MARK THOMAS (00:00:00):
Hello, I’m comedian Mark Thomas. You really should join me on Paul Boross’s Humourology podcast, where we’re discussing timing. See you there.
PAUL BOROSS (00:00:29):
This is part two with the shy, retiring wallflower that is Mark Thomas. Enjoy.
We had Omid Djalili on a while ago, and he said, comedians are people who need the laughter of strangers to validate us. We’re all mentally ill.
MARK THOMAS (00:00:53):
Of course, we are. Our job is to get complete strangers to like us. Of course, we’re bloody… something’s wrong with us.
PAUL BOROSS (00:01:01):
And to make an involuntary act, usually in a darkened room.
MARK THOMAS (00:01:06):
And also, I’d argue that there are comics amongst us Jerry Sadowitz being a prime example, who will get you to laugh at him and like him despite himself.
PAUL BOROSS (00:01:17):
<laugh>. Yes, exactly. Oh, Jerry actually changed a bit of the face of the Comedy Store, didn’t he? When he came first of all?
MARK THOMAS (00:01:29):
I mean, he was, he was incredible cuz he was just like, had no, no boundaries.
PAUL BOROSS (00:01:36):
MARK THOMAS (00:01:36):
He was remarkable. He could take that room and shake it apart.
PAUL BOROSS (00:01:41):
Yeah. And say things that – we should explain to the listener that in the original, in inverted commas “alternative comedy scene” – it was based on no racist, no sexist, because we’d come off the back of, you know, Bernard Manning and all those kind of people. And yet he would do stuff that was on the edge of all those things and yet get away with it.
MARK THOMAS (00:02:10):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And because he was, he was not only funny, but he had a point and a purpose quite often behind vitriol. I was reminded just as you were speaking there, I was with John Cooper Clarke the other day, and we were at the Larne festival. The Larne Festival is a small festival in Wales. It’s brilliant. It’s beautiful. About 600 people go and there are three venues and you go from the church hall to the community hall to the pub, right. And you get like, Linton Kwesi Johnson was there, the poet. Colin Grant, the novelist was there, you know, John Cooper Clarke was there, Eliza Carthy there who’s the great folk singer. And it was amazing. Martin Rowson, the Guardian cartoonist, who is absolutely outrageous.
And remind me to show you something at the end of Martins. So what it was we had that classic moment where we scrambled for a gag. Cuz I said, oh, John, he said, you all right mate? And I said, yeah, good, how are you? And we started chatting and he said, are you gigging tonight? I said, I am. But I was gigging last night in this pub and just everyone takes turns. It’s like a free for all. There’s loads of poets and comics. And he said, was it good? I said, it was great, there was a bagpipe player on after me. He went bloody hell said, I know it’s not a background instrument, is it? You never hear the phrase ambient bagpipe. And he went, that’s an oxymoron. It’s more of a oxymoron than casual sex. And he said, I’ll put that one in me set. I said, I’m having it first. And there’s a scramble for ‘ambient bagpipe’. But the reason that I mentioned John, was that he got his first gigs with Bernard Manning.
PAUL BOROSS (00:04:05):
MARK THOMAS (00:04:06):
He got his first gigs with Bernard Manning and John Cooper Clarke for those you don’t is poet. And one of his first poems was about a Salford club, called The Ritz that everyone knew. Everyone knew. And the poem used to start, I was walking down the road in what you might just call the mode, when you saw them spinning all the smash hits from the Mecca of the modern dance, the Ritz. My feet did the foxtrot my shoulders, did the shimmy. The bouncers at the door said they gimme, gimme, gimme. I gave them the money. They gave me the shits. There’s no healthy argument in the Ritz. Anyway, it goes on… Standing by the light of the fag machine. She illuminated me with her irradiant glint. She had lacquer on her hair and something on her lips. Salome Maloney Queen of the Ritz. And it’s about this dancer, Salome Maloney. And the last line of it, she falls off her stileto heels and broke her fucking neck. Anyway, everyone knew the club. Everyone in Salford knows the club. So you’re doing something about something that everyone knows that you shared, that you understand. And he did it for Bernard Manning when he went for his audition. And Bernard Manning apparently sat there chuckling, going, fell off her stileto heels. Fucking funny is that. Broke her neck. Funny as fuck,
PAUL BOROSS (00:05:18):
<laugh>. Oh my God.
That’s where he got his first breaks. And I wouldn’t for one minute begin to defend Bernard Manning’s deep misogyny and racism that went on with him. But there was a shared experience, which shouldn’t be thrown out.
No. And by the way that he had exceptional timing.
MARK THOMAS (00:05:43):
He was amazing. His timing was brilliant. The other thing, Ken Dodd and him shared this thing, which is you could be laughing at the first joke while he was telling the third <laugh>. Do you know what I mean? So you were beaten into submission. It was amazing.
