Some of you will know Mark Watson from his appearances on various comedy and panel programmes; some of you will know him from his excellent books. I’ve known Mark through Twitter for a while; he’s such a funny, sweet and intelligent man that I thought I would blackmail him into doing an interview with me. Well, I asked him nicely and he said yes, but “blackmail” sounds more exciting.
Let’s do the plugging bit first: what’s your 25 hour comedy marathon about and how do we give you our money? And obviously the most important question: are you going to stop to have a wee?
It’s a 25-hour stand-up show, in theory. In practice, it’ll be not so much conventional ‘stand-up’ as a cross between comedy, sleep deprivation, stunts and fundraising. It’s for Comic Relief, so unlike my previous marathon shows, there is actually a point to it – beyond sheer self-indulgence. You can donate at www.rednoseday.com any time, including during the show, when it’ll all be streamed live. And speaking of streams: history shows it is not possible to avoid weeing for 25 hours if you’re also drinking water to keep your voice from disappearing. History also shows that audiences don’t always enjoy watching that kind of thing. So we’ll see how that works out.
You’ve achieved so much at the age of 33 that I resent you a little bit. How do you do it? Are you naturally a driven person, or are you using some form of witchcraft to show the rest of us up for the lazy underachievers we are?
I wish I was a witch, but there’d probably be hidden disadvantages to that too, like the clothes you have to wear. Anyway: I’m not. There’s no shortcut. It’s just pure, stupid workload. I suppose I am naturally driven, yes. I find it difficult to relax and switch off. I get a lot done, but on the other hand I’m probably not much fun to live with. Hmm. Swings and roundabouts.
Do you ever feel a conflict between your private and public self? if so, is it ever frustrating to be unable to express parts of your self in the public domain?
Well, most comics are only really showing one part of their personality on stage, I suppose, so I’m fairly happy to caricature my identity if that’s what the artform calls for. What I do find a bit frustrating are the limitations of ‘comedy’ and people’s expectations of it, and that’s why I try to write books which take on much broader stuff. Comedy, especially on TV, can’t help being formulaic to some extent; and, again on TV particularly, you tend to be discouraged from taking risks. In fiction – for example – you can really do what you want. I think it’s important that comedy doesn’t become so comfortable in the mainstream that it can’t say anything interesting. On the other hand… (see answer below)
Stewart Lee wrote in How I Escaped My Certain Fate about the artistic parameters of comedy; he talked about pueblo clowns, who are kind of sacred jesters who take to the streets to mock their village and those who live in it. Once they’ve placed a ring of salt around them, everything they say is protected from ramifications; they use this as a stage to criticise officials and customs and traditions that otherwise would have been taboo. This apparently has a totally positive, freeing impact on the village.
Do you think that stand-up comedy should be conducted in the same spirit? Are there any limits to what comedians should say or who their targets should be, or should comedy be completely free of taboo?
This question has got me into trouble with my peers before, so I’ll tread carefully. Naturally, I believe in free speech and comedy is currently one of the most exciting and powerful uses of free speech within the realm of the arts. But free speech can be abused for entertainment’s sake, and just because comedy is ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’ I don’t think it has a licence to victimise the vulnerable. Comedians are sometimes too quick to claim a kind of immunity to taboos, since there’s a glamour in saying ‘hey! It’s comedy! If you don’t get it, it’s not my fault!’ This overlooks the fact that some taboos exist to protect defenceless groups of people, or to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes. I wouldn’t try to prescribe what can, and can’t be, talked about (I tried once, and that was how I got in trouble, and it’s a shame because I do think Frankie is funny as it happens)… but I feel that comics should remember that they’re now extremely influential, and even if they believe their jokes are always understood ‘in context’ and with ‘suitable irony’, it’s pretty hard to ensure that when you’ve got 4 million YouTube hits.
Similarly, should there be censorship in comedy, or is ‘offensive’ comedy just a matter of (dis)taste?
This is even harder, but I do feel that where language is concerned, there’s probably too much censorship. It’s clearly bonkers that if you’re on (say) Mock The Week, you can say ‘fuck’ maybe twice or three times, not more: as if there’s a tipping point beyond which a word ‘becomes’ rude. Likewise, ‘cunt’ is virtually unbroadcastable, but by what universal yardstick is it ‘more offensive’ than anything else? And how come you can show violent death on the airwaves 24 hours a day, but a single mention of sex in a comedy show can be cut out?
So: language-wise, no, I think audiences should be trusted to hear rude words without the world coming to an end. When it comes to topics, it is clearly trickier, but I don’t advocate censorship. Feeling comedy should be more sensitive to potential offence isn’t the same as saying things should be ‘banned’ from TV. Just that comics shouldn’t expect carte blanche any more than anyone else.
Following on from this; do you think comedy should ever be dissected and analysed in an academic sense? Are there cerebral, almost philosophical possibilities in comedy or do you feel that something’s funny for no reason other than the fact that it’s funny?
Comedy is a very complex business, and people like Stewart Lee (as you say) have talked about it in highly cerebral terms and been fascinating about it. As an ‘art’ – if you want to call it that – it’s got the same potential for analysis as most other forms of performance. The trouble is, often analysis is pretty boring, and very often the answer IS ‘well, it’s just funny’. So I suppose my answer would be: you can analyse comedy, some people do very well, but a lot of the time it doesn’t get you all that far.
What’s next for you, now you’ve successfully mastered comedy and writing? I’m hoping for a Mark Watson perfume range/series of life sized dolls.
Sadly I wouldn’t say I’ve ‘mastered’ either of those things, but I’ll keep trying. Another two books are on the way. The perfume range is proving difficult because of the large amount of scientific knowledge needed. I honestly take my hat off to people like Britney who’ve had perfumes out for years; they must have concentrated hard in Chemistry at school.
Thanks to Mark for this brilliant interview. You can sponsor his charity efforts at the Red Nose Day site.