Some bake cakes, some sit in a bath of custard, some shave off their eyebrows and others sit on their sofas and text in cash. All are admirable ways to raise money for Red Nose Day today but Mark Watson has gone further than most.
Starting at 9pm tonight, the stand-up will embark on a 27-hour long comedy gig. It will not end until midnight on Saturday.
Melding comedy and sponsored endurance, it’s an event that captures the bonkers spirit of Comic Relief to a tee. “Do something funny for money,” runs the catchphrase, but how exactly does Watson do it? “By drinking lots of water. And bananas are good,” he says. Where most comedians struggle with the 40-minute hump in their hour-long shows, for Watson the darkest point comes around 9 or 10 hours in, or just before dawn. “And then you hit another wall about five hours before the end when the physical toll kicks in.” It is hardest on his voice, he says. “I’ll not be able to talk the next day. And I’ll feel a bit achey, like I’ve done some fairly strenuous exercise. But it’s not Everest.”
In fact, the stand-up is a veteran of the comedy marathon. He did his first 24-hour show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004, and followed it with a 33-hour one in 2005 and - his record - 36 hours in 2006. In 2009, after seven marathon shows, totalling 189 hours, he announced his retirement from long-form stand-up.
Then two years ago, Comic Relief asked him to revive the format for its 25th anniversary. In March 2013 he did 25 hours at The Pleasance in north London, leaving the stage only for toilet breaks and to take those audience members who were still awake outside to see the sunrise. Jennifer Saunders, Richard Curtis, Simon Amstell and Jonathan Ross were among the many comedians and celebrities who dropped by with words of support, croissants and cash. It raised over £60,000.
Tonight’s gig will take place in the same theatre and will be streamed online. Watson has not written 27 hours’ worth of jokes - “In terms of written material, there’s nothing, no.” Anyone who has seen him perform will know that he takes a more free-wheeling approach - less stand-up gig than a Sixties-style happening, with jokes. Or, as Watson puts it, “a sustained exercise in communal madness.”
Expected guests this year include Sarah Millican, Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe, Tiernan Douieb and Susan Calman. There are also around 60 people on Team Watson who will undertake their own 27-hour sponsored challenges. A man called Bruno will attempted to hitchhike from Brno in the Czech Republic to the Pleasance in time for the end of the show; another will go on 27 dates to Nando’s, one an hour; another will churn butter for 27 hours. “And there’s a bloke who looks like me who is being sponsored to live my life for the 27 hours I’m on stage. I’m delegating all aspects of my life to him, other than the show. I might send him to Bristol to see my parents,” adds Watson.
Then there’s the audience, of course, many of whom will sit through the whole thing. “It’s harder to watch it than to do it,” says Watson. “I’m adrenalised.” The mega-shows have become a bit of an addiction, he admits. “You can do so much with an audience in 27 hours. It does feel a bit tame going back to normal stand-up afterwards.” That said, they have boosted his confidence no end. He never used to enjoy chatting to the crowd. “They have cured my fear of having to improvise. I feel now I could get away with any situation on stage.”
So, come midnight tomorrow will he swear “never again” and mean it? “In two years’ time it would be a 29-hour show, and that would be a nice trilogy for Comic Relief. And then I think I’ll probably say stop.”
Mark Watson’s 27 Hour Comedy Marathon starts at 9pm tonight and is streaming live on rednoseday.com. Sponsor Mark at rednoseday.com/markwatson