The perfect blend
Clelia Mountford, co-founder of Catastrophe producer Merman, and Feel Good creator Mae Martin speak to DQ about the finding the right mix of laughs and emotion to hit the sweet spot of comedy drama.
Early in her career, Clelia Mountford read a Charlie Chaplin quote that would go on to inspire the shows she has developed and produced as part of Merman, the production company she founded with writer and actor Sharon Horgan.
“Life is a tragedy when seen in close up but a comedy in long shot,” the silent film star said, and it is that line that has proven to be a mantra for Merman, whose celebrated slate of series includes Catastrophe, Women on the Verge, This Way Up, Motherland, Frayed, There She Goes and upcoming comedy Frank of Ireland.
“Sharon and I set up to tell stories that would make you laugh and cry in all the right places,” she tells DQ. “We like stories that are more about the way characters develop, that have a bit of progression over a series and a bit more structure, rather than a return-to-start sitcom where characters don’t change and things don’t progress. That’s the sort of thing we watch, and we like to be challenged a little bit. We like to make shows about something else other than making jokes.”
Mountford and Merman are not alone, with comedy dramas on a high thanks to the success of series such as Fleabag, Dead to Me, Sex Education, Sick of It, After Life, Love Me, Pørni, Back to Life and others that blur the traditional boundaries of both genres.
“We like to start with the characters and they should be pretty well rounded and flawed, just like we all are. But then you put them in a situation and see what happens,” says Mountford, who has just returned from Australia after shooting the first part of the second season of Sky and ABC Australia comedy Frayed. The 1980s-set series stars comedian Sarah Kendall as Sammy, a wealthy London housewife who is forced to return to her home town of Newcastle, Australia, where she revisits her past.
“She’s self-obsessed, quite self-involved and doesn’t necessarily do the best for her family,” Mountford adds. “Then you throw her into an interesting predicament where she has to go home and own up to and confront family secrets and her actions from years ago. That’s a dramatic situation but, through her dynamic with her brother and her mother, it becomes quite a funny scenario. You want to see how these characters interact in this serious situation.”
Frayed is a story Merman felt hadn’t been told before, offering a unique perspective on an unknown world. Similarly, BBC2’s There She Goes stars David Tennant and Bafta winner Jessica Hynes as the parents of a severely learning-disabled nine-year-old girl, with all the events based on the real experiences of writer Shaun Pye.
“You could say that’s a family drama, but it’s from a very unique perspective,” Mountford says. “They still have to deal with family issues of bringing up kids and everything that entails, but’s a different way into that story.”
Motherland again takes a different approach, with a more comedic and heightened view of a group of “alpha mums” and the trials and traumas they confront through motherhood. “It might be not as high drama as some of our other shows in what they’re going through, but it is a domestic show,” the exec producer says. “It has details about people’s lives that are relatable. The people who write it and me producing it, we all have kids and we all have experiences at the school gates and make observations, so we throw those into the mix. The situations and the characters would be slightly heightened, but it comes from truth and experience as a starting point.”
Though they each have their own tone, Merman shows find their balance of humour and character development within the worlds where they are set. They also reflect the experiences of the creatives behind each series, with the production company becoming known for working with or establishing writers who may also star in their own shows. Kendall brought her idea for Frayed to Merman, who then encouraged her to take the lead role herself, while Aisling Bea’s This Way Up and brothers Brian and Domnhall Gleeson’s Frank of Ireland are just two other examples of writers fronting their own series.
“Possibly because of the way we produce and develop shows, we are very involved with the writers,” Mountford says. “Obviously, Sharon’s a writer as well as a performer. I’m a creative producer. With Motherland, there’s always a writer on set so, if a joke’s not working properly or there’s an issue with the location and you might need to change a little bit of the script, there’s always somebody there.
“Then with something like There She Goes, it had to be truthful to Shaun’s experience of his daughter and his family. It needed to be funny, but naturally funny and coming from the character and the situation, rather than, ‘Here’s a comedy set piece.’ It’s just about getting the tone right for each show and what was considered and coming from character.”
Mountford had known Pye for many years, having worked with him on The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret and A Young Doctor’s Notebook. She knew his family and his story and took the decision to produce the series herself. Meanwhile, Horgan had met Bea on the stand-up comedy circuit, which is just one of the places the Merman co-founders seek out new talent to work with.
“When things were open [before the Covid-19 pandemic], I would go to the theatre and comedy shows all the time, so that was a way of finding writers and performers,” Mountford says. “Quite often, we work with writer-performers because they’re telling stories they know or that are based on their own experience. Personally, I love that. It just feels more authentic and [offers] a unique perspective into a world that maybe we don’t know, and only they can tell that story.
“That often comes from stand-up because that’s the persona and the experience they’re telling on stage. We love nurturing talent and can help shape their stories or seed of a story into a six-part series with a full character arc and story arc and help them do more than tell jokes for half an hour.”
