The Messy Honesty of Mae Martin’s Feel Good

Feel Good. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

Comedian Naomi Ekperigin is ready for the “will they or won’t they” rom-com to die. As co-host of the podcast Couples Therapy (with life partner Andy Beckerman), she knows that plenty of content is left to be mined from a relationship, even after our heroes get together. That’s one of the things she loves most about Feel Good, the Channel 4 show starring Mae Martin and Charlotte Ritchie. Based on Martin’s real life (and available on Netflix in the U.S.), Feel Good is about baby comic Mae and their girlfriend, George. It’s not about whether they’re going to couple up; it’s about how they survive each other after getting together. The show deals with addiction, coming out, gender dysphoria, and codependency — all while being really, really funny. Feel Good also has a tremendous supporting cast, with juicy parts for Lisa Kudrow, John Ross Bowie, and Phil Burgers.

Ekperigin, whose half-hour special, The Standups, recently debuted on Netflix, spoke to Vulture about why she loves Feel Good, comics playing comics on TV, taping a stand-up set after 15 months of staying at home, and why Black people should be allowed to have more fun on TV.

What do you like about Feel Good?
There are so many comedians playing themselves in a cable comedy, and as a comedian, I actually don’t like most of them. This is one where it felt like it was really about the emotional journey of trying to be a healthy partner in a relationship, and uncovering the trauma that you haven’t dealt with. It addressed all of that in a real way, while still being funny. I’m always in awe when anyone can get that comedy-drama tone just right — when you can go from busting out laughing to, like, Oh damn. I thought that they did that perfectly on Feel Good. 

You also had your protagonist who — given that they created the show about themselves, they’re pretty shitty a lot of the time, which I really, really appreciated. If someone says, “You get to tell your own story,” you’re gonna tell it almost the way you kind of wished it happened or the way you want people to see you. It felt like Mae kept it pretty real in terms of I’m a little fucked up. I make bad choices. I use women to fill the emptiness inside. And I was like, Thank you! Thank you for your honesty. This is beautiful.

And then I’ve got two words for you: Lisa. Kudrow.

One of my questions just says “Lisa Kudrow.”
I mean! We know Lisa Kudrow is great. The Comeback showed us how great she could be outside of Friends. But this role — it was so funny and yet she wasn’t a joke. We all know that mom, if not have that mom, where it’s like “We’re not going to talk about this. I am aggressively not talking about this. But when push comes to shove, I am still there for you.” It was hysterical, the extent to which she was going to be in denial and ignore what her child was trying to talk about. Mae’s character has to come to accept that this is who my mom is, and I can’t keep chasing a certain phrase or apology or dynamic that they are not willing to give me. This is too real! Maybe that’s my own issues.

I love how Mae finally bridges the gap by saying “I’m going to share an article with you.” Sharing articles is a love language for most moms.
I thought they did a really good job of having moments that weren’t all talky-talky, where everybody gets to have their own monologue that kind of sounds like poetry. That is one of the things you get from cable comedies, and certainly British comedies, that you don’t get in a lot of American comedy: letting stuff just be, letting stuff not be so tidy and sewn up, letting stuff not be so spelled out. As someone who has written for television and network and streaming, half the time it’s like Do we not think that our viewers can comprehend sentences? Do we not think they can read? Why don’t you let people infer, put the pieces together, have their own individual response?

Kudrow brings a lot of nuance to the character.
She is just so sharp, so funny. Phoebe Buffay was such a caricature, especially as the show went on. It was, what, 10 years? So now, to see her have the same sharp comedic timing in this grounded, almost contained Waspy character? To see her as anxious, upper-crust, trying to keep it together. Her ornamental pears! To really go on the ornamental pear journey, that alone makes the show worth it. How does she do it?

