Mae Martin is a comedian. They would like me to remind you of that. Even though their semi-autobiographical show Feel Good — second and final season released on Netflix last Friday! — is about trauma and addiction and codependency, they want you to know it’s funny.
Of course, if you’ve watched the show you don’t need this reminder. Because it’s not just funny, it’s very funny. And of course they’re a comedian. Never have I written “Drew: (laughs)” so many times while transcribing an interview.
Still amidst all that laughter, I’m grateful to talk to Mae about the depths the show does explore like forgiveness, misguided romanticism, and the gender identity of Ryan Gosling.
Drew Gregory: When we spoke a little over a year ago, you were single and wondering what dating would be like during the pandemic and I’m wondering if you’re still single and if you dated during the pandemic.
Mae Martin: (laughs) What a first question!
Mae: I definitely dated during the pandemic. I mean, I was online a lot. Reconnecting with exes as well and… you know what, because I give away so much about my personal life in Feel Good, I think I am going to keep the details of my dating life private.
Drew: (laughs) I think that’s a great idea.
Mae: But it’s been bizarre. We all have to kind of learn how to be human beings again and— wait, did I tell you I got kicked off Hinge?
Mae: Oh yeah I got kicked off Hinge. People were reporting me because they thought I wasn’t really me.
Drew: (laughs) Oh my God.
Mae: It was so depressing, because it was at the start of lockdown and I wanted to go on some walking dates and I think like one guy and two girls all reported me. And then I contacted Hinge and was like hey I’ve been kicked off and they were like yeah that’s because you’re pretending to be Mae Martin.
Mae: And then I tweeted about it so they reinstated me.
Drew: Oh good.
Mae: It was stressful.
Drew: I was kicked off Tinder but I don’t have a reason. They said I was soliciting and I wasn’t. Unless that includes getting paid to write about my experiences dating. Soliciting for content.
Mae: (laughs) It’s creepy when you don’t know why you’re banned.
Drew: I mean, you have a reason of being famous, but I do think trans and gender-nonconforming people get banned a lot on dating apps for no reason.
Mae: Oh yeah 100%. But I was like… was my banter really bad? Where they were like this can’t possibly be Mae Martin because this person is incredibly boring?
Drew: (laughs) That’s so funny. Well, okay, so during quarantine I feel like I have a lot of friends who were exploring new things about their gender and sexuality. We were isolated for a long time and had a lot of time to reflect. I mean, I hooked up with my roommates and thought I was bisexual for a month. You know, we had a lot of time to do things like that.
Drew: (laughs) Right? So I know you’ve said you’re further along in your development than the Mae of the show and this season fictional Mae is getting closer to figuring some things out gender-wise. So I was wondering if being in lockdown made you think about your identity in new ways or if it just allowed you the time to process it in the creation of the second season.
Mae: I think maybe it was a little bit of both. It’s so hard to know what it would have been like if I wasn’t in lockdown. But I definitely think having a break from constantly bumping up against gender in the world helped. I mean, every time you buy a coffee somebody genders you. It’s always sir or ma’am. So having a break from that must have given me some more mental space. But then also writing season one and writing a character who is in turmoil about their gender even just from a narrative perspective you’re like well if we’re going to tie up this show we better get to the bottom of what’s going on there.
Drew: (laughs) Yeah.
Mae: I’m sure that that really did make me reflect more and maybe faster than I would have. But it’s stuff that I’ve known and articulated to my friends for a long time. I just haven’t had the language or the confidence to articulate it publicly. So I’m really glad to have the show as a reason to do that. Also I think season one the character Mae was sort of me ten years ago but season two it feels much more in real time.
Drew: Oh interesting.
Mae: Yeah the character is figuring out stuff that I’m currently figuring out. So it’s pretty meta.
Drew: I love in the show how Mae identifies as a Ryan Gosling or Adam Driver. And also identifies with John Wick and then George compares them to James Dean. Can you talk a bit about those models of masculinity and what your models of masculinity are?
Mae: Well, I also refer to myself as inanimate objects a lot.
Drew: (laughs) That’s true. You do that.
