Watson takes an elementary look at murder, just for laughs

PUBLISHED: 13:21 09 August 2007 | UPDATED: 14:36 07 September 2010

Mark Watson, who knows how clever Socrates was

Mark Watson, who knows how clever Socrates was

In saying the unsayable on stage, Mark Watson has hardly shied away from the controversial. But in real life, he tells Bridget Galton, it s a different story MARK Watson s oddball love story of a German Hitler impersonator and his unusually tall girlf

In saying the unsayable on stage, Mark Watson has hardly shied away from the controversial. But in real life, he tells Bridget Galton, it's a different story

MARK Watson's oddball love story of a German Hitler impersonator and his unusually tall girlfriend tests the limits of our much vaunted British humour.

The 27-year-old comedian has personally experienced the exhilarating liberation of getting laughs from saying the unsayable on stage.

But he worries more than is professionally wise about how jokes reinforce stereotypes, and what comedy club audiences take away in their heads.

"This is as close as I ever want to get to writing about comedy," says the Golders Green novelist and stand up.

"It's dangerous to analyse too much but I have always been quite aware of the implications of what I do on stage."

A Light-Hearted Look at Murder (Chatto and Windus, £11.99) cunningly probes our national funny bone through the bewildered eyes of German Andreas Honig, who sets up a lookalike agency with girlfriend Rose.

Watson makes you reconsider our perennial gag about Teutonic lack of humour - perhaps Germans don't laugh because we are not actually funny.

His project is to demonstrate the danger of our irony-loving craving to make light of everything.

"In professional comedy and life generally people justify an awful lot with that British idea that it's important to laugh about awful things.

"There is an automatic assumption that if you can make comedy about something it will make it better, but I have come to feel that taking a light hearted look at everything is dangerous.

"As a nation we pride ourselves on not taking anything seriously. I thought it would be interesting to try to look at the great British sense of humour through the eyes of an outsider."

Watson gives an example of the "textbook feelgood" jokes about the stoicism of Londoners after the July 7 bombings.

"Those attitudes generate complacency about terrorism. We mock the Americans for taking the threat seriously but the truth is there are lots of people who want to blow us up and that isn't very funny. I would rather be frightened than lured into a false sense of security."

Watson has seen too many comics disingenuously justifying offensive gags by saying "they laugh at everyone and give everyone a laugh."

His novel includes a scene in which a washed up oafish comic wrings cheap laughs from mocking his audience's appearance and nationality.

Andreas grows increasingly uncomfortable making his living as a Hitler lookalike and can no longer self delude that it's "only a laugh" when he learns of his brother's activities in the German far-right movement.

Watson is interested in how time renders sick gags acceptable - citing the comedic in-joke that if a topical gag falls flat it's "too soon".

"There is almost nothing that can't be made into entertainment. Jack the Ripper is part of our folklore and presumably if enough time passes, it will be acceptable to laugh at the likes of Ian Huntley. But I don't think the passage of time suddenly makes it alright to say something not acceptable at the time."

Watson professes himself baffled by the phenomenon of lookalikes paid to appear as celebrities and while researching the book discovered there are several Hitler impersonators - who appear mostly in historical TV dramas.

Watson's debut novel Bullet Points was published when he was just 23, and he says he would rather be known as a writer than a stand-up.

But he is a "great believer in not putting all your eggs into one basket" and the comedy work - appearing on Mock The Week or doing his new show at the Edinburgh Festival is his bread and butter.

He started doing stand up "for the hell of it" while at Cambridge - where he got a first - and went on to do well in various national comedy competitions.

"I wanted to see how long I could get away with it. It's still like a game of bluff with me wondering how can this be my job?" He confesses.

He feels it is insecure, precarious. "There are always other people coming through and it's not as though I am doing something other people couldn't do."

And like many comics, he has mixed feelings about Edinburgh, where he is performing his show Can I Briefly Talk to You About The Point of Life? - a title culled from something an Evangelist once said to him in the street.

"It's a bit of a trade fair rather than a carefree festival but most of my success I owe to Edinburgh. There's no underestimating how important it can be for your profile. You spend a month in a pressurised atmosphere. Everyone's in competition, everyone's insecure and knows someone has to lose for anyone to make it. Psychologically that's a bit unsettling."

In real life, he is married, lives quietly and is "not particularly extrovert". He likes to separate his stage and home life by adopting a persona for his act.

"My real life isn't that interesting. I am not particularly good at talking to people or particularly extrovert. It's not that I don't identify with what I do it's just that I do it, go home and live a normal life."

But he admits the comedy answers "an unattractive" need for attention and offers the liberating thrill of "saying what the hell I like with no consequences - things I wouldn't expect to get away with in real life".

"That's an extremely powerful psychological thing. Comedy is so exposing. I am asking people to listen to me for ages it would be hard to claim that I wasn't doing it for some sort of attention."

Watson's stage persona speaks with a Welsh accent and is "more hyperactive, livelier and less inhibited," than his real self.

"It's a psychological trick to put something between you and them, and tell your brain not to let you feel as though you are completely naked in front of so many strangers.

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