It’s incredible, because when you first meet her character, she does start out a little cartoony. And the more time you spend with her, the more she opens up. It feels so measured on her part.
I think Mae was really generous in telling aspects of their story in a way that was compassionate to everyone. How do you manage that relationship — where you love someone that you helped make, that’s part you, but that’s a fucking wild card? This is a mom who has also felt hurt. Just because you’re a parent doesn’t mean you don’t get hurt too.

That goes back to what you were saying about American media, which has to be very didactic. We’re going through this weird thing where we’re demanding that all characters be moral exemplars or specifically shamed in the text. All fiction is a morality play right now.
I don’t know why we need our television to do that for us. If a show is something that I’m coming to week after week, and I am essentially having a long-term relationship with these characters, why wouldn’t we allow them to change and be messy and be able to be interpreted? Because isn’t that what any kind of relationship is? If I know who you are, and you do the same thing every time, I have no need to return to you unless that experience is brilliant every time. I really like the jokes in 30 Rock. So yeah, I could watch 30 Rock again, but I don’t care about what’s happening to anybody. Whereas with this show, I really did want to see how they were going to get through this.

Considering the show is only 12 episodes, six episodes a season, they still manage to pack in a lot of character growth in a way that doesn’t feel rushed. It doesn’t feel forced. I was on board from episode one, the way they were so quickly able to encapsulate their relationship. Mae and George meet, and they do this montage that shows you how quickly they become intertwined. I think it’s only two minutes; I rewound it to see. That’s all you needed to then drop us in this relationship. We didn’t need to have this whole Does she like me? Are we together? thing. We’re in it, and now we can have the fun.

As a famously coupled individual, how do you think this show handles relationships? Having them actually like each other, but still with enough drama that there’s a show?
Thank you so much for calling me “famously coupled.”

As someone who has been with their person for almost 12 years, and of course is a comedian herself, I understand the extent to which one’s own … not mental illness, that’s too dramatic, but, like, unresolved issues can really throw a monkey wrench into wanting to be a good partner. It felt like it was so realistic. In a world where we all grew up on fucking rom-coms, will they/ won’t they, Ross and Rachel, Dawson’s Creek, all that shit, how is “will they or won’t they” still even interesting? As a story device, we all know it’s going to happen. To me, the exciting thing is the relationship in progress that is trying its best.

As you said earlier, this is yet another show about a comedian. What works about this show that maybe doesn’t with some of the other shows? Does it feel true to the stand-up experience?
Well, it’s the U.K. stand-up experience that I don’t really know, where you can perform at a bar show and get paid. What is this magical world? But oftentimes you’ll have a show about a comic, and they’re supposed to be this “struggling comic” or “up-and-coming comic,” but in the world of the show, they end up doing all of these bigger things that belie what’s supposed to be the early days in their career. So what I did really like was that this character is playing bar shows. And there’s a brief opportunity to do something bigger, but it’s in the form of being someone’s opener. I felt like the steps they were taking in the world of stand-up, given where they were professionally and financially — that all added up to me. The character is like a baby comic, in a way, which I really liked. I liked seeing the part of it where it’s not shiny and nice and you are really working to figure out what your voice is.

You were saying you watch a lot of British TV?
What I like is that they get in and out. At most, you get eight episodes a season, and [the creators go] What’s the story I want to tell? We’re gonna cut the fat. The characters always feel a little more lived-in and human to me. Also I think people on British television look like real people. I really, really love it. They also tend to have more diversity without making it a fucking issue. Susan Wokoma and Lolly Adefope, they do these shows, and they have these people at the center, and it’s not a fucking production or — as we said — morality play. It’s not a window into another culture. It’s just people of different races hanging out, and that’s life!

Lolly Adefope is in Charlotte Ritchie’s other show, Ghosts, and the fact that she’s a Black woman in Restoration England is never addressed, never explained. The show kind of goes There were Black people in the past, y’all. Figure it out.
Did you ever see that show Timewasters? 