Mae: Corn and sticks. But I guess it’s all just this sort of lighthearted way I talk about it with my friends about how I feel. It’s a good way in and a good way to sort of explain it to people. But in terms of choosing the examples, these days you have to be very careful that the person you choose to reference in your show isn’t going to turn out to be some kind of abuser.
Mae: So we’re just hoping Ryan Gosling and Adam Driver remain blemishless examples of romantic dudes. Because growing up I did fantasize about being the leading man when I was watching Romeo + Juliet or whatever else. So it’s fun to reference that fantasy.
Drew: James Dean is such an interesting one to me. Before I knew I was trans I was trying really hard to be a guy and James Dean was such a go-to model for me. In part because he’s dead and died really young so he’s not really real. I mean, anyone who’s as famous as Ryan Gosling also is sort of not real.
Drew: Not that they’re inanimate objects, but I think there’s a clear line between identifying as corn and identifying as a famous actor.
Mae: Yeah and the character Mae is very much in a state of arrested development. They’re kind of an adolescent in a lot of aspects of their life. So it makes sense comedically for them to be obsessed with Leo in Romeo + Juliet and idolizing these iconic figures. And James Dean is this beautiful, vulnerable almost… I bet if he was alive now he’d be non-binary. He’s a really interesting character. And he was bi, wasn’t he?
Drew: Oh yeah. He was famously bi.
Mae: Just a vulnerable and beautiful person.
Drew: I think about the way we talk about gender and sexuality now. It’s not new but it is new to the mainstream. So I think it’s interesting to think about people from the first hundred years of film and television who maybe would’ve used different labels if they were more common.
Drew: And obviously we can’t go back and reassign things to people who aren’t alive anymore but it’s interesting to think about.
Mae: It’s a good thing to remember when things feel hard is how much harder they used to be. I know that’s not particularly comforting. But I do feel lucky that I’m able to have a career where I can say these things and make art about these things really explicitly.
Drew: There’s a moment where Binky says she saw Mae’s comedy about wanting to be a boy and it was hilarious and when Mae gets uncomfortable Binky is like, you’re a comedian aren’t I supposed to think it’s hilarious? How have you navigated the discomfort of figuring out if someone is laughing with you or at you? Or do you not care?
Mae: I try not to care. There are a couple of references in the second season where the character is struggling with how to use their own pain and personal experiences in their comedy without it feeling unsafe or exploitative and it’s something I’ve struggled with. But in general I always brace myself for this kind of backlash of ignorance that often never comes. Especially when you’re stuck in your house for a year on the internet you start to feel like people are awful, but the reality is a lot of people are very thoughtful and great and I’ve been really lucky that the response has been so nuanced.
Charlotte Ritchie and I were doing a press junket the other day and we were psyching ourselves up to be fielding all these awkward questions from misinformed people. And then everyone who came in was just incredibly articulate and thoughtful. It was a good lesson.
Drew: Yeah I was talking to someone else about this recently — and I think you explore this a lot in the first season — that so much of the shame we feel is connected to society. So much of it is that we’re socially raised to expect to be othered and to be treated poorly. And it’s not that we don’t have those experiences but I’ve been thinking about that a lot for myself going back out into the world. If I live my life expecting to be treated poorly then I’m already being treated poorly by my own brain.
Mae: Right! It’s such a tricky balance. Because you want to protect yourself but also give people the benefit of the doubt. And often I’m pleasantly surprised. But it’s definitely a tricky balance.
Drew: How do you protect yourself? Not just in discussing things people might be ignorant about, but going back to what you said earlier — you put a lot of yourself in this show, you mine a lot of your experiences and traumas. How do you figure out what you don’t want to share?
Mae: I have boundaries around protecting other people’s privacy, so I’ve definitely not excavated certain experiences and relationships because I don’t want to make other people uncomfortable. But in terms of myself I’m still sort of waiting to hit that benchmark where I’m like wait this is my boundary.
I find talking about it in the press to be where I struggle most. I mean, not this. This is lovely.
Drew: (laughs) No, no, I totally get it.
Mae: It’s just I spend all this time thinking about exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. And I want to say it in this kind of nuanced and self-deprecating and balanced way. So you kind of want to say just watch the show and you’ll see how I feel about all these things.
