Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian who you will have seen regularly on TV shows such as Mock The Week, Taskmaster and Have I Got News For You. Mark is also an acclaimed author and prone to considerable anxiety, with multiple phobias and a history of piss-poor self-esteem. Back on the road with his new show and Carpool Comedy events, Mark spoke to Craig Maplesden about lockdown, beeping horns and his new book 'Contacts'.
Hi Mark, thank you for chatting to me. First of all, I hope you are well and have stayed safe during the pandemic. How have you spent your time during lockdown?
Like everyone, I've spent it trying to preserve as much sanity and normality as possible, while doing things like running a two-student school in my house which weren't really part of my plans for 2020/1. I did stay safe and well, so I feel much more fortunate than a lot of people, and I kept trying to remind myself of that fact and - where possible - be available to those in worse situations. As I write this, it looks like we are coming properly out of lockdown, and I'd really, really like that to stay the case, but I guess we've all learned about what we're capable of adapting to if we have to. But let's not do it again for a bit...
You’ve been keeping busy with some ‘virtual’ comedy shows, how have they gone, and how important has it been to keep people laughing during these tough times?
Crucially important - for me more than them probably! I think everyone needs a sense of purpose, of contributing something. Mine has been mostly (though not totally) about performing for a long time, and without that lifestyle, a lot of comedians have felt lost. So I was an enthusiastic adopter of online gigs in whatever format they came along. It's been really gratifying to see that audiences have responded to them - not just mine, but online comedy in general - much more than anyone predicted at first. For some performers in different fields, online stuff has been almost impossible to pull off: it's a good thing about comedy that, as comics AND audience members, we've all found ways to reinvent.
Do you need to adapt your set to a ‘virtual’ audience?
It's certainly a different experience for everyone, and you sort of have to address that. It would be strange not to mention the fact that you're all little boxes on a screen and haven't been in a public building for a year. And of course your material is affected by the situation, too, because the pandemic has affected every area of our lives (it's hard to be an 'observational comic' when all there is to observe is 'hey, so the pubs are still shut...'). But on the other hand, it's surprising how how much the sense of community has felt like any other comedy show would. And online shows have also reached an audience of people who wouldn't have made it before (people in other countries or with young kids or reasons why getting to an actual theatre is tough). All that has been great to see.
You are coming to Bath on the 7th May as part of the Alfresco Theatre event at Warleigh Lodge Farm. Can you tell us a little about the Carpool Comedy Club and what we can expect.
It's a format we tried last year when the pandemic first wiped out all our options - in fact, the first ever one was in Bath - and it's been surprisingly fun and successful (thankfully). As an audience member, you're listening to the show in your car while watching it on a big screen, and honking your horn to show approval (although depending on the sites, people can sometimes get out of their cars too). For a comedian you're just firing jokes into the middle distance and hoping for the horns. It's not something any of us imagined doing - on either side - but it's another example of how you can make a positive experience out of adversity, and I'm really looking forward to this next one.
"I was an enthusiastic adopter of online gigs in whatever format they came along. It's been really gratifying to see that audiences have responded to them - not just mine, but online comedy in general - much more than anyone predicted at first. For some performers in different fields, online stuff has been almost impossible to pull off: it's a good thing about comedy that, as comics AND audience members, we've all found ways to reinvent."
Is this one time in life that you are happy to see people flashing their lights and beeping their horns at you?
Ha, yes. Normally if you had this many horns blaring at you, it would mean you'd wandered onto a motorway as a pedestrian. Initially, we thought it might be a bit overwhelming, but as comedians we're so needy for audience love and attention that we'll take it in whatever format we can get it.
Do you think these kinds of performance will continue after lockdown?
I definitely think al fresco type events like this will become more of a feature of our calendars. It's going to be a while until we can all cram into sweaty basements again and even theatres will take time to return to genuinely 'normal'. We need to be able to entertain each other and have fun nights out even if we have to be pretty flexible about how that happens. So, all options are on the table. As I've said, I'll be pleased to go back to hearing regular human laughter rather than blasting horns, but open-air comedy is here to stay in some sort of form.
You released your new book, ‘Contacts’, during lockdown, which tells the story of James, a man who sends a message to all 158 people in his contacts, telling them that he plans to end his life in the morning. It is a deeply moving, heartwarming, touching and funny book. Is the driver behind the book, that it is never too late to reach out and that it costs nothing to be kind in a continually polarised world?
Yes, both of those. It IS never too late to reach out, but also, it can be very difficult to do that when you're in some of the harsh territory that life can take you to. So it's on all of us to be emotionally open and to spot the signs of people struggling. There's a lot of emphasis on how it's 'OK to talk' about mental health, but often it isn't as simple as that. I think the responsibility needs to rest with the listener, not the person suffering. The book is about that, I suppose, and - as you say - how kindness can be life-changing and easy to accomplish. Especially with the connectedness we have in the modern world.
I know the book comes from a deeply personal experience. Are you happy to talk about it?
I had a very tough period of life a few years back and became quite isolated from friends, family, really everyone who could have been a source of help. The book isn't an autobiography or anything like it, but it explores some of the lows that I recognise now as being part of life, and channels my own experience - in what I hope is a fun, readable way. I wrote the book that I would have wanted to read in 2014, I guess, and I've had a lot of lovely responses from people who maybe ARE in that position now.
How do you manage your mental health now and is it a constant routine, a bit like keeping physically fit?
Yes, it's do with remembering at all times what makes you happy, what you need in order to function well on this earth, and try to keep those things to hand as much as you possibly can. That might mean exercise, the company of certain people, the regular practice of certain hobbies - probably all of these. So I suppose in that sense it IS a bit like a fitness routine. You can't expect mental health to just top itself up, any more than you could expect your heart to stay in good shape just by itself. You have to see it as a series of choices you keep making.
Having made these feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety and also suicidal thoughts public, has this helped with you understanding you. Is this something that you would encourage others to do?
In theory, yes, but - as I've said above - the book acknowledges that for a lot of people, that isn't so easy, for all sorts of possible reasons. So it's as much about us, as a community, taking better care of vulnerable people and having better conversations, rather than waiting for these emergency moments, these crises, before we start to care.
Having gone through a year of lockdown, which has many financial, social and mental health implications did you feel this the right time for you to release the book and tell the story of James?
To be honest, the book was written in 2019 and ready to go before the pandemic - it was just a strange quirk of timing that, by the time it was released, it was into a climate where loneliness and insecurity were written much more into our day-to-day than they would have been before. In a way that sounds like good fortune, but on balance I think I'd rather the novel had stood on its own two feet and NOT had a global health disaster....!
Best of luck with the book and the show. What else do you have planned for 2021?
A new novel, which I'm building at the moment, and then a lot of touring to - touching all possible wood - actual theatres and venues again. There's a lot of lost time to make up for....
Mark will be at Warleigh Lodge Farm on May 7th, with his Carpool Comedy. The show is part of the Alfresco Theatre event, which is brought to you by the creators of Pub in the Park and Drive & Dine Theatre. Click the link for more details:
a copy of Mark Watson's 'Contacts'.
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