It’s not much of a secret by now, but finally I can talk about the dual project I’ve spent the last few months of my life on. It’s a 13-episode comedy series for Audible about the London Marathon. I’ve written it all and the cast is bloody amazing. It includes, but is not limited to, Sara Pascoe, Derren Brown (!), Rufus Hound, Harry Enfield (you could put ! after quite a lot of these actually), Sofie Hagen, Desiree Burch, Angela Barnes, Adam Kay, David Baddiel, Lolly Adefope, Ray Winstone (that’s probably an exclamation mark) and, really, lots more. People often say ‘lots more’ when they’re bluffing, but seriously. We’ve recorded some of it already and I think it’s going to be one of the best things I have ever made, although that’s only a meaningful remark if you like anything else I’ve ever made, but all the same.
It comes out at the end of February, and to mark the release – what could be more appropriate than a return to my traditional favourite format, the marathon show? Specifically, a 26.2-hour long show (to mirror the format of the race). It is happening at its spiritual home of the Pleasance, in London, on February 27th and 28th. It will kick off at 9.48pm – a stupid start time because of the ‘.2’ aspect – and continue until midnight the following day, or until the death from exhaustion of everybody in the room: whichever occurs sooner.
It will, as usual, feature a parade of comedians, celebrities, people who’ve just turned up and don’t know what is going on, and dazed non-comedians trying to do self-imposed challenges for the entire duration.
Tickets went on sale to my mailing list at 1pm, on the Pleasance’s website. The rest go on sale at 3pm THIS AFTERNOON. Here is the link.
If you miss out, you can still get into the show by coming up with an idea for a stupid challenge: the funnier or weirder the better, but genuine efforts at bucket-list-item-achievement are also more than welcome. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with these and we will contact you soon.
Right, that’s the gist of it. Oh, I love doing these.
‘Why would you kill yourself when your life was that good?’ I’ve seen so many tweets like that, the past week or so, that I’ve decided to write this. I don’t presume to have a clue what drove either of last week’s high-profile suicide victims to their decisions, and it feels pretty irresponsible to speculate about it in the way plenty of people already are. Nor do I liken myself to either of those far more prominent people. But I do know what despair feels like, and I’ve decided to revive this blog to say a couple of things about it, in case it helps even one person out there.
I’m writing it because I’m in a public position, with what plenty would consider a decent level of success, so I’m one of these people who would provoke an outpouring of ‘oh my God but he had everything!’ if I were to do some violence to myself, as I have frequently been tempted to do. It isn’t meant in the spirit of ‘look, I’m famous and *I* also get sad!’. We have Stephen Fry for that, for a start, and he’s much more famous than me. What I hope to add to the conversation are some specific insights about what it’s like working in TV/comedy/writing/other conspicuous spots, and why a large number of people in that world might struggle more than others imagine.
(DISCLAIMER: None of what I’m going to say is meant to suggest that doing stand-up or writing novels, or indeed being a designer, chef, footballer or celebrity-cake-judge, is some sort of nightmare that people are kidnapped into. Almost everyone I know who holds any sort of job in an attractive or kudos-filled industry is grateful to have it. I say ‘almost’ because there are, of course, always some pricks; I can name you five in comedy alone. But on the whole – although we might moan, like anyone – we feel lucky lots of the time.)
The first thing to say about jobs on TV or elsewhere in the public eye is that they’re filthily, unhealthily competitive. When you start out, the competition is as bluntly expressed as THIS GIRL WON THE AWARD, THIS GUY WASN’T EVEN NOMINATED FOR IT. As you proceed through your career, the competition is more insidious. You hear that there’s a sitcom slot to be pitched for, you don’t get it; your mate pitches an identical idea, gets a series. A panel show mysteriously stops booking you and a really similar act begins appearing on it. Sky launches a show called ‘TONIGHT WITH MARK WATSON, STARRING MARK WATSON, ONLY HIM, DEFINITELY’ but when you tune in, two other people are co-hosting it (NB this is a satirical example). I’m not saying this is unique to my field of work, far from it. Everyone’s had someone promoted above them, or missed out on something they deserved. I’m just saying that if your self-worth is tied too closely into these ups and downs, it is a pretty damaging mental plane to exist in.
