Mark Watson: Stand-up, the DVD market, writing novels and Twitter

As he brings his latest tour to London, we chat to Mark Watson about his novel, Eleven, about his stand-up tour, and about his experiences with Twitter…

He’s a novelist. Television presenter. Writer. Blogger. Twitterer. And a lot more besides. And as he brings his latest comedy tour to London, we had a chat with Mark Watson about what he’s up to now, and the highs and lows of the last year…

Let’s start with an easy one. Can you tell us a little about your current show, which you’re bringing to London at the end of this week? Reading the description, it’s described as your most personal show to date. What does that actually mean when it comes to the gig itself?

I suppose what it means is that there’s a lot more stuff in this show… in a sense, every show has been about myself, but I suppose it’s been a bit of a persona. Especially when you think I was using a Welsh accent early on, which I’ve since phased out.

Even then there was a tendency to do more gags, I suppose.

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I guess with this show I’m talking more about my life. I’ve had a baby this year, I’m 30 this year. I’m at the state of my life where I’m stopping to think what my life adds up to a bit more. And all that’s gone into the show.

In general, as I get more experienced, I’m leaning more towards more confessional stand-up. I’ve got slightly more encouraged to talk about what interests me in life, rather than doing one-liners.

Is there a double edged sword, there? I assume it’d be easier to personally invest in a show like that, but then the other side of that is that you’re revealing more of yourself to an audience.

Well, yeah. The odd thing too is that I’m moving towards this more intimate style of comedy, at the same time that I’m playing bigger venues. It’s a bit odd in a sense, because I’m trying to put on a show that would be best suited to a very small room. That was where I warmed the show up.

But now I’m parading my life in front of lots of people. It’s an odd thing. It’d certainly be a double-edged sword if you took it too far.

Someone like Russell Brand, in the situation where he’s delving into pretty much all his life in front of what’s ultimately millions of people. I don’t know at what point it becomes troubling to do that.

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I wonder if Russell Brand sort of jumps a bit, though, which is how he gets away with it. That he goes to such an extreme that you wonder if he jumps over the stuff that really matters to him on the way?

Well, that might be true. In a way, he’s probably no more revealing in a way than humdrum stuff because, as you say, you still don’t find out that much about the nuts and bolts of his life. You might be right.

In a way, all stand-ups, even those that are very honest, in inverted commas, are still only presenting one carefully chosen aspect of their life.

On your blog, you talk about playing Dundee. You put across beforehand there, tying into the paradox between the material you’re putting on and the rooms you’re playing, that you’re in awe of the venue. That you didn’t think it’d work. Yet, presumably, as you broaden the scope of the venues that you’re playing, that’s where you’re testing and surprising yourself the most?

Yeah. The Dundee show was worrying because we moved venues, and it wasn’t advertised very well, so I thought it was going to be quite empty. But it was a good sized audience, and it went well.

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As you say, the tour has been a voyage of discovery for me, because nearly all the venues are larger than I’ve played before, and it’s really hard to guess what’ll work.

On the whole, I’ve been pleased with the way the shows have gone. But there is a sense with venues that are quite grand, it’s a bit like in football where they say you’re showing the other team too much respect. You try and do the exact same show you would do if you were playing in your living room. It is harder to do that, though, if it’s the concert hall where someone like The Who played.

There’s a history to the venues that, if you’re not careful, can distract you a bit.

So, what sort of your room limit are you looking for? Last year on your blog, you put out a note asking people to request where they’d like you to play, and I think the ceiling you put then was 2000 seater venues. Does that feel right to you?

Yeah. I’m going to do that on my next tour, too. I’m going to do a lot of new venues. If anything, that’s probably too high a ceiling. I think I’d probably look at around 1000 seaters. I think the venues on this tour got up to around 1500, but no more than that.

It is quite hard to generalise, because I’ve played venues that are 5-600 seats, but are like large, draughty town halls that have had seats put in them. Whereas some places have 1500-2000 seats, but just by the way they’re arranged, they’re better.

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You were due to release a stand-up DVD at Christmas, but it’s not happened. Has it been put back to next year?

Yeah, it’s been moved. It was due out this week I think. Sharp-eyed viewers might have noticed it hasn’t appeared!

They’ve moved it to next year, for various, not very interesting reasons. They’d have to release it at this time of year, because comedy is all about that Christmas market. There are a lot of titles this year. It means for me, though, that I get to record another show. I’ll probably record a completely different one next summer. Nearly everyone releases a DVD now!

It’s quite scary. It all seems to have gone a bit mad.

Last year was the year that it turned into warfare! Even last Christmas, I wasn’t really ready to do a DVD, but now people who have barely cracked a gag are doing one. I’m more comfortable waiting, in a way. I reckon by the time I release one next year it should be really strong.

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Ten years ago it was primarily Jethro or Roy Chubby Brown…

Yeah. In my day, if you weren’t Jethro, you had no business releasing anything!

