Thursday evening, 11pm. The most incredible entertainment event of the decade is about to begin, as Mark Watson takes the stage at the Pleasance Theatre in London. The audience is anticipating something special, but nobody knows exactly what – least of all Mark. This is because for the next 25 hours, until midnight on Friday, Mark will be on this stage doing comedy. For the whole day straight. No stopping, no breaks (except for weeing, and sometimes not even then), just 25 hours of laughing. He’s not alone in this endeavour, of course – TV’s Emma Kennedy joins him very early on, and spends the entire show on stage in a tent, whilst the winner of the Least Pronounceable Name In Comedy award Tiernan Douieb will be at the back learning to play piano, whilst getting hit in the face every hour with an increasingly larger custard pie. These three will be our core players and our stalwarts for the duration of the show, but they will be joined by numerous comedy guests, be it in person, via Skype or on the phone. Why? Because this is Mark Watson’s 25 Hour Comedy Marathon for Comic Relief, and what he says goes.
Mark has done these endurance-testing shows before, and for a while they were his “thing” – every year at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival since 2004 he would attempt an event of similar stature, eventually hitting an insane 36-hour show in 2006. People could come and go, and see different bits of the show, where something was always guaranteed to be going on, but those who stayed for the whole time were known as Lifers. By 2009 they were legendary, and for that very reason he declared that year’s show his final one in this theme:
thinking it was better to quit while ahead than to keep pulling off the stunt with diminishing returns until it became almost meaningless, like Big Brother.
But, of course, when Comic Relief approached him with the idea of a 25-hour show to mark the 25th anniversary of the charity, he simply couldn’t resist. And frankly, I’m so glad he couldn’t, because the day of comedy that was to follow was unparalleled in its joy, hilarity, wonder, symbolic resonance (more on this later), and silliness. Oh, it was silly.
To clarify – I wasn’t actually there. I was watching the livestream that Comic Relief had set up for the event. It wasn’t a perfect stream; often it would judder, lag or just crash, but it did the job. I had considered buying a ticket, but with little to no money and Friday being a school day I didn’t go for it. Tickets sold out in four minutes, and a lot of my friends (many of which were Lifers from previous shows) had got one. I was sad and jealous but I knew that I at least had the stream.
Thursday rolls around. I go to bed at 8pm in order to wake up at 11, watch the beginning of the show, then get some more sleep before school. This doesn’t happen, and I actually wake up at 3am. Whoops. Still, I watched a little of the proceedings and it was great fun. I then slept, and got back to the show Friday morning at school, where I rather anti-socially ignored most people in favour of the show. Back at home, I watched more or less continuously from 5pm to midnight, when the show ended. All the way through I was texting my friend Misha, who I could see in the front row on the stream, as well as Zoe and Josh, amongst other familiar faces. Misha gave me updates on what it was like in the room, and relayed any messages I had to the rest of the guys. Almost as good as being there, but probably not.
One of the things that makes this show different from those Edinburgh long shows that came before was that people had thought up challenges to do during the show, and getting sponsored for them for Comic Relief. Misha knitted for the whole 25 hours, two guys had a marathon game of Countdown, one incredible man watched the awful film Beverly Hills Chihuahua on a loop for the whole 25 hours. That’s a total of sixteen excruciating times, as worked out by a mathematician in the front row who was sponsored to solve 25 mathematical problems in 25 hours. There was a woman who went on 25 dates with 25 different men in 25 hours. Someone drew a beautiful mural-style picture to commemorate the show, incorporating all different parts of it. One particularly ambitious project saw someone make a house of cake. In fact, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There were so many challenges it was hard to keep track sometimes; indeed, a lot of the show was catching up on people who were doing challenges and seeing what progress was being made.
It should be clear by now that this is not a regular comedy show. Mark does very little standup, though he is always cracking jokes and being amusing, and almost none of it is planned. This is most evident in the nature of the guests. Basically, any celebrity who wants to can come down, and they frequently did. Simon Amstell popped in for ten minutes to try out some new material, the Channel 4 newsreader Krishnan Guru-Murthy gave everyone the news of the outside world, Penny Smith and Emma Freud came for breakfast, Jane Garvey from Woman’s Hour brought cake and interviewed Mark on Radio 4, Richard Curtis told everyone about his new film and Mark tried to make him cry. On the phone we had such people as Matt Smith, Sir Bob Geldof, Gary Lineker and Jonathan Ross, who was to appear in person at the memorable end of the show. Meanwhile, Skype gave us short chats with The Boy With Tape On His Face, a mime artist doing a 25-hour sponsored silence, and John Bishop. A rotating cast of players helps keep things fresh, but Mark, Emma and Tiernan gave a sense of continuity to the room.