On top of this, entertainment is an industry in which you’re forced to maintain even more of a game face than others, because people assess your suitability for work by how well you SEEM to be doing. Try asking a comedian how things are going. They’re extremely likely to say ‘yeah great, I’ve just come back from the States, where…’ not because they’re a dickhead (unless, see above, they are) but because you might be someone they need to impress in order to eat. If they say ‘tough, actually; I’ve been knocked back so much I feel like throwing myself into a river’, they’re making themselves less of a proposition. I suppose it’s a bit like dating. You try not to give the impression you’d absolutely love to meet someone, because life can be lonely or love is enriching, all these things that are absolutely normal to feel; it feels like that would make you less of a catch. You imply instead that you have dozens of options and you don’t particularly mind how this one plays out. It’s an exhausting act to keep up. Being in my job is like if you did singles events every day for 50 years.
And the last thing I’d say is that writing, in particular, involves a demoralising number of rejections. Very often, these rejections don’t even take the form of a ‘no’, because a lot of commissioners don’t even have enough respect to do you that basic courtesy. You have a meeting with someone; they’re enthusiastic, they say this is exactly what they want; you send and they acknowledge it, they say they’re excited to read it; then you never, ever hear from them again. I’ve had people pretend not to recognise me at parties when a month ago they said they couldn’t wait to work with me.
Once more, all of us know this is the price of the job, and it is perfectly possible to laugh at it, the nonsense of it. But you feel it; it’s a scar. Over the years, there end up being a lot of scars. If there are enough of them without an upturn, your confidence is eventually shot to pieces. You feel like a lesser person than those who’ve heard ‘yes’ a bit more often. Once more, I’m not saying this is as bad as, say, doing 100 unsuccessful job interviews and not knowing how you’re going to eat. I’m just saying that being turned down, being ignored, remains equally painful no matter what career rung you appear to be on, because it chimes with a voice you already had in your head that says: I told you. I told you you weren’t good enough. But you spent six months on that project anyway, you prick.
Enough generalisations: here’s where *I* am, this evening. I have a good life, I tour as a comedian to reasonable audiences; I’ve published novels. I have a decent standard of living, certainly measured against a lot of the country (as I’ve acknowledged throughout this). Most of the work I do is rewarding either financially or in some other way. All the same: I’ve felt like I’m failing for very long periods of the past 15 years, including now. I’ve had, easily, a hundred scripts or script ideas fail to make it to any sort of stage or screen. I’ve written, at the last count, three novels that never reached an audience (it looks like becoming four). I’ve been to well over five hundred meetings that didn’t come to anything, and that count will be at a thousand in another decade’s time. In the meantime I’ve seen more and more people emerge and perform the kind of comedy I do, just as well or better.
Every time I go to bed, all the failures are crouched in the corner of the room, waiting to shake me awake at 3am. Every time I wake up, I remember them before I have another conscious thought. When I think about my career in its totality, when I picture it, it looks like 95 percent failure. Unless there’s a remarkable turnaround in my market value I doubt that will ever go south of about 90 percent.
Now, of course, you learn to live successfully alongside these thoughts. Only recently I tweeted about how much I was enjoying my life, and it was true. I have people who love me, I have other things than writing to devote myself to. I understand I’m exceptionally lucky to be here at all, and one day I won’t be, so it’s advisable to enjoy as much of what happens as possible. And in case you’re reading this at Channel 4, I am actually in astonishing demand and I’ve, in fact, just come back from the States.
But the thoughts are there, they can swoop at any time, they’re tremendously persuasive. They’re resistant to medication because they come a place of real and profound disappointment with myself. Like I said, I can live with them – especially with the support that I have around me – but they’ll never leave.
People who get to a position of repute, who look like they’ve succeeded, will have paid some sort of tax on that success. Sometimes they’ve sacrificed family life or relationships. Sometimes they’ve screwed people over, intentionally or not. In many cases, what they signed away was their long-term mental stability, at least a part of it. And that is why it shouldn’t be surprising that ‘high-achieving’ people run into mental ravines at least as much as anyone else. And are as worthy of your support and concern as anyone else.
‘You never know what’s in someone else’s brain.’ That comes up again and again when there is a tragedy of the kind we’ve seen recently. But it isn’t just a slogan; it’s a rule to live by every day. It can inform all our little actions and make us kinder, or least more curious, more inclined to give someone the benefit of the doubt; more like a human dealing with another human.
