Comedy Festival 2008, Auckland Town Hall
April 29-May 3 | Reviewed by Jacob Powell

Mark Watson is an interesting blend of manic energy and nervous awkwardness. All gangly limbs and eager looks, one moment he’s spinning lines so fast he’s approaching the speed of sound, the next he has paused; tentatively eyeing his audience like an embarrassed child. Thankfully the overall effect is ultimately endearing and provides a good launching platform for his free-form story telling and adlibbing.

Stepping back a little, my Mark Watson experience actually started at about 6:45pm. I arrived at a gig early and was amongst the first in the room. Spying the comedian of the hour standing around by himself, awkwardly clutching a small plastic cup’o’vin rouge, I strolled up and engaged in some pre-show banter. He expressed how big the room was – particularly compared to The Classic where he’d played solo at last year’s festival. He also mentioned the slow-fire nature of New Zealand audiences and how the room size would probably exacerbate this. Every second line in his side of our conversation was “I’ll probably mention this in the show...” and true to form he tackled the issue of ‘capturing the audience’ head-on, joking about our retiring nature and contrasting us with his experience of brash Australians during his recent run at the Melbourne comedy festival.

After our small chat he went and sat at a deserted table near the right side of the Crunchie Comedy Chamber. Eventually an older couple arrived and asked if he was sitting in the right place as they believed that this was one of their seat numbers. He politely removed himself and leaned against the wall for a few minutes and then eventually took one of the remaining free seats beside them. When the couple finally realised that he was the night’s entertainment, there were some very surprised and embarrassed looks!

Once the clock hit 7pm and the ushers closed the doors on the packed hall Mark jumped up from his position amidst the audience and launched energetically into his ‘pre-show’ introduction. Without a mic, and showing great vocal projection, he explained that maybe if he became one of the audience members he might strike up a rapport more quickly. He riffed for a while on how there is too much hype surrounding entertainment today and acknowledged that, like Brits, New Zealanders seemed to prefer less hype; keeping their expectations low so as to be more often satisfied in everyday life. This line, alongside his boyishness, brought to mind positive comparisons with fellow festival player David O’Doherty. He also expressed a desire to remove every audience’s two primary fears: 1. that they will get picked on; 2. that the show will be crap. This segment was well handled getting plenty of early engagement and laughter.

This unique intro went somewhat longer than expected, but seemed to work its intended effect on the audience pretty well. Finally skipping his way up on to the stage he played out an extended (due to many side thoughts he ran with) and amusing ‘standard intro’ from behind the curtain. Better than just a little warmed up, the audience proceeded to lap up his clever and amusing personal anecdotes as we launched into the show proper.

Most of his stories – including getting felt up at the train station by a random middle-aged man, an awkward ‘almost’ conversation with a lady on a train who had nearly the exact same lunch as he did, and his tendency to unconsciously slip into live commentary mode – took a round about way of coming out as he was constantly going off on very amusing tangents; often parodying a phrase that he’d just used. In fact, as much laughter was to be found in these random interludes as in the base material which was pretty damn funny to begin with. And every so often he almost went too quickly for you to follow – almost.

If there was a theme tying the show together it was this: life is not so bad and we need to regain perspective and appreciate what we have. This theme was fairly tenuous though and the show consisted mostly of Mark spinning madly engaging true life tales that oft times spiralled out control and ended up far from anything scripted. Watson admitted as much near the end of the show when he commented that he was not sure where one particular rant came from – this was definitely not part of his material. The rant was about a current trend in the UK towards the reversal of famed British ‘over-politeness’ to the point where people act like twats then try to excuse their behaviour by simply expressing that ‘this is just who I am’ (ie – twats). His example involved a man on a train who was playing the song I like to move it (move it) obnoxiously loud and when asked to turn it down a little responded that “there’s no law” (against it) like that made his behaviour entirely reasonable.

The run ended with Mark asking the audience the time because he had completely lost track of how far through he was (it was 7:55pm), then seeming genuinely surprised that there was only 10mins left to wrap up. He did so in fine style and also did a great job of advertising his book for sale after the show without selling his soul in the process.

Fast-paced, clever and particularly good at putting you at your ease Mark Watson will surely be one of my picks for this festival. If you get the chance to grab a ticket, do so – you won’t regret it.