Fans of the Canadian standupMae Martincould probably tell you a lot about her life. Her parents are named Wendy and James. She’s been infatuated with Bette Midler since she was six. She’s attended rehab for drug addiction. And people often make assumptions about her sexuality based on her haircut.
Martin’s fans know all this because she shares “intensely personal” stories on stage. “When I reveal the weirdest, most specific personal details, that’s the stuff audiences really relate to,” she says. It makes sense then that Martin’s first television series,Feel Good, is an autobiographical story of love and addiction in which she stars as the main character, also called Mae. When the series hits Channel 4 and Netflix next year, she will join a grand tradition of comedians who have fictionalized their own lives for laughs. Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld,Miranda Hartand others have created defining roles when playing versions of themselves for TV. It’s left audiences wondering whether the “real” Larry David would ever risk his marriage by arguing overa ring stain on a wooden coffee table.
On stage, Martin tries to be “as close to myself as I possibly can be” although “maybe more energised”. But on screen, she and Feel Good co-writer Joe Hampson have “imagined what I would be like if you dialled up all my neuroses… So the character is grappling with all the things that I grapple with – relationships, sobriety, romanticism, gender identity, career stuff – but she has a much looser grasp on them all. ”
Comedy writer Amna Saleem took the same approach when writing her Radio 4 sitcomBeta Female, which explores gender, race and class through the eyes of a character called Amna who, like her creator, is a Scottish-Pakistani woman in her 20 s. She became more feminist and more anxious than Saleem herself. “She is just a super-annoying version of me,” she says. “I think people would say that they can’t really see the difference!”
Saleem is used to finding the humor in everyday events and sharing the details on Twitter, so writing autobiographical material came naturally to her. “Twitter’s almost like a writers’ room, because if I write something that’s happened and people respond to it, my brain immediately goes: ‘Right, that’s a scene.’ I’ll keep aspects, but then fictionalise it.”
Placing herself at the center of a sitcom felt different. “The hardest part was giving myself permission to do it,” Saleem says. “I just wanted to write comedy, I didn’t specifically set out to write about myself. I had lots of angst over it because it felt very narcissistic. Coming from a Scottish-Pakistani background, self-deprecation is super in-built. ”Saleem thinks that because comedians are“ constantly bleeding themselves dry, mining their lives for those really human moments ”, you probably know them better than you might think.
Liam Williams started out doingvery personal standup shows– discussing his childhood, break-ups, sex life and depression. On stage, he felt a drive to be truthful. He was being himself but he didn’t enjoy it. “There’s a maxim – write what you know – but through experience I found out that doing standup about what you know can be a bit unpleasant,” he says.
During the same period, Williams was also performing sketch comedy as one third of the groupSheeps. He and fellow members Al Roberts and Daran Johnson settled into distinct on-stage personas. This was more comfortable: being a character called Liam, but “a massively heightened version of me”, Williams says. The Liam in Sheeps is “generally quite gruff, scruffy and idealistic” he says. “We just picked two traits that we each have and exaggerated them to the hilt. So maybe the last few years of stuff I’ve been doing have been different versions of that. ”
Williams’ TV series Ladhood, based onhis Radio 4 show of the same name, is a fictionalized account of his teenage years in West Yorkshire. But in other shows, too, Williams has almost exclusively played characters called Liam. In the BBC Three vlogger parodyPls Like, he portrays a nihilistic comedian who’s reluctantly dragged into the shiny world of YouTube influencers. In the web comedyYear Friends, he and comedians Ellie White, Natasia and Jamie Demetriou, plus Roberts and Johnson , all play surreal versions of themselves. (Admittedly, the Liam we meet in Brexit satireCapital, a zealous capital punishment advocate who scorns the metropolitan elite, does seem a few steps further removed from the real Williams.)
“It’s like a mask, a version of yourself that you have an affinity with, but also it’s distant enough that it can do things you’d never do,” he says. “You feel enough connection with it that it feels real and interesting, but it’s far enough removed from your personal life that it’s not too uncomfortable, it’s not too revealing.”
By magnifying character quirks and escalating situations, much likeLarry Davidand co have done before him, Williams found he could more easily place his fictional Liams in hilarious situations. “Often truth and reality is quite boring,” he says. “It’s the stuff that we don’t actually dare [do] – imagine if things were this awkward or imagine if a person was this selfish – when it gets comedically interesting. With Pls Like, that’s when it was the most funny to me. It was this persona that’s based on me as a miserable misanthropic comedian, but now he’s meeting a beauty vlogger and now he’s doing an exercise regime. It was the unweliness, and the effect that created, that I liked. ”
Although she was happy to call Beta Female’s main character after herself – “I like the name Amna and I’ve never seen a character with that name” – Saleem thought twice about playing her too. The role went to Kiran Sonia Sawar, while Saleem played her sister. Martin has tried to create a similar distance in Feel Good by avoiding telling details: “In general, we’ve taken feelings and narrativised them, rather than events or specific people.”
Navigating the consequences of friends, family and acquaintances spotting themselves in supporting characters has also factored into Saleem’s and Williams’s work. In Beta Female, Amna introduces her white, Oxbridge-educated, journalist boyfriend to her extended family for the first time. Writing Amna’s aunts, uncles and cousins, Saleem merged multiple people’s real-life traits to create new characters that couldn’t be identified as any one family member. “My family’s so big that I had so much to play with,” she says. However, “they could see similarities. My mum’s been getting text messages from relatives like, ‘Who was that about?’ That’s quite a funny side-effect. ”
Creating Theo, the boyfriend character, was trickier. “I definitely did ask permission for that one, because they are quite similar. Funnily enough, we actually ended up breaking up, so it was this weird thing where now I have to keep writing that character. ”
Williams has also been careful to fictionalise Liam’s friends and family in the TV version of Ladhood – for their sake and for the viewer. “I found five people from my real life would suddenly be embodied in one,” he says. “There are limitations when you’re telling your own story. What you find interesting is not necessarily what other people will find interesting. So you need to look more towards universality – that character becoming something people might be more engaged by rather than someone specific you went to school with. ”
After a decade of writing and playing himself, Williams is currently working on a novel. The central character is fictional, but, he concedes: “I assume that any character you create, in whatever medium, they’re going to have some of your traits.” He hasn’t named the character yet, but he knows one thing : they won’t be called Liam.
Feel Good will be broadcast on Channel 4 and Netflix in 2020. The pilot of Beta Female isavailable now on BBC Sounds. Ladhood is available on BBC iPlayer from 28 November.