In fact, as time goes on in that room, continuity becomes something very important. Many running jokes were formed at the very beginning that would then baffle people who came in after work on Friday evening. To list them all would probably not be as satisfying for those that were not there, but for example; Mark was hopelessly underinformed on exactly what the donated money was being spent on, and whilst he knew it was for malaria he also thought goats might be involved, so the ultimate aim became to buy as many malaria goats as possible. Also, Emma Kennedy (in her tent) became the source of knowledge with regards to contacting celebrities, and would frequently emerge from her tent with a face that could mean good or bad things, and would solemnly declare the three words that were to become her catchphrase – “I have news…”. Another theme came fairly late and supplied the show with its pseudo-antagonist, a ex-policeman called Ray. Ray had won an eBay auction for Comic Relief, the prize of which was to spend 25 minutes of fame on stage in the show. They had a conversation with Ray and told stories about the police and generally chatted quite amicably. The problem came in the fact that Ray was horrifically boring. Not only that, but he was obnoxious enough to not realise that everyone was finding him boring, and would not leave the stage. In fact, he even invaded the stage a little later to say that he would donate a pound for every Twitter follower he got in the next hour or whatever. The man had an ego on him, and no mistake. Ray later won another of the charity eBay auctions in which he would be going bowling with Mark and a few other comedians. Lucky them…
Another important element was the house of cake mentioned earlier – this mission sadly didn’t go as well as everyone wanted, because not enough guests and other people had brought in cake to make a decent structure. A real shame, as it could’ve been amazing, but it did create a beautiful platter of cake. It does demonstrate how important audience participation is to the show, though; even people who didn’t have tickets were told to bring cake if they could, and requests for other challenges were also fulfilled. For instance, one woman wanted to go on a ballon ride, and Mark promised to make it happen, but after finding that it probably wasn’t possible, he asked people to bring in balloons and tried to source some helium – they would lift her off the ground. One anonymous hero then donated 800 balloons! That, as well as Adam Hills coming in with snacks that he threw into the crowd, indicates that the show isn’t just about Mark – it’s about the audience, who very quickly become a community of their own.
However, the biggest running theme was the epic campaign to bring Zach Braff to the show. Braff, the actor most famous for playing J.D. on Scrubs, was in London at the time promoting his new movie, and Mark had made it his mission to get him there. A near-military scale operation was launched to find Braff and get him to come to the show. Interviewers meeting him that day were contacted, sightings were documented, and impassioned pleas from the room as a whole were tweeted to him en masse. The best they got out of Braff, though, was a video message congratulating them on their achievement. Which is still pretty good work, to be fair. Braff became something of a folk legend to the people in that room, though, and when he later tweeted that he was out having fish & chips, a furious Mark ordered everyone in the room to tweet that Braff had died of fish poisoning. The rumour did not spread, unsurprisingly.
The Australian funnyman Adam Hills was another core part of the show, having been a guest in previous long shows. He set up a kind of talent show with the audience, the winner of which would have a small part in his live Channel 4 show The Last Leg, which was happening that night. After an 18-hour (on and off, obviously) selection process, they were down to three contenders. For the final round, they decided to audition the three by giving them a speech to rehearse and perform in front of the audience. The speech was taken from the film Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and the man who had seen the film over 12 times at this point was given a short break in order to judge the speeches. Mark had interviewed Oliver, the hero behind this insane challenge, a few hours previously, but when Oliver came on stage for that interview he still had his headphones in and his laptop in front of him – he would not take his eyes off the screen even when answering
MARK: So how much time do you allow yourself between viewings? Do you get any kind of break then?
OLIVER: …Let’s just say I make the most of the credits.
Anyway, an eventual winner of the Adam Hills competition was chosen, and a car came at 7pm to pick them up. They actually watched The Last Leg via the Channel 4 website, projecting it onto the large screen at the back, and were overjoyed when the 25-hour show got a shout-out at the beginning from Adam.
