Any life lesson you can fit comfortably on a mug probably doesn’t deserve much credence. Like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. The reality, as always, is more complicated: keep calm, yes, but also try to gain an objective overview of the problems you’re facing and take a pragmatic approach to solving them; one which acknowledges your limitations as a human being without dwelling on them in a negative way.
Not one for chipper wartime slogans, Mark Watson prefers wordy, sophisticated and deflating home truths. Anything to puncture the sense that life is easy. Because it’s not. Neither is stand-up, for that matter. Last year Watson found he needed a whole bottle of wine inside him just to get up on stage. He doesn’t rely on the booze any more, which might explain why he’s as sharp as a draughtsman’s pencil – quickly sketching a vivid picture of his messed-up life at the top of show. But he still sweats as he gives away the details of his more ‘troubling’ episodes: losing his cool at a film premiere; threatening a call centre worker; calling his toaster a ‘bell-end’.
There’s another reason for those dark patches on his shirt, however: his onstage exercise regime. Every night he spends 20 minutes pounding a treadmill. It helps him to get rid of excess nervous energy, he explains, and stops the act disappearing into a cul-de-sac of loquacious wallowing – a Dictionary Corner of self-pity. ‘I am sort of mental,’ he adds. Though he’s keen to distance himself from the ‘Call Me Maybe’ school of psychology, where craziness is equivalent to giving someone you like your number. ‘This is crazy, but I’ve written my name in shit on your garage’, would be a more appropriate chorus, he argues.
It’s this kind of literalism which lifts Watson’s jokes, and makes them belly-laugh brilliant. Honesty and self-acceptance are the keys to him hitting his apex at what could have been his lowest point. ‘What I’ve done with my career,’ he considers, ‘is to describe my flaws and turn them into entertainment’. In his tenth year at the Fringe those cracks are allowed to show. The audience peers into them, gawping at the emotional nadir Watson hit just a few months ago, and weeping with laughter.
It’s only amusing because, in the midst of the pressure and the fear, it’s clear that this smart, vulnerable man has found a form of resolution. Watson is happy to see himself as a work-in-progress. By extension, so is his show. However, no one in the audience would trade in the missteps and the digressions, the onstage anarchy and the gratuitous cock jokes, for a polished hour of gags from a comedian who hasn’t broken a sweat. Watson sniffs at ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters, and no wonder. Freaking out is an awful lot funnier.
This might not be a perfect show, but it’s a joyously human one. It helps that the human in question happens to be the wittiest bloke on the Fringe, but it’s even more important that it feels universal in its inadequacy. Comedy – like life – is complicated and short on answers. Put that on your mugs.
‘Mark Watson – Flaws’ is at the Pleasance Courtyard, 9pm