Feeling Good in ‘Feel Good’

By Madeline Lane-McKinley

From the outset Feel Good is a deliberate, at times quite earnest take on the romantic comedy, following its central characters Mae and George through the requisite meet-cute, mini-breakups born from mishaps, and eventually toward a hope of mutual understanding. But in Feel Good, romantic comedy never feels good. It wears this genre uncomfortably, like brightly-colored clothing that draws the wrong kind of attention. As Mae remarks, six months into the relationship, “I only wear black now… I don’t wear colors anymore because I’m worried she’s going to come out of the shower and be startled and be like ‘oh fuck, it’s a girl!’” Later, burying their head in their hands, Mae sighs, “I’m not a boy… I’m not even a girl. I’m like a failed version of both.”

An up-and-coming stand-up comedian based in London, Mae (played semi-autobiographically by Mae Martin) struggles with gender dysphoria, addiction, and severe anxiety. As the series unfolds, Mae comes out as non-binary, relapses, returns to rehab, and begins to process their traumatic adolescence, including sexual abuse. For the most part, all this is far more compelling than the ups and downs of their relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie). But entangled in their romance are lurking insecurities about what brought them together, and what keeps them together. “I had a problem, and now I have you,” Mae assures George, not long before relapsing. At times, Mae seems convinced that it isn’t love, but addiction – that is, they wonder if they can’t love, because they’re an addict.

Despite taking the backseat for much of the series, George’s story is certainly intriguing. To Mae, George is “culturally straight,” practically destined to wake up and realize that she just wants a beefcake man with a B- personality, as Mae jokes at one point. George says things like, “everyone grows up wanting to get married,” but as a thirtysomething adult who was single for years before meeting Mae, she’s disinterested in getting married and ambivalent about having children. Although she feels herself to be not straight, she grasps at what it might mean to be not just against her own straightness. Just as Mae feels vulnerable to developing a chemical dependence in romantic relationships, George comes to recognize that she is in her own trap.

George’s predicament is a distinctly heteropessimistic one, at least at first. “Quite often framed as an anti-capitalist position, heteropessimism could be read as a refusal of the ‘good life’ of marital consumption and property ownership that capitalism once mandated,” writes Asa Seresin, “yet this good life, which was always withheld from marginalized populations, is now untenable for almost everyone.” With echoes of Lee Edelman, Seresin suggests that heteropessimism can be understood as an “anesthetic feeling” – an effect “especially seductive because it dissociates women from the very traits… for which straight culture is determined to make us ashamed.” Countering this logic, Sophie Lewis argues that this proliferation of “heterofatalist” / ”heteropessimist” discourses “suggests the existence, at the very least, of a subpopulation of females who believe sufficiently in their own heterosexuality to be ashamed of it.” Lewis conceives of heterosexualism, by contrast, “as an impossible demand,” calling on us “to extend radical love towards that which is as unlike the self as possible.” Rather than disidentification, this demand is about troubling identification. As Lewis insists, “If you want to be a heterosexualist, you must direct your love and desire towards that which is different, strange, and other.”

While often set aside in Feel Good, George’s awakening heterosexualism remains essential to what is decisively Mae’s story – messy and sometimes distracted, yet always grounded in the problem of what it means to “feel good” not just on our own, but with others. “What I’m doing is just jumping from thing to thing, and that’s not healthy,” Mae tells George, “and that’s what I do is just jump from thing to thing.” “—I’m not a thing,” George interjects, “I’m a person, I’m not a thing. And what if I’m a person and I’m in love with you?” What’s wonderful about Feel Good is how it dances around these moments, never quite up for the challenge of facing them, but never pretending otherwise.

Buried in Feel Good, perhaps irrecoverably, is a curiosity about what any of this has to do with comedy, however. Between fascinating glimpses into the power dynamics and inner workings of the comedy industry, the series often hesitates to take on Mae’s relationship to writing and performing stand-up in any substantial way, instead veering towards Mae’s relationships to George, drugs, their Narcotics Anonymous sponsor Maggie (Sophie Thompson), Maggie’s daughter Lava (Ritu Arya), or their mother Linda (Lisa Kudrow). For the most part it remains unclear how Mae’s approach to stand-up, and their experiences in the comedy world, are embedded in the deeper problem of what is means to “feel good.”

Feeling good in comedy has historically been treated as a matter of superiority or relief in the act of joking. The superiority theory of comedy (the punching down most unabashedly imagined in Thomas Hobbes’s account of laughter as a “sudden glory”) enacts a desire to be “the agent rather than the target of laughter,” write Cynthia and Julie Willett, clarifying a pleasure that “stems from an increase of one’s power, status, or reputation at the expense of others.” The relief theory of humor, typified by Freud, conceives of the joke as a “release of the liberated inhibitory charge.” In their embrace of stand-up comedy as a battleground for “free thinkers” today, the fascistic alt-right is fixated on joking as a form of domination, but also imagines joking through the liberatory possibilities of relief. This is the ejaculatory logic of “free speech” which is Louis C.K.’s claims to martyrdom. The driving force is the comedic agent’s release, irrespective of the power dynamics of being released upon, including assault, harassment, and all the rest, re-articulated as artistic freedom.