I hope this has been interesting or useful, or at least a pleasant-enough diversion, to someone. It certainly did me good to write it, and maybe that’s really all it was about: not really a wise worldview to share at all, just a chance to be honest, at last, about what it’s like in my head.
PS I’m going to continue blogging regularly-ish, I think. But they won’t all be like this, don’t worry. Next one will probably be about football or something.
If you’re not interested in football, then I should tell you now, this might not be for you. EXCEPT if you’re interested in global politics, or underdog stories, or people in really colourful shirts. Which is almost everyone. So, I retract that actually.
My brother – long-time followers will be aware – is a maniac who spends his time organising football stuff in parts of the world where there isn’t a proper sports infrastructure, where it’s too hot or wet to play, sometimes where they don’t really have a pitch because it’s infested with toads. He most famously took charge of a tiny Micronesian island team and was the youngest ever international football manager. He also coached in Mongolia for a while even though it was so cold it wasn’t safe to go outside. I’m proud of the idiot. And I THINK I’ve just managed to make that bit about his career into a hyperlink or whatever you call it, so if that’s worked I’m also proud of myself.
His focus these days is on working with CONIFA, a sort of parallel-universe version of FIFA which celebrates states who aren’t recognised by FIFA and so can’t enter the World Cup. You don’t have to be much of a football fan to be at least vaguely aware that FIFA, which controls world football, is as rife with corruption and intrigue as the Micronesian pitch was with toads. States without the right financial muscle or the right political influence are among the many footballing bodies completely ignored by FIFA, passed over for funding. CONIFA exists to give them a presence. This is important because football is fun (in my quite well-publicised opinion) but also more broadly because it gives an identity to entire communities who are treated like they don’t exist.
So, right now in London, the CONIFA World Cup is taking place. It features teams you’ll never have heard of, representing countries you’ve largely not heard of either. They have all made implausible journeys to get here (except the Isle of Man team, actually, they were probably OK) purely for the love of the game and the passion they feel for their barely-known homes. It kicked off yesterday with games like Abkhazia v Tibet, Padania v Matabeleland, and North Cyprus V Karpatalya (that was a 1-1 draw). It’ll continue for the next ten days or so, until a team is crowned CONIFA World Champions (the Panjab manager has already said he’ll die a happy man if it’s his side that makes it).
If you like football, and you’re interested in a glimpse into another football universe – close-up – look on the CONIFA website for details of the games. I’m going to Sutton on Tuesday and I plan to put on a sort of ‘flash gig’ there. There are two or more matches a day, it costs hardly anything, you can get close-up, and instead of the slightly desolate corporate atmosphere that settles around a World Cup (especially in certain host countries), there is a real vibe of lunatic devotion to the sport, of people who’ve defied the odds – and in many cases quite a lot of danger – even to be on the pitch.
If this interests you at all, get in touch (here or on Twitter) and I will be delighted to help. This is a delightful slice of football weirdness, the days are really fun even if you’re not that into football (one of my sisters has already been and she wouldn’t normally watch a match if it was in her own bathroom), and it’s also a celebration of the way that London hosts an incredible number of different international communities. Something that a lot of us still think is a plus. Despite CERTAIN OTHER PEOPLE not being so into it.
There’s a piece below from the Independent with a bit more detail, and you can check www.conifa.org, or I’m so hyped about this you can have my phone number if you want and I’ll talk you through it.
Come and watch weird football!
The World Football Cup kicks off in London – and Fifa have nothing to do with it
My graphic novel ‘Dan and Sam’, written with Oliver Harud, was recently purchased by Amblin – Steven Spielberg’s studio – for a possible film adaptation. Fun! A screenplay is being written now and we’ll see what happens after that. What quite often happens in these situations is that the film remains ‘in production’ for twenty years or so, until most of the people originally working on it have moved jobs, or died. But at the very least it’s an adventure. You can purchase the book here if you’d like to get ahead of the game, and be one of these killjoys who come out of the cinema and immediately say ‘well, having read the book…’
People often express surprise that I’m able to stay on a stage for 27 hours, and ask how it’s possible. I generally explain that a large part of the show isn’t really what you’d call stand-up comedy, which seems like false modesty until they check the footage and discover around nine hours of me commentating on people bending for pieces of cardboard. But the main point I always try to make is that the show is not so much a performance at all as a giant collaboration of people who – for whatever odd reasons – have jointly decided to make the dream of a stupidly long show into a reality. This has never been truer than it was this time: an amazing number of people’s individual efforts went into the mix. I’m very proud that was the case, but there is the risk that some of those efforts never get the fanfare they deserve. When you are struggling to remember words like ‘floor’ and your brain is a bit like a woodpigeon’s brain, there’s every chance you will fail to do justice to the seventy-five parallel challenges running on around you. That’s why I’ve tried to collect some of them together in this blog, in no particular order. IMPORTANT: even this is not a complete list. I’m going to add to it and update it and hopefully put more links in, more word-of-mouth testimonies, and so on. It’s just, it’s Red Nose Day – what this whole palaver was about – and so I wanted to publish something to mark the occasion.
