Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mark Watson

One of the reasons comedians like the Fringe is that it gives them a chance to stretch beyond the limits of a headlining slot at a comedy club and do a long form one-man show - even if they don't personally have the following to get away with a UK solo tour, Edinburgh will still provide a potential audience in a small, airless room for a month.

But few stand-up comedians exploit the full possibilities of the Fringe quite like Mark Watson. Watson is doing an hour-long daily stand-up show. He's also doing a daily show where he writes a novel with input from the audience, and posts it online. And every year he does one extra, insanely lengthy show. Two years ago, it was 24 hours and an official world record attempt. Last year, it was 2005 minutes (around 33 hours). This year, it's 36 hours.

The 36-hour show is underway as I write this. Thirty or so audience members apparently intend to stick with it for the whole time. The rest of the crowd is made up of people drifting in and out. If you're wondering how Watson works his two daily shows into the 36-hour marathon, the answer is simple: he brings in a second audience and performs to both of them at once. Presumably Watson isn't going for a personal world record this year, as strictly speaking the SHOW is continuing for 36 hours, rather than Watson personally. He took an hour's break on Monday evening - to do a stand-up set at the Assembly Rooms for a BBC Radio taping. The show continued happily in his absence.

I went to the first four hours yesterday afternoon. It's not a stand-up comedy show. It's more of a magazine programme. Assisted by a small support crew with wireless internet, and new-fangled technology that allows him to take phone calls from supporters, Watson acts as ringmaster for an assortment of random items and general improvisation. In theory, the theme of the show is that the audience are on a world tour, following a route that takes in every country in the world. So minute by minute, the show shifts to another "location" and Watson brings in new items vaguely - very vaguely - related to the country they're meant to be in.

It's a slightly ropey concept because the actual route isn't very obvious; last year he did "2005 years in 2005 minutes", where the link between the clock and what the audience were doing was more apparent. But it doesn't really matter, because it's just a device to give some structure to the show. It would be impossible to script a 36 hour show, but this gives Watson something to improvise around.

Introducing new ideas, getting continually distracted by random suggestions, chasing down blind alleys and taking phone calls, Watson soon ends up juggling nine or ten uncompleted items at once. Which is ideal. It means that there's always something there to fall back on.

More of a two-day party than a show in the strict sense, and driven by a demented blitz spirit, it's still an amiably joyful and enjoyable thing, with Watson just about keeping hold over the sheer, glorious, chaotic pointlessness of it all. Far from the publicity stunt you might think, it's just the sort of wonderfully absurd event the Fringe does best.