It was, I think, two seasons. It was four young Black folks, three guys and a gal. It’s them time traveling. I thought it was really interesting because you cannot be having Black people time traveling too far back in the past, but they did! Because they were musicians, people were like, “We love you! We’re obsessed with you!” They were able to go into these different worlds — that’s so fun! Let Black people have fun! We don’t have to go back and be slaves. Sometimes we can go to 1920s England and play music.

Feel Good brings up an important question for any artist whose work is even a little bit confessional, which is: How do you balance expressing your truth and not hurting people?
That is very, very hard to do. Mae is supposed to be this newer comic, like five years in. I think that’s what you see in this, right? You’re up there, talking about this person, thinking: They’re not in the room, so I can say whatever I want. But then, oh no, they were there? Or worse, that was recorded and now it’s up online for them to see? That is what happens. You’ve got to think it through. We live in a world now where it doesn’t just live onstage. Unless you’re a famous person who’s confiscating everyone’s phones, you better just assume it’s going to live beyond the moment of you saying it.

The question is: How do you choose to talk about someone who cannot tell their side of the story? Do you want to make them the joke, or do you want to make yourself the joke?

You’re consenting to it, because you’re the one telling it.
Exactly. I can’t get in their head. I can only be in my own head. So I have to figure out how to tell this story in a way that’s funny, where I am the butt of the joke, in order for it to work.

Do you owe anything to your own experience? Is there some benefit in telling your completely biased version of events — going, “This is my record. I know it’s not the truth, but it’s my record”?
The difference is, though, once you tell your record onstage, it’s no longer your record. It’s the performance. If I were just telling the story over coffee to somebody, it would be very different than the version I’d tell onstage, where I’m trying to get people to laugh, laugh, laugh. And so that’s the problem.

Of course, I talk a lot about Andy in my act, but he always knows it’s coming. I ain’t telling no lies; he did what he did. Did the incident take place, did he say such and such a thing? That’s the baseline; that’s the fact of it. And then everything on top is usually my outsize reaction to it.

Here’s the question, though: Do you think when someone gets in a relationship with a comedian that they are almost inadvertently consenting to being fodder?

That’s the thing. Because it’s one thing if you are already a comedy fan, but George seems to just be going to this one show. She doesn’t necessarily know the world.
She does not know the world of comedy and that it’s full of sick people. And that’s just sad when you don’t know — when someone brings you into the darkness and you have to claw your way out.

Or join it, and you’re getting onstage, and the darkness claims another soul.
It claims another soul! I can’t.

Is the pressure to navigate other people’s feelings even more difficult for something like your Netflix half hour?
Absolutely. There was a lot of material I would have enjoyed shaping and presenting, but I did not think that it was appropriate to put that out there for everyone to see across 80 countries for the rest of time. I had to ask, What is the stuff that I will be able to stand by until the end of time? I was trying to make it more of an introduction to who I am, in terms of my point of view and how I perform onstage. If nothing else, I wanted to make sure I was present in my body while doing the show, and that I didn’t play to the cameras. I played to that audience in the room. I wanted the cameras to capture that. But yes, I really thought about it: Can I stand by this? Is it okay? Will I be ruined? 

Feel Good does such a good job discussing addiction and sobriety, and especially the underlying issues.
Yep, yep, yep. “Alcohol is but a symptom” is what they say in recovery meetings. A lot of us use relationships as a balm. We’re like, Love me, and then I won’t have to deal with myself. I was always that kind of person, too. There were so many things I wanted in my life — I wanted to be a comedian, I wanted to be an actor — but I was really scared. So I would occupy my time with crushes. I would have crushes on people, and I would let it be so all-consuming. Because it was easier to think about them than to, like, write. Which I think is why, ultimately, the person with whom I make a life is another creative person. He’s like, “I’m gonna go write.” He’s not here for me to be obsessed with him. He’s like, “I’m gonna go do stuff; you should do stuff too.” And I’m like “Ugh, fine.”

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The Messy Honesty of Mae Martin’s Feel Good