PAUL BOROSS (00:06:01):
But all these comics and everything, again, you were talking about Robin Williams, we were talking about Robin Williams and it’s just subtly flashed into my head that Billy Crystal line about Robin Williams is that, “he needed those extra little hugs that you can only get from strangers.”
MARK THOMAS (00:06:19):
PAUL BOROSS (00:06:20):
And is that true? Is that why people want to make other people laugh? Is a stranger’s laugh? What do we need from that?
MARK THOMAS (00:06:32):
As human beings? We need that. Why would you want strangers hating you? You know what I mean? This is the thing about, I never quite get my head around Twitter, <laugh>. Why would you want strangers hating you? Do you know what I mean? When we tell jokes it’s a way of… there’s a communication that goes on that validates us. That we can be the person at the bottom of the pile. We can be the person who’s the weakest part of any team. Do you know what I mean? We can be the person who gets the lowest marks or whatever, but when we tell jokes, we’re Kings.
PAUL BOROSS (00:07:14):
Beautifully put. Yeah. So, what it is… It’s an evening-up of society, isn’t it? Because some people can punch really hard with their fists. Some people can actually do a punchline.
MARK THOMAS (00:07:29):
Well, that’s what I’ve had, you know, people say to me, you’re, you’re very much like your dad, except you use your words. I’ll tell you a story, It was told to me. So it’s not my story. And it belongs to a lovely performer and writer called Gary McNair, who did a show about Billy Connolly. And is in fact developing it. It’s beautiful, beautiful story. And instead of doing a show about Billy Connolly telling his life, they just talk to people about what Billy Connolly meant to them, which changes the whole thing. Connolly is like in Scotland, he is the nearest thing you’ve got to Godhead. And they did a show, they did a kind of reading of the play at this small community centre. And the community centre was famous for its local art exhibitions, for local people doing their art exhibitions.
And one year they got Billy Connolly to do it. It’s in the seventies. And Billy Connolly paying to do it. And so it’s right that they did this show in this community centre and they had curry, these people made curry, the community centre made curry. So you get nourishment, right? This is the thing. You get physical nourishment and you get spiritual nourishment, right? And that’s what I think is brilliant about it. Even when you see Les Dennis – Scampi and Chips. That’s what it is. So, they got all curries handing out to people, they did the show, and at the end of it, people got up to tell their stories. So it literally becomes about sharing, right? You’ve suddenly turned it into a group, into something where we’re all becoming… that.
we’ve gone beyond the laughter and the sharing of the laughter. We’re now sharing stories with each other. And this woman gets up and said, this bowl of curry I made tonight. And it’s because of Billy Connolly said, he came here to open the art exhibition. And I bumped into him cuz he went around the town before doing it. I bumped into him and we got chatting and I said, oh, I’m a Buddhist, but I’m not quite sure what I wanna do with my life. And I got chatting with him about this and that. And he was really receptive, really nice. Anyway, comes through the art exhibition. He sees me at the back room and goes, ah, there’s that Buddhist, there’s my Buddhist friend. So she said, I thought I’d be cheeky. And she said, I wrote him a long letter and sent it to his management.
And in it, I said, look, it was lovely meeting you. And I dunno why, but I just feel I’m after the summit in life and I’m debating whether I should go to Napal and I haven’t got any money, but I think I may. So, Billy Connolly sent her a check back with the airfare. (Wow) To the woman, and she went out there, I think she was out there for eight years. And she said, and this is where I learned to make this curry. So literally this curry is because of Billy Connolly. But it doesn’t stop there because she said, my nephew is a tailor and works at a kilt maker and was working with Billy Connolly’s kilt. And she knew that Billy Conley would be coming in for a fitting. So she wrote another letter to Billy Conley explaining everything, what she’d done with the money, what she thought she’d found, what she thought she’d achieved, and what she thought she’d brought back to Scotland. And the nephew gives it to Billy Connolly, who opens it – promptly bursts into tears – and says, always wondered what happened to her.
PAUL BOROSS (00:10:57):
MARK THOMAS (00:11:01):
That’s the gang. That’s our gang.
PAUL BOROSS (00:11:05):
It’s such a privilege to be even in the gang, isn’t it? Do you think that humour is a superpower?
MARK THOMAS (00:11:17):
Well, I mean, I’m not afraid of kryptonite
PAUL BOROSS (00:11:20):
MARK THOMAS (00:11:23):
Well… I never have been
PAUL BOROSS (00:11:25):
MARK THOMAS (00:11:29):
Yeah. Yeah. Superman, Banky’s put a B on your S <laugh>. <laugh>
PAUL BOROSS (00:11:38):
I think, cuz we obviously get lots of people around the world and listen to this who aren’t in show business and have no want to be. But everybody has to connect. Everybody has to bond. Do you think the difference between a good communicator and a great communicator is simply one thing? Humour.
