'I like having huge projects' | 20 questions: Mark Watson

'I like having huge projects'

20 questions: Mark Watson

So, after all your research for the show, let’s start with an easy question: what is the point of life?

I'll be addressing this question properly in the show and I'd hate to ruin it. But to give you a taster - it is more complicated than I'd hoped. It's lucky the show's an hour long.

The title came from a religious evangelist. Do you believe in a God?

I'd like to answer this question flippantly but I’ve always struggled with it actually. In my life I've been atheist, Christian and agnostic. I'm like one of these players who've represented both Celtic and Rangers. I'm now considering my options.

You say the show was also a response to a rather premature midlife crisis. What brought that on?

I had a crisis of confidence just around Christmas and started worrying that I was shit at comedy, after an awful run of gigs. And it was around this time that the evangelist guy asked me what the point of life was and set me thinking in more general existential terms. But there are more jokes in the show than all this perhaps suggests. There are about 190 in fact.

Why do you put yourself through the long shows every year?

t’s my favourite part of Edinburgh actually. It's the only thing I can do which feels like it's uniquely mine, if only because no-one else would be stupid enough. And the relationship between me and the audience is quite different from a normal stand-up show; much more intense. I've always been driven by the desire to do things no-one else is doing. Even though many awful things have been done as a result of that very impulse.

Will you keep doing them?

It has to stop somewhere. I'm thinking of trying to wrap it up with two final, spectacular marathons in Edinburgh and Melbourne next year, with various links between the two so that it almost feels like one massive, conclusive show. I certainly don't want it to become one of these debased Edinburgh institutions like Late and Live, or a tired gimmick that makes jaded punters go 'oh, he's doing THAT again, is he'. That's why I'm doing it in a perverse, nomadic way this year to avoid settling into a rut.

What are your top three tips for being less crap at the environment?

Don't go on internal flights, they're silly. Switch things off.
And go to www.myspace.com/crapattheenvironment to join in with world-saving initiatives.

Small steps aren’t really going to work, are they? Don’t we need a fundamental change to our lifestyles that, frankly, will never happen.

Part of the point of the whole project, for me, is an experiment to see whether that is true or not. Environmentalists often maintain that 'we can all make a difference' but it's easy to feel that an individual's actions are dwarfed by the enormous forces at work in the world. Crap At The Environment is an attempt to confront the knowledge that we're possibly doomed anyway and make the best of things.

How guilty do you feel about flying to Australia to work there?

Pretty guilty; I've cancelled a lot of other flights this year but, obviously, Australia is far enough to make these carbon savings irrelevant. And although I'm offsetting my carbon use, it's a matter for debate whether that is actually worth doing, or just a conscience-salve preventing genuine progress. I hope, though, that in the long run, raising my 'profile’ in Australia will give me the clout to do some sort of good which would justify the means. Like a less influential Al Gore.

Your publicity says that you wrote your first will when you were six after losing a game of Connect 4 to your dad. What did it say?

It was largely focused on Connect 4. I stated that my dad's superior talent for the game had left me too depressed to go on. I was a strange, morbid kid.

How did you find time to write a second novel, too? You’re making other comedians look lazy…

I just write all the time, where possible. Writing a novel is very difficult though, this one took me ages. The attention to detail and the concentration and patience it demands are all off the scale compared with anything else I’ve done. But that's what makes it attractive. I like having huge projects. I hardly ever watch TV or DVDs or anything, that’s my time-saving tip. If you’re not having to follow ‘Lost’ or ‘The West Wing’ it frees up a lot of hours.

Do you prefer writing or performing?

I need both, really. Writing is probably more satisfying, or the satisfaction is deeper and more long-lasting, but it's also so slow and there's so much waiting around for people's reactions, and – in the case of certain genres of writing – having to defer to charlatans and idiots. Plus I’m something of an attention-seeker and there's no immediate ego boost like a good gig.

Given that you’ve won several, what do you think of awards for comedy?