So much happened at this show that it’s obviously difficult to get it all into one already too-long blog, but I need to tell you about a few more special moments. The first is actually the finale of the show, which had, in true Chekhovian style, been set up near the very beginning. Comedian and actor Rufus Hound came in, clearly either very sleepy deprived or somewhat intoxicated. During some stage banter that I was not party to, Rufus claimed at some point that he would, given enough sponsorship (£2000), dress up as a king and break 25 eggs on stage with a mallet sellotaped to his own penis.
You know, now I think about it, it was all a bit weird.
Once Hound had left, Mark & co begged people to donate to Hound’s page, and within a few short hours over a thousand pounds had been raised in order to see this man embarrass himself. It still wasn’t enough, though…at least, not until Jennifer Saunders came in and pledged £1000 to Comic Relief! Hound had instantly regretted his glib pledge, and had been deliberately not tweeting about it in order to make sure the target was not reached, but Saunders pushed it to the £2000 mark. Hound came back at half past ten that evening, not best pleased, but committed to the comedy. After a very tense Countdown conundrum to settle the marathon game that had been going on, hosted by Rachel Riley (the current Carol Vorderman), the board was arranged to read “RUFUS COCKHAMMER”, and he did it.
The live stream (conveniently) cut out for me just as he was about to do it, but someone’s uploaded a Youtube video. So, you know, if you want, click here. But why would you?
Some people in that room will be haunted forever by the sight of an egg.
Near the end of the show, Tim Key snuck into the audience and stole the show as he outbid himself multiple times in an auction for the mural that had been drawn for the show. Once he’d realised that he’d pledged thousands of pounds, he began to wonder if it was actually a good idea, yelling from his seat: “I DON’T EVEN WANT IT THAT MUCH, IT’S NOT REALLY MY SORT OF THING!”. Key’s awful auctioning skills were put to the test a few more times, and each time he “won”, having spent an inordinate amount of money on a Countdown tile, among other things.
So, what was the point? 25 hours, and what was achieved? As gloriously weird as that climax with Hound was, the show isn’t a story, and therefore isn’t going to have a continuous theme or satisfying end. Right? Wrong, actually. Because everything is a story if you look closely enough at it, and I think I’ve found the key to this one – Tiernan Douieb.
I have, up to now, been somewhat silent about Tiernan’s efforts in this show. As I said, he got pied every hour, on the hour, and also tried to learn the piano. The latter part of his challenge gave way fairly soon, and instead he acted as a kind of side-kick to Mark, someone to sing a parody of “No Scrubs” to condemn the no-show that was Zach Braff, someone to begin the mass Harlem Shake that won £50 for charity. Someone, basically, to rely on. However, I believe that Tiernan was actually the hero of this story, representing a tragic figure in an epic tale who has to struggle through to triumph.. Think about it in these terms; the only feature in the show that occurred at a regular time was his pieing (representing the hero’s sacrifice, in this case for the sake of comedy). 24 times he was pied, be it by a volunteer from the audience (representing the kind of mob mentality the hero must fight against), by Adam Hills (representing a superior who is more concerned with manipulating the people to his own ends) or by two clowns who brought in some GIANT custard pies (representing the toughest part of the sacrifice; this occurred about halfway through to coincide with Dan Harmon’s story circle).
Still, though, Tiernan perseveres, taking every pie in his stride, knowing that one day the time will come when he is not the butt of the jokes, an hour when it is not he who must make a fool of himself for comedy. Mark is a kind of guardian angel for Tiernan in this scenario, and it is as such that he summons Rufus “Cockhammer” Hound to finally free Tiernan from his eternal punishment. Finally, someone is made a fool of that isn’t Tiernan. Hound is dressed like a king, and it is thus even more poignant that the fairly ordinarily-dressed Tiernan should rise up and overcome even the royalty himself. But, though it may feel that way, his journey is not done yet. Midnight is coming – the final pie.