Drew: (laughs) Yeah totally.
Mae: Because when I try off the cuff to distill it into a couple of sentences for a major newspaper where I know they’re going to take it out of context — that I find tricky. And because the themes in the show happen to be topical at the moment — even though they’re just things that affect my life — there’s also this sense that the show is just this intense therapeutic exercise for me. But the thing that helps me not feel too emotionally invested is remembering that this is a piece of art and it’s co-written with my co-creator Joe Hampson and we put so much thought into the other characters and it is detached from me — of course it is. So while it’s very raw and exposing and nerve-wracking to put this stuff out there it’s easier because it’s within this framework that I’ve constructed really carefully with people I trust. And in a way that I think is funny! But then when I read the interviews I’m like this doesn’t sound funny at all. But I swear it is. Just watch the show.
Drew: Something I really love about the show is it’s more farcical than other traumedies. You’re really not afraid to commit to a comedic bit even though it’s dealing with all these serious things. I really appreciate that.
Mae: Thank you. The jokes are as important as the heavier themes and the dramatic turning points. A good example is the montage of sexual role plays. Those are so ridiculous. And it was so funny to us that shooting each one required a full set up, the art department doing a whole design thing, and it was all this work going into these really ridiculous things that made us laugh.
Drew: Well, that’s such a great example, because those bits are so funny and at the same time the role plays are a defense mechanism for Mae and you’re exploring the ways sex can be used as a defense mechanism. All the things that maybe in interviews you get really heady about in a way that’s not funny — those are the jokes. It’s not like oh there are jokes and then there’s serious stuff. Obviously there are some moments that are just serious or just funny but so much of the show is this combination and I really like that.
Mae: Thanks so much.
Drew: At the risk of now asking you a question where you have to talk about something in a heady way…
Drew: I wanted to talk about labels both when it comes to gender and sexuality which we already touched upon but also when the doctor tells Mae they have PTSD and they ask if she’s sure they aren’t just full of birds. It’s such an interesting thing to me this idea of not wanting to be held down into a label — be it preferring to identify as Ryan Gosling than non-binary or preferring to be full of birds than have PTSD.
Mae: For me, I’ve always found labels of any kind slightly claustrophobic. I’ve always felt like the minute I ascribe a label to myself be it non-binary or bisexual or whatever it starts to seem like that aspect of my identity dominates all other parts. And I think there are more interesting things about me. But then when I say that I feel like I’m being a bad role model because I recognize how life-saving and important finding labels can be. Finding a community and self-identifying and having the language to fight for our rights and things like that. But I personally have found them difficult.
I did an Instagram post recently coming out as non-binary and it felt good to do in the moment, but in a way it also felt like a compromise. Because even though that’s how I identify the reason why I did it was to prevent being constantly misgendered. I knew I was doing all this press and everything written about non-heterosexual cisgender white male performers has a prefix. You’re a bisexual comedian or a female comedian or a lesbian comedian or whatever. And those are often wrong when they’re about me. They’re just factually incorrect.
I like in the show that when Mae and George are together in their bubble they don’t stress about labels at all. They can really explore sexually and in all kinds of ways different aspects of themselves. They’re sort of their own community.
Drew: Yeah I like that a lot.
Mae: I really don’t mind talking about my identity, but it’s just talked about by other people so much more than if I was a straight cis comedian. But then people will be like, Well you wrote a whole show about it. And it’s like I didn’t. I wrote a love story with a character who is non-binary and bisexual. I don’t know. I’m rambling.
Drew: No, no. I think that makes a lot of sense. And something I think about a lot is, like, the conversation you and I are going to have about transness and queerness is so different than a conversation you’re going to have with even the most respectful cis straight interviewer.
Drew: So it makes sense that I’m asking you some of these questions on a platform like Autostraddle but if you’re being interviewed in a mainstream press outlet why does that become the focus? And why does it become the focus in this very basic, non-nuanced way?
