semi-regularly. I go if I feel I need it. It's such an interesting cross section of society in NA. You get such an amazing mix of people who all have this shared experience even though their life stories may be completely different and it can be hilarious and tragic and all of that. There's things that I find really useful about the 12 steps and other things that don't necessarily. I wanted to present that. I think that people could go and be turned off because there's a couple of things that don't resonate with them so they don't go back to NA. Actually there are ways to make it work for you. I wanted to make sure we didn't have the ending that you expect where Mae ends up really committing to that 12-step program. All the characters have to find what works for them. Even George with her sexuality and feeling pressure with labels. I think a lot of the characters have to eventually reject dogma in favor of a more personal solution.
When did you know you wanted to turn the material you've been working with into something more narrative?
Martin: Joe and I had pitched a couple of other pilots around. They were all weird genre things. There was a whodunit. There was a sci-fi thing. And then when Channel 4 was like, "Can you just take your stand-up and write about your life?" It was like, "Of course, that makes way more sense." Why would we write a sci-fi show set on Mars? We always knew that we wanted to work together because we have really similar sensibilities.
Do you still hold out hope you might one day do a sci-fi show set on Mars?
Martin: Oh, I genuinely have a whodunit set on a Mars colony that I am desperate to write. So, yeah, hopefully one day. I would love it Lisa Kudrow did my Mars whodunit as well.
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