John Luke Roberts’ stomach was ‘still a bit weird’ last week as it continued to process the in-no-way-possible volume of lemons he attempted to put in there.
Claire Travers Smith’s novella A Town Called Madness, written over the course of the show from audience suggestion and the suggestions of a steadily more addled mind, is on Amazon now: t.co/c8C8uMWc2P Her literary meltdown has already raised well in excess of £2000 and she becomes part of an elite of double-challengers who have now done 52 hours of stupid things for Comic Relief.
Matt Calow, in the lobby, ploughed through his Minecraft challenge undeterred by the fact that I could never really grasp what he was doing, what Minecraft is, or why sheep apparently had a bearing on the enterprise. The result is a beautiful digital red nose which you can see here. t.co/GjE7ddcl0P
Chris Zampese, the challenger on the other side of the world, was thwarted in his attempts to break the juggling world record, but raised more than $600 and posted a Youtube video of highlights which I can’t find the link to, but which you’ll find if you google it. Huge thanks to Chris for taking on a marathon challenge without the solidarity and comfort of a hundred other sweaty humans to bolster him.
The same goes for Connor Wallace who toughed out 27 hours of foreign-language-learning completely alone, in the north of Scotland. It was ‘probably the most fun I’ve ever had’, said Connor, though he ‘hit a bit of a trough after 35 hours awake’.
Gemma Coles’ horrifying challenge only got a proper mention once, early in the show: it was to listen to ‘I’m A Little Teapot’ over and over again while making a giant elastic band ball. Over the course of the hours she listened to the ditty more than 1,000 times but, remarkably, claimed she ‘could have gone again the next night, after a bit of a lie-in.’ Don’t tempt me.
Ben van der Velde and Chris Purchase made an insane odyssey of 103 national embassies, which would be enough for most people, but a few days ago Ben was in touch saying he was ‘going out again to bag the other 90, as I’m a bit pedantic about these things’. Bloody hell. More news on this as we get it.
Doppelganger Rob Palk has returned to his own life after a successful spell at the helm of mine, during which he successfully lured celebrities to the show using my Twitter while consistently looking exactly like me. The transition back to the real world was hard for Rob, who found that the long show ‘radically alters your relationship with time, with Mark Watson, and with goats’. He also found himself plagued – just like his close equivalent, me – with ‘a nagging feeling of not having done the silly task as well as I might’. ‘We settle down to our routines, our relationships,’ he muses. ‘The years pass. And then one day we get the call again.’ Time will tell…
Bradley Woollett was the guy lying on stage for the duration. ‘As would be expected, the experience was rather odd,’ he relates, noting that he had very little water other than what he could sip through a straw, no food apart from breadsticks, and was escorted out for the sunrise without actually opening his eyes to see it.
Silvia Carrus was sponsored to be the show’s resident Italian. She had a lovely time and was so tired when she got home that she tried to open her door with an Oyster card rather than the key.
Matthew Collins looks back on his time conducting 27 dates at Nando’s as ‘amazing’. Somewhat surprisingly he vows that ‘although I won’t be heading to Nando’s for a while, I will be back’ – indeed his lunch on the following Monday morning was ‘a chicken sandwich which I ordered without even thinking’. His storify of the events makes excellent reading. t.co/ineixSpHOS
John Robertson, who unfortunately had a bike strapped to him, experienced the whole thing as a ‘dizzying experience chockfull of humanity and shaving’. ‘I muttered ‘fucksakes’ a few times and the occasional argh,’ he adds. Having been cut out of the bike and danced up the stairs, he went out to do a regular, non-bike-related gig and found himself talking ‘aimless gibberish like I’d just escaped from a cult’.