Stepping onto this battleground, Feel Good hardly engages the enemy – though the enemy clearly looms. At one point, Mae is sexually harassed by Arnie Rivers, a stand-up has-been who’s attempting post-cancellation redemption and looking for an opening act for his upcoming tour. Almost in the same breath as asking Mae to be his opener, he asks them to touch his penis. In the post-#MeToo landscape of the show, the incident takes place with some notable surprises. Mae approaches Nick (Tobi Bamtefa), the club booker, who immediately kicks Arnie out. Moments like this happen not without a sense that they are rare – for the most part, it seems, comedy is a dark world to be kept at arm’s length, just like so much else.

Initially skeptical of Arnie, especially with the knowledge that George finds him attractive, Mae in time becomes quite taken with him – that is, before he tries to pull out his penis. Arnie is charming, and ostensibly up for critique as well. He laughs and nods as Mae calls him on his schtick, then asks Mae to give him a tour of the club. Before intimidating them into sexual favors, Arnie challenges Mae to take the stage as honestly as possible. The set is a huge success. It goes viral, bringing attention to Mae’s comedy and with the promise of some working stability, but it is entirely filled with anger and judgment towards George. As the crowd cheers, Mae becomes emboldened, revealing intimate details about George’s life and their sex life, and unleashing far more vitriol than Mae’s perpetually demonized mother could ever deliver. “I have a straight girlfriend… I’m exhausted. I’m so tired, all the time,” Mae complains, unaware that George is in the audience. As Mae continues, George begins to cry, and soon has to leave the club. When Nick tells Mae what happened, Mae runs back home, presenting George with excuses straight from the alt-right handbook of comedy hate speech: “those were just jokes,” Mae insists, “that was just joking.”

What does develop of this question comes at the end of the second and final season, in Mae’s complex relationship with Scott, an older comedian and fellow recovering junkie. Eventually, we learn that they had a long-term sexual relationship, when Mae was a teenage runaway. As Martin has clarified in interviews about the autobiographical nature of the series, the character Scott is based on multiple comedians, who were problematic mentor figures from their early years in comedy. Gently, yet precisely, Feel Good confronts this relationship – how its power relations were ambiguous but discernable with hindsight, and how it was possible in the first place.

A crucial turning point comes when Mae learns that they are not alone, and that Scott had other relationships based in an increasingly perceptible pattern of coercion and grooming. For so many who have experienced sexual abuse, this revelation of being part of a pattern is part of what breaks it. As Mae comes to terms with this, they struggle with whether to speak publicly about their experiences, or to join others making that effort. Eventually, they go to the comedy club in Toronto where all this began, and where Scott still holds court. As Mae approaches Scott, surrounded by sycophantic comedians, it’s clear what this visit is about. When Scott tells the others to give them privacy, Mae asks “Why? They can stay… they knew… everybody knew,” as everyone walks away.

“You gonna get me canceled?” he immediately asks.

Mae rolls their eyes. They want to have a conversation.

“Listen, I’ve apologized over and over again,” Scott tells Mae, “I’m a piece of shit and I wish I was dead. I don’t know what you want me to say. You can tell yourself that I’m the root cause of all your problems if that’s easier for you, but when I met you, you were fucked up.” He continues with this performative self-loathing – the premise of many “canceled” comedians’ comeback tours – and avoids Mae’s questions, moving the conversation towards what will happen to him instead.

“Fuck you Scott,” Mae says. They hug, because the confusion just won’t disappear. “I don’t want to see you or talk to you ever again,” Mae explains, and then leaves. A few minutes later, they throw up.

These kinds of stories of sexual abuse reverberate throughout the comedy industry. Rape jokes are just at the surface level. Beneath the supposed refusal to be censored, the rhetorical maneuvering of “artistic freedom,” and the dream to live without consequences, there is a much deeper desire to be anesthetized in a world of big feelings and high stakes. Framed in many ways against this desire, Feel Good is a reluctant yet poignant meditation on Mae’s longing to live outside of trauma, for their struggles as an addict to be truly behind them, to have done “the work” and be through with it – and to find this in comedy.

As a portrait of comedy after #MeToo, Feel Good is most powerful, if not frustratingly so, for what it asks but won’t answer. Instead, it re-routes narratives – away from the specter of ‘cancel culture,’ and toward a terrain of healing, and regenerating. Rather than tidying up the rom-com between Mae and George, it ends with a sense of mutual care and reciprocity between the characters, along with uncertainty. There isn’t going to be any closure, it screams beneath the quiet, as Mae looks at a leaf, turns to George and asks “so… what is photosynthesis?”

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