Eddie Izzard used to do it, but he was the only person. That’s why he became so famous, because everyone had access to an Eddie Izzard video. And he pretty much cornered that market, with four or five full length shows out, when almost no one else did.

But then, of course, the DVD market has made it possible for people to bring them out, which is a good thing for comedians in general, but you want to make sure the quality is right. Some of them are coming out, but released a bit hastily.

For you, personally, clearly you’re enjoying the tour. But is it still the writing for you that gets you going?

It is really, yeah. Things like the book. It’s where I see my priority, really. That was kind of what I was concentrating on, but stand-up turned up quite quickly in the end.

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You can’t really fill a venue watching a man write a book, on the whole. It’s true that I enjoy the touring, but it’s important to me to keep that core of writing going. Otherwise stand-up, on its own, is a bit of a precarious thing to hang your life on.

That’s why there’s a lot of writing on your blog? Where you talk about a lot of things that are quite personal to you?

Yeah. I don’t think I’d be interested in doing it otherwise. A lot of them are functionary promotional tools, in the same way people approach Twitter. A pure and simple promotional tool. Which is fine, if you’re at a certain level of fame, but it’s a mistake to confuse personal communication with commercial.

There’s no reason why people should feel that they contact you and can talk one on one, but it’s nice to have something. And it fits very well with the whole style of my material.

I’m a bit surprised when people do that kind of chummy thing, being your best mate on stage. But when you look at their website, the tone is ‘we’ve had our fun, now buy my stuff’. That’s why I tend to stay and sign things after my shows. I think it’s a bit unpleasant when a comedian is massively chummy with the audience, and then when you come out, they’ve got girls there selling the DVD for them.

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Earlier in the year on Twitter, you were charting what looked like a fairly low period. Was that tying into the troubles with getting your book, Eleven, published?

Actually, it wasn’t Eleven. I wrote another book, which my then-publishers didn’t want, and I didn’t get another publisher for it, either. I had quite a long hiatus without a publisher, and I was lumbered with this book that I was really proud of, and still am.

I didn’t really know what to do next, so what I decided to do was write another book, which was Eleven. It worked out in the end.

Yet, at the time, it was really bad. It did affect my confidence with everything, as well. As I said, it is the core of what I did, and I had to work very hard on this book. I had a lot of faith in it, but it was a big, serious novel, and wasn’t quite what the publisher wanted.

You never know. It’d probably be better commercially to do a book a bit more like my stand-up. I’m glad that period’s over now.

If it happened now, I probably wouldn’t mention it on Twitter. Mind you, back then I didn’t have that many followers. Now, if I put something on Twitter, an alarming number of people might read it. I’d probably be less inclined these days. It’d be an odd feeling, having 40,000 people or so reading something like that.

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When you posted some of the messages of frustration that you did, however, you did have a lot of people supporting you in the responses you got.

I did, and to be honest, every time I have used Twitter or a blog to stress vulnerability, there’s no doubt that it’s an ego boost. Any kind of interaction between you and your audience, your loyal fans, does make you feel a lot better. You do feel, though, that if you do that too often, then you’re a bit of an exhibitionist.

The book that you wrote before Eleven, then, that’s presumably still not published. Would you put that out yourself? Or are you still looking to sell it?

Well, no, I don’t think so. I’ve got another publisher now, and I’m writing another book for them, which will come out. But I think this unpublished one will probably sit on the shelf for quite a while.

There might come a point where I’ve got enough of a profile of a writer that I might push again for it to be published. Or it might be that it never appears in this form, or that a lot of the material morphs into something else. That’s the most likely future for it. I think the core of that book will appear in another form, but a bit down the line.

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I really enjoyed Eleven. What I liked was that I’ve seen the interlinked narrative strands concept go wrong a lot of times, and it really didn’t here. It struck me too that you weren’t making it an overtly comedic book. You were taking on a structure that could wrong, and it turned into something very strong. That’s deliberately flying against what people would expect from a stand-up?

It was basically, yeah. I thought I could write a novel that sounded like me doing stand-up, basically. And when stand-ups write books, they do tend to use a voice you know. Which is sensible, and it makes a lot of commercial sense. To repackage what you have.

My ambitions as a novelist have been quite separate to being a comedian. And my intention was to turn everything on its head. It’s more interesting to do.

It’d be a lot easier, in a way, to say here’s a stand-up, now read the book by him, but my desire to write a serious novel does tend to override those considerations, really.

Eleven is a halfway house between a serious novel and stand-up type material. There’s something there for people who are looking for a funny book. But the way I wanted it was for people to see it as an entertaining novel by a serious writer. And if they then find out I’m a stand-up, then that’s even better!

Mark Watson, thank you very much!

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For details of Mark Watson’s gig this coming Friday in London, and to find out where else to catch him on tour, check out his website right here.

It’s also well worth picking up a copy of Mark’s novel, Eleven. Just saying.

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