I think some people talk them up too much, and other people moan about them too much. I've got to be pragmatic and say that they have done me a lot of good, in terms of people being aware of me. But the emphasis on the Perrier/Eddies in Edinburgh is unfortunate, I think. It creates the impression that the entire thing is a competition, rather than an arts festival. Of course in some ways it IS a de facto competition, but it's not the healthiest way to see things. I'm not damning the Eddies like some comics do, it would be hypocritical; I just wish people would say 'your show is great full stop' rather than 'that was great, you must be in with a chance this year (raised eyebrow)...' as if we were all in The Apprentice or something. This culture is largely fostered by the growing number of industry people who ‘pop up from London’ in the last four days, see the shortlisted shows and nothing else, and then piss off again, spending the rest of the year claiming to have ‘done the Fringe every year since god-knows-when’.

What’s your favourite Edinburgh experience?

Without wanting to harp on, I’d have to say the end of the first 24-hour show was the best few minutes of my life so far. Everything had fallen into place against the odds, the room was packed, there was an atmosphere of euphoria and mayhem, and then the proposal. You don’t often get people crying at the end of an Edinburgh show, except maybe from relief.

And your worst?

Oh there are lots. At least once per Fringe you wish you were a long, long way away doing something quite different. I remember doing a late-night gig in 2003 when I was just desperate to be on a stage at all. I wasn’t meant to be on until 1.30am and it started half an hour late in the hope a crowd would eventually turn up, but even then, there were only three punters and about five other acts in the audience. Just before my time came up, the promoter had a sort of nervous breakdown and shooed us all out of the venue, screaming that no-one had ever given her a chance in life. All in all it wasn’t quite the showcase I had been hoping for.

Where do you go to escape the festival?

Linlithgow, which is about half an hour out of Edinburgh, but I’m not saying any more about it because I don’t want it to become popular.

What one bit of advice would you give to someone visiting the festival?

Trust your own instincts when choosing shows. Everyone these days has five stars from somewhere and ‘UNMISSABLE’ on their poster, but a lot of much-hyped things are surprisingly missable. And a lot of great, low-budget shows are waiting to be discovered.

What one thing could make the Fringe better?

Making it five days shorter, culling about 200 shows, and staging it in Melbourne. But who can imagine a festival like that?

You are in the Rough Guide To British Cult Comedy's top ten of ‘coolest acts’. Who would be in your list?

I’m bound to leave someone out, but… Daniel Kitson, Josie Long, Reg D Hunter, Chris Addison, Tim Minchin, Milton Jones, Rhod Gilbert, Will Adamsdale, Tim Key, Russell Brand when he was just a stand-up. But also people like Adam Hills, Lee Mack and Danny Bhoy who understand the value of infallibly making a thousand people really happy rather than aesthetic showboating. Rather than necessarily choosing my favourite acts I’ve named people who have something unique about them. Some of them don’t rate each other at all, which just makes it cooler. I think it’s dangerous to have little enclaves of ‘cool’ within comedy whose members prop up each other’s sense of being cutting-edge. Coolness is about individualism if it’s about anything.

Can the Cambridge Footlights ever live up to the expectations that come with its reputation?

Perhaps not, because those expectations are based on a disingenuous idea of a ‘golden era’ of Footlights. When Tim Key and I were in the Footlights show in 2001, several people said ‘I can’t see any of THESE people having a career in comedy’; then last year, two journalists asked me why Footlights weren’t as good any more as in ‘our day’. And no doubt the 2011 show will be unfavourably compared to last year’s. The problem is that when people hear Footlights’ alumni include Stephen Fry, Richard Ayoade, Mitchell and Webb and so on, they imagine there was once a halcyon age when every show was like a cross between the best of Garth Merenghi, Fry+Laurie, and Peep Show. In reality Footlights, like any student revue, has always been, and always will be, a mixture of the future star and the won’t-ever-do-this-again; expectations should be moderate.

At the same time, it’s fair to say that Footlights shows often haven’t been self-aware enough, both in terms of marketing and in terms of comic ambition. Like it or not, ‘Oxbridge’ will always read ‘tosser’ to some people, and you have to be smart enough to navigate around that preconception.

Can I give you a flyer?

Yes. I’ll recycle it.

  • Mark Watson: Can I Briefly Talk To You About The Point Of Life? Is on at the Pleasnce Courtyard at 21:10. His 24-Hour Jamboree To Save The Planet starts at 23:30 on August 13, from outside the Fringe office. His second novel, A Light-Hearted Look At Murder is out now. Click here to order it

Published: 5 Aug 2007

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