Comedian, broadcaster, tireless campaigner and professional boat-rocker, Mark Thomas describes himself as being ‘in a genre of one’. His new show 100 Acts of Minor Dissent aims to make people laugh, to make them think – and slowly draw them in to reclaiming the right to make their voices heard and challenge the creeping powers of corporations and State. The Moment chatted to Mark, ahead of his appearance at the Key Theatre in March, about rights, rules and Russell Brand – and escaping arrest by the Israeli army…
You’ve evolved a great deal as a performer, not just as comedian, tackling – and campaigning on – any number of issues, as well as making people laugh. How do you feel about this evolution since you began back in 1985?
Well, I think that it’s pointless trying to be a creative person without trying new things out. The most important things is not to keep doing more of the same but keep doing things that are different, loads and loads of stuff – some of good, some of it bad! I like to think that the shows I create are getting more theatrical, more unusual, you know, I like to go off and have adventures, come back and tell people about them. Essentially, the ways in which you tell stories is up for grabs and you can be as playful and inventive as you like – as you dare be!
‘Why should you want to be like everyone else?’
I suppose that’s the thing: when I first started doing stand-up I just wanted to be able to be an interesting comedian, but now I think well, stand-up is stand-up, and that’s all well and good but actually there are more interesting ways of dong things. I put myself in a genre of one. There’s just one of me – and that’s fine! I like that, and why should you want to be like everyone else? What a deathly dull thing that would be.
There are plenty of people doing straight stand-up…
Yeah, and plenty of good people doing straight stand-up, and good luck to them! There’s lots of interesting stuff – there’s also lots of stuff that is more of the same, just kind of… well, the older I get, the more interested I am in how we share, and play and create events that stay in people’s minds and in their hearts. You can go and see a lot of comedy and it will just be wallpaper, which you’ve largely forgotten the next day. I want to create stuff that stays with people, that moves them, inspires them, challenges them.
So, what you’re really striving for is to make a proper, genuine connection with other people
Yeah! Isn’t that what everyone wants to do?
Well, as you said, some performers just want to tick the box and take the cheque, don’t they?
You do want to connect with people, otherwise there seems little point in doing it. The whole point is the relationship you build with the audience, and it has to work. I’m on stage for two hours – there has to be a connection! And I like that, I love the fact that when we do the show, the Manifesto, we get suggestions to improve the world – the show has become about giving as much space as possible to the audience.
‘If the audience wants to join in, fine let them join in!’
And this was an evolution, of the show?
Yes. You can stand there and come up with smart and witty responses to things, but there comes a point where you need to praise the audience and say: that’s a great idea! And you need to get people going: oh, well, I’ve got an idea as well. And of course there does come a point where you have to say to someone: um, your idea isn’t great – but thanks for joining in! There’s a whole load of ways you communicate and work with an audience to get them to create and to work with you. And that’s exciting, really exciting, and it goes against traditional stand-up comedy, which says: don’t let the audience in! They are opponents, and you are a gladiator – it’s always seen in very combative terms. But, you know, if the audience wants to join in, fine let them join in!
Of course there are times when you have to go: actually, excuse me, stop it! I was doing a gig down in Cheltenham, and this one woman was basically sitting having a chat. So I tried to gently say, this isn’t really on. But then, eventually, it got to the point where I said: well, we know one thing for sure – you don’t work at GCHQ because you’re rubbish at listening. It was one of those moments where I’d done everything I could to keep her included in the room, but did end up having to say: shut up! There are also ways of making yourself… [cont]