Mark Watson is a comedian, author and son of a chemistry teacher. As well as writing a number of novels and regular TV and radio appearances, Mark is perhaps best known for pioneering marathon stand up shows which usually involve him being on stage for an epic 24 hours straight. These shows often feature a wide range of guests from Tim Minchin to Daniel Kitson.
In extreme circumstances the body and the mind are capable of much more endurance than you ever think.
On first memories of science
My dad was – is – a science teacher. He’s a chemistry teacher and Head of Science at, ah…he teaches at a girl’s school now but in those days, for most of his career, he taught at what was my school. I think my earliest memory of science is probably him coming into my junior school, so I would’ve been like five or something, and there was a window in the week for mums or dads with, ah, real life skills to kind of come in and educate the class. So I was really proud my dad came in to talk about science. And he set up an exercise where there were two teams and each of us had to build a tower out of cardboard, like toilet roll holders and just scrap cardboard and stuff like that. And, um, the gist of it is we fired eggs at each other’s towers to see whose would survive. So, even though this was my dad running it and the whole lesson was my dad’s brainchild, I was on the losing team. We built a crap tower which was just a…the structure of it was really flimsy whereas the winning team worked out that the best way was to kind of have, sort of a lattice, with like cylinders going that way, then that way, then that way; they built it a bit like a…probably a lot more like a modern skyscraper is built. Whereas ours, we just stuck everything together and hoped for the best.
I remember an egg being launched at ours and breaking it apart and thinking, ah, even though my dad engineered this whole lesson I’ve still lost, I’m obviously not a scientist. I was right. I never was a scientist. I wouldn’t say that put me off exactly but I did, almost from that moment, saw myself as more of an arts man. A man who writes a poem about the decline of the tower rather than actually designing it.
On surviving the 24 hour shows
I’ve done a few stand up marathon shows, the latest of which was this year  in February. 25 hours on stage. A lot of the preparation, there are common sense things that you have to do, like keep yourself hydrated, get plenty of rest beforehand and eat well, but most of the actual show itself, the 25 hours on stage, is, ah, the endurance aspect is almost entirely psychological because anyone can stay awake for that long, and most people have had to write an essay or something or do a piece of work that required doing an all-nighter. All it is really is that. But it seems like an enormous undertaking to people because although most people have been awake for 25 hours, they’ve not been on stage for that whole time.
The key to it is to level things out so that you are never too high or too low. During a show that’s that long there are natural spikes of adrenaline and other points where you feel quite drained, and the danger is that you go hyper during the adrenalised moments and then you sort of bottom out quite dramatically, and your body and mind naturally do that to some extent if you’re doing any sort of endurance activity. So it’s all about conniving your body and mind that everything is normal.
So during a 25 hour show, I’ll break it up into kind of segments of maybe three or four hours, and during each segment you just say to yourself, ‘This is perfectly normal’. You almost, you can…I’ve not only done these marathon shows but I’ve done quite a bit of long distance running, and I have a child as well, so I’m used to, sort of, acts of stamina, and I think the key to it is acting as if everything is normal. If you run a marathon as if you’re about to keel over, if you keep thinking, ‘Oh shit this is 26 miles’, then you’ve got no chance. And in the same way, if you go out and think, ‘I must be on stage for 25 hours’ you’d very quickly keel over. But if you just keep going and think to yourself, ‘This is fine’ you can kind of do it. I’ve always found it’s possible to, um…you couldn’t do it every week, but in extreme circumstances the body and the mind are capable of much more endurance than you ever think. So it’s about conning your brain into letting you have that extra energy basically. And that applies to the long shows, but it applies to most things that I’ve ever done that involved staying awake for a long time or anything that involves endurance. The key to it is to not even admit to yourself that it is endurance. Just do it as if it were normal. At some point your body will say, ‘This is a bit weird’ but if you just keep saying, ‘This is fine’ then you can kind of get through it. I’m not sure what the long term physiological implications of that are but basically, through denial, you can get through a lot of difficult tasks. I suppose I’m living proof of that.
It’s a good rule for life; if you’ve got to do something difficult, pretend it’s not difficult, yeah, and by the time your brain and body catch up you might’ve got away with doing it.
On scientific advancements in my lifetime
When asked to consider what the scientific advances are that I couldn’t live without, it’s nearly all of them because I’m quite a, kind of, coddled, 21st century individual. I like convenience. Like, I like having a laptop, music on my phone, and virtually everything that surrounds me is a product of science and technology which, um, you can easily take for granted. But I suppose I would say that the internet is the key technological breakthrough of my age. I feel really lucky to live in a time when you can pretty much lay your hands on any piece of information discovered by humanity within ten seconds. And even when I was at school, I, um…mobiles weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, until I left university, but when I was at school, when I was 16 or 17, if someone had said you could have a phone in your pocket in which you could call up almost any fact that was known in human history I would’ve found that absolutely incomprehensible. And I think it’s become so common that we forget it.
But the power of computers and phones and gadgets to store information is absolutely unbelievable and it puts us in a stronger position that probably anyone, any generation or civilisation that’s ever been. But a lot of things are like that, like the invention of, and the development of, anaesthetic, something you don’t even really think about but, um, I’ve had various surgeries in my lifetime, 100 years ago it would’ve been carried out by me just lying there screaming while they just sort of messed about with my lung or something. And also, it wouldn’t have been done successfully. Medicine is so advanced that, again, we don’t even really think about it. You just assume that if there’s a problem with your body you can pretty much get it fixed, whereas for most of human history we’ve assumed that if there’s a problem with your body you’ll get worse and you’ll die. So I think that despite not being scientifically minded I am living in, or trying to live in, a state of permanent gratitude for the advances of science and technology. But if I had to isolate one thing about the here and now it would be, yeah, computers and the internet, because I do think that the internet, the notion of being able to pool all human activity and advancement like that, there’s nothing in human history that has enabled us to do that, and I think that although there’s problems with it, it is fascinating to think that in 50 years there might be nothing stopping anybody on the planet from having access to any information or knowledge that exists. So that’s pretty good.