Marking his tenth year of making us all laugh, Mark Watson, bristolian comedian and writer, is coming to Oxford with his most recent show, ‘Flaws’. Having premiered the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2014, he is now travelling across the country, with 65 tour dates. Oxford has “tended to be a happy venue for me”, and one that he is looking forward to returning to, he tells me.
He is a much-lauded performer, having won Best Newcomer at the 2005 Perrier Awards and Time Out Critics Choice Award in 2006, and is a regular on television shows such as Mock The Week and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. He has performed on Live at the Apollo, Have I Got News For You, and multiple radio shows, and is the author of five books.
Unfortunately he can’t prescribe any specific path for achieving similar success. Times have changed since he was making the transition from comedy regular at university, to having a successful comedic career, he says, with more of a “specific comedy industry” around now. “You can opt for it as a career and have a plan.” For Mark then, comedy was “more something you kind of fell into”.
With very little stand-up on television, there were no great role models for him to look up to. He took part in some open mike sessions during his time at Cambridge University, and was part of the revue as well as Footlights, but his main inspiration came instead from watching live music, where he loved the atmosphere and sense of live performance and occasion.
We agree that it’s a well-known fact that everyone wants to be in a band, and according to Mark, “being a comedian is basically the way you can live out that dream if you don’t have any musical abilities”.
On the subject of ability, I ask how plausible it is to learn comedy. “The discipline itself is something with its own rules,” he says, so in that sense there is a lot to learn. Learning how to command a stage, how to structure a joke, through formal training or through observation of other comedians is invaluable, and necessary, but a “spark of talent” and occassional “bits of luck” don’t go amiss either.
Ultimately Mark advocates hard work as the most important factor in success. It’s not all glamorous television appearances and mythical overnight fame. “Working at it is the most important thing”, he says. “The best people just tend to be people that want it the most and put the most effort in.”
An aspect of comedy that Marl particularly enjoys is that performances are never predictable. With his show, ‘Flaws’, now touring, he feels the piece has been given a new lease of life because of the variety of audiences he is playing to. Where performing the same show over and over can become over-familiar, touring has given this one “a certain vitality”.
Reflecting on growing up, the responsibility of parenthood and our own human flaws, this is a more personal show than we have seen before, and so something that he is really enjoying performing. “It is comic territory that I haven’t visited really that much before”, he adds.
Though he will always have a plan or skeleton for the show, he encourages budding comedians to be open to whatever their audiences throw at them and look forward to the moments when something strange or unexpected happens. “The more I get to go off from my plan, the more fun it is for me.”
There are ups and downs too, of course. Mark recalls a particularly inhospitable gig where “the crowd just wouldn’t shut up”, something that, especially as a young comedian, can hit you pretty hard. “It’s the only time before or since that I’ve really felt a dread of ever doing it again.” He recommends getting “back on the bike” as quickly as possible after an experience like that. It is important to remember not to blame yourself for an audience who just won’t listen.
At the same time, he talks about the 24-hour marathon comedy shows that he has put on in the past at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an incredible feat and one of his favourite experiences, “different from everything else”.
Another favourite gig of his was performing at the Sydney Opera House. “You’re in the opera house and your poster’s up,” he says, excitedly. His mum even spontaneously came out to Australia for one of these shows to surprise him, so he has plenty of good associations with it.
As well as a comedian, Mark is also a writer, with another book due out next year. Comedy has to come first, he says, as “it’s the main way I earn my living”. However he adds that stand-up can be “quite a lonely pursuit”, so Mark really values the chance to have other things going on.
It’s always good to dream, and Mark tells me that his dream is to be the first comedian to perform in space. “It’s a long term goal”, he assures me, but we’ll be watching out for him.
‘Flaws’ comes to the Oxford Playhouse on 22nd January.
PHOTO/Gaby Jerrard publicity