Another stand-up comedian who has made their way to television is Mae Martin, who partnered with Joe Hampson to create Channel 4 and Netflix’s award-winning series Feel Good. The story, inspired by Canadian Martin’s own life, follows recovering addict and comedian Mae (Martin), who embarks on an all-consuming relationship with her new girlfriend George (Charlotte Ritchie).
Playing laugh-out loud moments against topical discussions about sexuality, gender and addiction, Martin says she and co-writer Hampson didn’t want to make a sitcom but instead set out to examine “quite heavy subject matter in a really funny way.”
“That’s the type of stuff Joe and I like to watch and it’s the most true to life,” she tells DQ on the last day of editing the second and final season, which is expected to land on Netflix this summer. “I’ve been in the most dramatic situations but they’ve still been hilarious or someone has said something ridiculous. You can be in the middle of a break-up and someone says something and you laugh for a second and then continue breaking up. That’s what life is like. We wanted it to really be a balanced show where you never know where you are as an audience member. You don’t know what’s coming next tonally.”
Produced by Objective Fiction, season one of Feel Good was about the “chaos” of falling in love. Season two then sees reality set in between Mae and George as they try to turn their toxic and intense relationship into a long-lasting and a healthy one. “But they’re both massively changing and grappling with different things, trying to see if they’re going to grow together or grow apart,” the writer says. “It’s tackling things like how much personal responsibility we should take for our own happiness versus dumping it on our partner, but it’s very funny. It’s got big laughs and it’s still got Phil [Burgers, as housemate Phil] and Lisa Kudrow [as Mae’s mum Linda].”
Friends star Kudrow flew to England for filming during the pandemic, while restrictions forced Martin and Ritchie to ‘bubble’ together during production. “The themes in season two are maybe slightly heavier,” Martin adds, “but we were hyper-aware of offsetting that with even bigger jokes and that ridiculousness. We stuck with the tone we had in season one, but we wouldn’t have wanted to do a second season if we didn’t think we could elevate it and try to hit an even deeper emotional nerve. We really want to make people cry and laugh.”
Through the series, which was named best comedy drama at the 2020 C21 International Drama Awards, Martin and Hampson sought to present real-life issues in an authentic and awkward way, with Hampson helping Martin to draw out some of her own experiences. She says it was “great fun but quite intense” reflecting on those emotions, admitting the show deals with moments she had never revealed to close friends. “It’s intense to share it with the world,” Martin adds.
The writers would prepare a detailed outline together, breaking down the story into beats within scenes and little bits of dialogue. Then they would each tackle different scenes and edit each other’s scripts, going back and forth until they forgot who wrote what.
“Most of the comedy is character-driven – people being intense, pedantic or un-self-aware,” Martin says. “We read everything out loud a lot, me and Joe, and we do all the voices. If things aren’t making us laugh, we know we need to change it and we usually do a big pass at the end that’s joke-focused.”
Things could then change again once the cast and crew had been assembled on set. “When you hear things in the actors’ voices as well, sometimes you think, ‘Oh, that word, it’s actually funnier if she says ‘wasp’ or something. There are certain words that Joe and I just find really funny. We really like the sound of words like ‘crisps,’ ‘James Bond’ and ‘wasps.’ We make sure we get those in there.”
Like Mountford, Martin says comedy-drama is the genre she and her friends turn to, noting their “real craving” for authenticity on screen. The genre, she believes, is the truest to life and reflects the natural absurdity in everyday events.
When writing the series, Martin “purposely tried not to watch things that could be perceived as similar [to Feel Good],” she says. “I remember when [Lena Dunham’s HBO series] Girls came out and that having a big impact on me because it felt like they spoke in the way that my friends spoke and it was genuinely funny but also properly romantic. We were really aware of being derivative in any way, so we tried to make a fresh start.”
The winner of both the breakthrough and the comedy writer awards – the latter she shared with Hampson – at the recent Royal Television Society Programme Awards, Martin is now developing a comedy-drama thriller with Netflix and is writing a film with Hampson and Feel Good director Luke Snellin. She’s also keen to act more. “I just auditioned for a Star Wars series but I haven’t heard back,” she reveals. “I definitely won’t get it!”
Feel Good completes Martin’s long-held ambition to move from writing stand-up to writing for the screen. “What I loved was writing other people’s perspectives,” she says. “Stand-up is so solipsistic. It’s just one unedited or unchallenged viewpoint, so it was nice writing and thinking about other people. I grew up watching character comedy; I love it when people just nail human behaviour in that way.”
Mountford agrees that viewers “just want a good story” and the chance to follow and fall in love with a character.
“Going forward, we might find that people want more audience sitcoms and to laugh even more. But there is a hybrid that really works because it reflects life,” she says. “We like to laugh or cry, and we need to laugh more than ever.”