Mae: Yes, exactly. It feels not necessarily in good faith. Which is why I love doing things like this because it feels like a very safe and thoughtful place to discuss these things. But that’s not always the case. I’m sure it’s the same in the US right now, but there’s been a disproportionate amount of reporting around transness and it feels like our identities have been so co-opted by this political force and it doesn’t feel good to fuel that hysteria. But also I hope by making this show I’m presenting a more human and relatable depiction of what that’s like. So I hope that helps in some way. But the discourse around it is so fraught and binary and basic and inflammatory. I think The Times newspaper in the UK did 223 articles so far this year on trans stuff. And I think that’s too many?
Mae: And it just creates this further backlash because people are like, Oh my God what is this thing that’s taking over my newsfeed. You know what I mean?
Drew: Yeah. Unfortunately the US is catching up, but the UK is particularly transphobic and has this very clear machine in place to incite that anger in order to create media careers and spread hatred. It’s such a fraught space to go into especially when your primary goal is to make a comedy show.
Drew: I mean, obviously you have these deeper goals, but you’re making a comedy show, you’re making a show that’s semi-autobiographical and you happen to have these experiences. It is unfair when you’re an artist with any marginalized identity that it becomes so all-consuming. And in a way that’s basic. And often flat-out inaccurate.
Mae: Yeah and Feel Good is about trauma and addiction and codependency. There’s a thread about gender for sure, but it feels inaccurate to say this is a show about gender.
Drew: Yeah, very much. Something I really cherish about having a show from someone like you is that the community can be… maybe the words are… made fun of? In a way that’s really nuanced and funny as opposed to hateful. Like the character Elliott who is this very specific type of queer person that I think other queer people will recognize and find humor in. Or one of my favorite jokes in the show — when Mae says they shouldn’t have dated someone bisexual and Scott is like… aren’t you bisexual? That felt so true to my queer community. That sort of playful self-hatred.
Mae: I like that joke about Mae being bisexual, because I think there’s also some misogyny there for Mae. And in the way that Mae approaches George sometimes.
Drew: Oh that’s interesting.
Mae: And Elliott, yeah. I guess in a way on paper Elliott is a great option for George. She’s just gone through this massive change and he’s someone who is so open and appears to be so giving. He’s not asking anything of George. But then, yeah, he’s very judgmental of, for instance, her mildly problematic sexual preferences. It’s something I’ve encountered for sure. This kind of dogmatic… I don’t know the right way to phrase this. But whatever it is, you picked up on it!
Mae: It’s a recognizable experience I think to be like, Oh great I’ve found my community and then to feel like, Oh I’m not doing being queer correctly apparently? People are telling me I’m not queer enough or I’m not bi enough. I think people can relate to that.
Drew: Yeah for sure. I also really like that you still prioritize the central love story. I mean, again, obviously on paper Elliott would be better for George and George and Mae probably shouldn’t be together after last season. But I like this suggestion that I get from the show that you don’t need to have all your trauma worked out, you don’t need to be perfect, in order to connect with someone else. You can do that with another person. You can sometimes be a bit toxic, because I think most of us are. I really like how the two seasons together are this love story.
Mae: Thanks! And, yeah, in season one they’re pretty toxic, but season two I really admire how much work they’re putting into their relationship.
Mae: They’re both really trying to compromise and make it work. And I know in my own life I’ve definitely felt like I have to have all my shit figured out before I can be in a serious adult relationship and I think it’s important to learn that it’s okay to need somebody sometimes and it’s okay to do that work with someone. You don’t have to have everything figured out before you open up.
Drew: The show really gets into what’s romantic vs. what’s this skewed Love, Actually version of romance and to me the idea of working through problems and giving people some grace is romantic. Obviously we should also be aware of times where it’s better to walk away.
Mae: Like Mae with Scott, right? It has to be on a case-by-case basis. Even in season one with Maggie. I think a big theme of the show is what we do with people we love who have hurt us. Even with Mae’s parents. It just has to be case-by-case. But I find that hopeful too that Mae and George allow each other to grow. And I’m constantly struggling with what’s healthy in relationships. Needing someone versus wanting someone. And I think we leave them in a place where they’re at least making a really conscious choice to be together, not just compelled to be together because they’re anxious and want to own each other.
Drew: Yes. So the last thing I want to talk about is pretty serious… well, you manage to make a lot of things funny so maybe you’ll be able to do that here.