After Hound’s stunt, Jonathan Ross comes on stage, having just been a guest on The Last Leg with Adam Hills, who also returns with the audience member that he took for his show. In this story, Mark is a divine being, but even he is not infallible, as spending 25 hours locked inside this room, witnessing all the things he has witnessed, has sent him insane. However, Ross is not affected by such things, as he has only just arrived – he is not One Of Us, and thus represents Evil. Ross sees the show as insane, and when he walks on stage and grabs a microphone, the first words out of his mouth are “What the fuck is wrong with you people?!”
However, there is no time to dwell, as midnight approaches. Mark wonders who should administer the final pie, and offers it to Ross. However, Ross has a better idea. He asks who it was that won the auction for 25 minutes of fame, and suggest that that person could do the final pie. A groan falls across the crowd as Ray (representing Satan, obviously) waves from his seat. Ross wants to invite him up, and Mark is powerless to stop him. This can’t be the way the show ends, can it? The insufferably dull Ray taking a pie to the face of the hero? But it seems it is not to be, as a voice from the crowd yells out “SIX THOUSAND POUNDS!”
It is Key! His unwise bidding once again rears its head, and a bidding war begins between the force of Evil (Ross) and God himself (Key – always unseen among the audience, but a powerful presence, best friend of a guardian angel – it all fits!). Tiernan’s fate hangs in the balance, and after a battle that comes to over £12,000, a decision is made. The house of cake is carried down from the balcony where it had been formed, and it is decided that Tiernan shall push his own face into the cake. Finally, a change of the sacrificial routine. Finally, he is free. Finally, after 25 hours of nothing but pie, the great hero receives his final reward – the cake is his.
There is so much I haven’t told you about this show. I didn’t talk about Mark’s doppleganger who he sent out to live like him for a day. I didn’t talk about the couple who spent the 25 hours on a trial separation and lived single life for a day, and I didn’t talk about the man who gave his partner a piggyback for the whole 25 hours. I didn’t talk about Groupon, and I didn’t talk about Adam Hills’ wife singing a haunting version of Radiohead’s “Creep” on what appeared to be an electronic harp. That’s understandable , though – I simply can’t fit everything into this blog. Watching Mark Watson’s 25 Hour Comedy Marathon was an exhilarating experience like no other, and though I’ve used over 3,000 of them, words cannot do it justice. There’s just one more tale I’d like to tell you, and that’s the story of how I got onto the show, right at the very end.
When you watch a livestream on YouTube, there is a small comments section to the right of the video, where you can chat to other people watching the show. In the many hours I’d been watching, familiar names came up a few times, and we built up a tiny proto-community. At approximately ten PM, I suggested to this little band of livestreamers that we do something to thank Mark for all he’s done. Another user chips in and suggests some kind of collaborative video. Within an hour, I had written a small script and given out my email on the channel comments, and was assigning people lines of this little speech. Some people supplied photos, some video. I edited it all together frantically and sent off the results to Mark’s tour manager and backstage god Giles, on an email address that had been procured by our on-site agent Misha. This was all done without the knowledge of Mark, so when I settled in for the final half hour of the show, I had no idea whether our video would appear. As the epic events mentioned above unfolded, it became more and more clear that there wouldn’t be time for our video. We were philosophical about it, because we hoped that at least Giles would show it to Mark after the show. Midnight came and went, and as Tiernan caked himself in cake, I saw a face appear on the screen, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the face of the girl who had done the first clip of the video! It played out and I watched the work that I had put together – WE had put together! – in less than an hour be played out to Mark, and to everyone in the theatre. There’s my part of the recording, and there’s all the photos, and there’s a man wrapped in blue lights, and a joke about malaria goats, and now we’re all on the show! Initially, Mark wasn’t sure what it was (understandable, as he had been awake and talking for 25 hours straight by this point), but I got a tweet from him this morning and emails from Giles and Corry (another backstage manager who was amazing in keeping things running) thanking me for doing it. I’d thought it might be spontaneous to be incorporated – I clearly underestimated exactly how insanely spontaneous the whole show was, which made the fact that it was so entertaining all the more remarkable.
Friday evening, just gone midnight. A crowd, the majority of them now Lifers, stands for Mark Watson, as he takes a bow with Tiernan Douieb, the hero of pies and Emma Kennedy, the tent-based informant. The longest night is over, and they depart the stage, having raised over £30,000 for charity. As well as that, though, they’ve made an event that nobody there will forget for a long time. Much as Rufus Hound might wish they did.