Chris ‘Bagface’ Radford ‘has been slowly reintroduced to society after 27 hours with a bag for a face’. His low point of the event was getting a burrito all over himself while trying to eat it within the confines of the bag.
Jack and Holly Kenny were the couple who, respectively, got hair torn off their body and got a cut and shave with the likes of Tim Minchin, jointly raising a stupendous £1235 in the process. Holly had to wear a bobble hat the next day because her head was cold. These are the same people who pulled off a 25-hour piggyback in the last show. Huge respect.
Zoe Groom built Star Wars Lego in Norwich for the whole time the show was going on, finishing THIRTY-FOUR SETS in the 27 hours with little more reward than that one audience thumbs-up picture we posed for her. But she raised £750 and ‘really enjoyed my challenge’.
Mark Deeks, Dan Mugridge and Ian Stafford – the first not acquainted with the other two till the start of the show – played darts for 27 hours, reaching their target of 100,027 points with so much time to spare that they were able to ‘blend in, have an ice-cream and catch the bend-offs’. They sometimes missed being in the main room, but ‘there was plenty of craziness out in the lobby too. It was the endless interactions with everyone. The passers-by, the staff (fantastic people), the poor girl at the Ibid booth hired for the evening to help people with the technology and yet who had not one single enquiry in six hours, the dude who queued for 27 hours, the Football Manager guy whose journey from Accrington to Belarus was a titanic tale that captivated our corner of the building), and the celebs (most of whom got pestered into playing darts). The constant interaction, the carnival-like way it went down, meant that it never dragged.’ Deeks admits, alongside all these positive memories, that ‘holy shit did my knee, back and calf hurt afterwards’.
Among a lot of arts-and-crafts efforts, Laura Sorensen decorated six cushions with ‘rather shaky hands’ for an amazing £275, Misha Anker collected four hundred quid for knitting while also getting involved in the £1000 Tattoo Extravaganza, and Cathy Penrose made a bracelet for everyone in the room, including the one I wore throughout – these are still in the process of being auctioned, I think.
Jim Parkyn, the Morph man, got caught up in ‘a crash and a small fight between taxi drivers’ on the way home from his Herculean Plasticene endeavour. He still regards it as ‘one of the most immersive and collective things I’ve ever been involved in’.
Oliver Fisher is recovering after the heartache of not quite building a big enough toilet-roll tower. He thanks Key for the life coaching and the pint.
Michael Legge, who popped in to play football and slag off football and explained he hated football but was being sponsored to love it, reaches the apex of his month-long challenge tomorrow when, at the age of 46, he becomes a child mascot at Championship team Brentford FC. We only saw Legge briefly in the actual show but his challenge has been incredible and you should check it out on Twitter (@michaellegge). And in fact if you search Twitter for a lot of the individuals mentioned here, you’ll find much more detailed breakdowns and pictures and assorted souvenirs of this very odd time in our lives.
The last word goes to Daniel Kramer, the ashen-faced chap who wrote ‘I am an idiot’ over and over again for 27 hours. ‘It was awful,’ he now recalls – unsurprisingly for someone who was visibly appalled even as the challenge began. ‘One of the worst things I’ve ever done.’ That’s the spirit.
And the last pictorial word, as it were, goes to Isabelle Adam who minuted the whole event and took, as always, a colossal number of great pictures. They are at www.flickr.com/photos/diamondgeyser/sets/72157650728122399/ and they will make you nostalgic or alternatively trigger horrendous flashbacks.
All this is without mentioning the ludicrous generosity of Adam Hills and the courage of the tattooists, the mucky self-sacrifice of the bean guys (I’ll come back to them), and of course the crazed energy of the best audience anyone could ever ask for. I am hugely grateful to everyone who contributed in whatever way to this formidable and tiring event. As you might have gathered from Twitter, some circumstances arose in the following days which make it unclear whether there will be another one of these in the future. Whether there is or not, though, we have a lot to look back on with fondness and pride. Thank you.
…oh, and the final final fundraising total. It’s going to be officially revealed when every last bit is in, and when the TV show is done and dusted. But you’re going to really like it. It’s not quite the £5 million raised by the live Phoenix Nights. But it’s enough to make a difference, and you did that.