Mark Watson: 'The pandemic makes you realise how precarious comedy can be'

The Bristol-born comedian Mark Watson gained a reputation early in his career for marathon standup performances – he staged his first 24-hour gig in 2004, extending it to 36 hours a couple of years later. His stamina has served him well during lockdown. At the start of May, Watson – who is 40 and lives in east London with his partner, the comedy producer Lianne Coop, and his two children – staged a virtual 24-hour standup show for charity. Then he organised the drive-in event series Mark Watson’s Carpool Comedy Club, hosting 24 performances over 12 nights in July and August. “It was fairly gruelling,” he admits when we speak a couple of days after the final show, “but we’re very pleased with how it went.”

There’s more to Watson than endurance. A master of brainy, self-deprecating standup, he was nominated for the Perrier best newcomer award in 2005 and has been a fixture on the UK circuit ever since, making frequent forays around the world. He has also written seven novels, the latest of which, Contacts, will be published in October, with a memoir, Eight Deaths, on the way early next year.

How was 2020 shaping up for you before the pandemic hit?
Comedians tend to plan their schedule well in advance, so I went into 2020 pretty much knowing what all 12 months held, barring some sort of massive cataclysm [laughs]. We were 48 hours away from boarding a plane to Australia when the Melbourne festival was cancelled, along with other dates, so I saw a couple of months of work disintegrate overnight. It was pretty obvious that everything else was going to go – including my Edinburgh festival show, which was almost ready – so it was quite a violent upheaval. You get into a routine of thinking you know what’s what, and then something like this makes you realise how precarious the entire industry can be.

Did you think your career was finished?
I had a period of sheer panic, and I suppose I had to be shaken out of a bit of complacency. It’s quite odd hearing what you do being reclassified as non-essential gatherings – it makes you realise you’ve had a non-essential career for 15 years. I focused on the fact this is largely not about me, and if I can just find a way of getting through it, it’ll be all right.

How did you adapt?
A lot of comedians shied away from online gigs, but my attention-seeking tendency, my need for an audience, overrode any fear of whether it would be fun or not.

You’ve done 24-hour shows live and online… how do they compare?
In some ways, it was hugely different, because these shows rely on the encouragement of people pulling you through the 24 hours. But in other ways it was nicely similar, because the whole thing was on [livestreaming platform] Twitch and there was an endless stream of chatter between audience members. That gave me confidence that, even when we’re not physically together, comedy can unite and mobilise people. That said, like everyone, I am keen to be able to do stuff in actual theatres again.

You also organised 24 drive-in comedy gigs. What are the pros and cons of drive-in comedy?
We didn’t know how the audience’s response would be logged. We got around that in a variety of ways: honking car horns was the obvious one. That led to some quite exhilarating but also noisy and dystopian evenings. As the weather got better, people started to wind their windows down or sit in front of their car, so by the end it was a bit like doing a festival gig.

Watch Mark Watson, Alex Horne and Tim Key’s online game No More Jockeys.

What do you miss most about live comedy?
The social aspect of it, the sense of community, and everyone in a room together enjoying the ups and downs and riding the rhythm of it. A lot of the comedians enjoyed doing the drive-in just for the thrill of seeing their fellow comedians. Standup can be quite gladiatorial, but mostly it’s about bringing people together under a shared aim – the aim of having fun – and if you’re doing it purely online, it’s not so easy to replicate that. Some people don’t enjoy the more toil-heavy aspects of doing live shows, like travelling around the country, but I’ve always enjoyed it. I like to travel, I like to see the audiences. Everything about the lifestyle appeals to me, really, and I have missed that.

How else has your life been affected by the coronavirus?
It’s certainly been a very challenging period. I’ve got two kids and I’ve ended up being a part-time teacher. My partner and I have been running our production company and a schoolyard at the same time for about five months now, and that does take a psychological toll. But I’ve just tried to do whatever possible to keep myself active and positive, and I think it has been worse for a lot of other people.

You must have taken a big financial hit. Do online and drive-in shows compensate for cancelled gigs?
It’s certainly better than nothing. All of us have taken a big hit financially. And that’s another reason why comedians were pretty keen to be booked for these drive-ins. Everyone said it was the first proper earnings they’d had for months. Online is a way of getting around it, and people have been amazingly generous in the way they’ve supported comedy shows. It’s just that, between trying to fundraise for the many other deserving causes and support ourselves, there’s only so much money to go around.

Has the lockdown highlighted aspects of the comedy profession that needed to improve?
The Live Comedy Association was set up hastily in the first few weeks of lockdown, because everybody realised that we have no real infrastructure to protect live performers. It’s been a bone of contention for quite a few years – why don’t comedy venues qualify for the same grants as theatre and opera? And the honest answer is because comedy enjoys being on the fringes of mainstream art. But you don’t enjoy being on the fringes when money’s been given out and there isn’t any for you.


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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