Mae: (laughs) Try me.
Drew: (laughs) Well, throughout the season George is tackling these really big issues of how to make the world a better place, while Mae is confronting these personal traumas that connect to this larger question of harm and accountability. And, look, I work in this industry and, well, I live in this world, and I appreciate the way the show is honest about how impossible it can feel to change these systems of power. So, I guess, I’m wondering while writing this season if you made any discoveries for yourself about how we can approach these big picture issues.
Mae: I think the backlash to the Me Too Movement and all the conversations around it became really focused on outing people. So I wanted to show that there are no winners in these situations. If somebody outs somebody online, that doesn’t mean that they’ve won. They’re still dealing with the ripple effect of the harm. And also let’s face it most of the time people’s abusers are someone they know and care about whether it’s a friend or a family member or someone they’re dating. Most of the time it’s not a stranger in an alleyway. I don’t think we often get to show how excruciating it is to try to reckon with people who you care about who have hurt you in that way.
I didn’t want to make a revenge fantasy show or even a show about sexual assault. It’s very much a show asking what do we do with our trauma from the past and how much do we let it affect our present and how much responsibility do we take for how it’s affecting the people around us. The show doesn’t really propose any answers but hopefully it will start some interesting conversations. I hope it just shows the long-lasting effects of the harm and the ripples it can have. We’ve just started to scratch the surface, unfortunately. But I have to be positive and hope that things are changing. Even in little ways like the last time I was at Just for Laughs there was a behavioral guide in the green rooms. Just a page plastered on the green rooms like, “Hey don’t rape anyone.”
Mae: But really like this is what’s appropriate and this is what’s not. And it’s just a small gesture but it will make a difference just in shaping the culture. I mean, in 2001 when I started doing comedy things were so different. I definitely think we’re moving in the right direction.
Drew: Oh my God that reminds me — this is a pretty stark pivot — but I found a video of you doing comedy when you were 16??
Mae: I was doing a character! Everybody watches it and thinks that’s what I was like.
Drew: (laughs) You were obviously doing a character! I could tell that.
Mae: (laughs) Oh good.
Drew: When you were doing comedy as a teenager were you mostly doing characters like that?
Mae: Yeah I was doing a lot of improv and sketch. And I was doing stand up too, but it took me years before I felt comfortable being more myself on stage. Oh my God I had some horrendous characters. I’m lucky YouTube didn’t exist then.
Drew: Well, I’m grateful the one we have is a 10th grader obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Mae: (laughs) Yeah.
Drew: Which I actually watched during the pandemic—
Mae: Wait, Drew. Will you make me sound smart in this interview? Because I feel like I’ve rambled a lot, but the thing is these are really tough questions and—
Mae: Which we should all be talking about, but can you just emphasize that I don’t know anything—
Drew: Mae. Mae.
Mae: I’m a comedian.
Drew: (laughs) I will make sure people know you’re a comedian. But also you sound smart. You’re great.
Mae: (laughs) Okay.
Drew: I know you run a little anxious as do I. But you sound plenty smart.
Mae: Okay thank you.
Drew: You’re great. Everyone loves you. Well, maybe not everyone.
Drew: But everyone in my community!
Mae: I think it’s that I haven’t really left my apartment that much in a year and a half. It’ll be really nice to be out and feeling the response to the show. Especially from within the queer community. I’m so desperate to do right by everyone.
Drew: Honestly, it’s such a relief to have media that feels authentic. And not in the sense that it’s like an authentic story about a non-binary person or an authentic story about trauma — but in the sense that it’s an authentic story about these people Mae and George. And that ends up making it a more authentic story about a non-binary person and a more authentic story about trauma, you know?
Mae: Yeah, hopefully. I’m not necessarily doing it because I want to mine the identity or the trauma. It’s more of an artistic choice. Because I wouldn’t be good at writing a sci-fi movie about a bunch of dudes. This is my experience and I feel like it’s what I’m going to be best at writing. So it sometimes doesn’t feel like a choice and it can be scary. But I want to be a comedian and this is what I’m going to end up writing about. I hope people like it.
Both seasons of Feel Good are now streaming on Netflix.