MARK THOMAS (00:12:01):
I think you can put it down to this actually. You can look at it as humour or you can look at it. I’m a big jazz fan and I think if you communicate well, you have to listen well. And all good comics listen,
PAUL BOROSS (00:12:26):
Isn’t that funny, because I talk about this a lot, about the fact that all the best comedians are listening to the audience at all times. And actually, one of the things I love about your stand-up and, and probably that answers my question of why 38 years later you are still as vital and still doing as much is because you are listening to the audience at all times. And listening, happens with the eyes as well. It’s not just the ears, it’s the senses. It’s feeling what they are and where you can take them and where you can dance with them really.
MARK THOMAS (00:13:03):
Yeah. Yeah. That, that’s it. Dance is absolutely what it is. George Carlin’s great quote. You know, comedy’s not about rushing over the boundaries, it’s about dancing backwards and forwards. Do you know what I mean? It’s a beautiful thing. You take ’em over, you bring ’em back, you take ’em over, you bring ’em back. I’m gonna treat you right. Don’t worry, I’ve taken you over again. Don’t worry. Here we are.
PAUL BOROSS (00:13:23):
But isn’t the first thing you have to get is that rapport with the audience. And what, what do you do out of interest? Because we like people to be able to take something away from this as well. What, what do you think you do that allows you that time? Because I think I know what you do. But you explain what you think you do that allows you that time on stage. Because in comedy, you know, especially where we come from, you got about 30 seconds grace, and then you are off. What are you doing? Do you think that’s…
MARK THOMAS (00:14:02):
I’ll tell you the thing, the physical thing that I always used to do, Bob Boyton noticed it. He said to me, whenever you walk on stage, cuz the Comedy Store stage the seats and the tables were right up. Literally you standing in the midst of them. He said, whenever you walk on stage, he said, you walk up to that microphone, take a sip of your drink and put it on the table in front of you. And he said, it’s like in that little moment you go, this is my gaff.
PAUL BOROSS (00:14:23):
Spatial marking. I would call that in psychological terms is where you go, I own this. Yeah,
MARK THOMAS (00:14:32):
It’s all right everyone, this is fine. I’ve done it before. You’ll be right.
PAUL BOROSS (00:14:35):
But that’s the thing goes back to teachers, doesn’t it? Any school, anybody listening to this went to, we could all as an audience of class, smell the teacher who couldn’t cope. And it’s about – you just said the words – I’ve got this. And that’s really all they want to know, isn’t it?
MARK THOMAS (00:14:59):
My mate was went to teach training college and he said there’s a famous story of a teacher who was coming up for his assessment and they had the assessor coming in to see whether he is gonna go on to qualify. And he walked into a particularly difficult classroom just opened his briefcase, got out four bricks two each side put a little tile in front of it, and just went and smashed the tile and just went right, Maths
He failed, he failed <laugh>.
PAUL BOROSS (00:15:39):
Oh God. That’s extraordinary.
MARK THOMAS (00:15:40):
That’s an extreme example of marking your territory.
PAUL BOROSS (00:15:45):
But it is about – because anybody getting up – everybody at some stage in their life has to get up in front of somebody, whether that’s at a wedding or a funeral or something, or a business, you know, work event. You know…
MARK THOMAS (00:16:00):
Think, I mean, even like, I do a little book club once a month and we do it on Zoom, and it’s just a small group of us on Twitter called The Lazy Reader Club. And we just choose a different book and then read it, and then we’ll discuss it as a group. And it’s lovely. And I’ve got to know these people. They’re lovely, lovely people. I really, really like them. And we have a little thing, and it’s always about going, do, do you wanna speak or you don’t have to. And then saying, all right, you put something in the comments, I’ve got the comments. And it’s about looking after people, enabling them to come forward. Everyone’s got something worth saying. But even if they can’t get up and speak in front, you know, on the Zoom call and go, well, this is what I feel about the book.
I feel it, you know, may maybe they feel a little bit inhibited about that. They can still write it down. And it’s about getting people to move. There’s one woman who I adore on the group who is just so, she was like, I’m in a book group. I’ve never been in a book group before. And she said, I’ve never spoken before. This is my first time speaking. And, and everyone was just like, really supportive and lovely. And you are right, everyone has to at some point engage with the world, whether it’s on a Zoom call or whether we did this thing once. We used to do sort of just drama therapy at an institution for mental health. And we’re working with some fairly long-term residents. And we would do things where people just would do simple tasks because we sometimes forget that for some people, the most simple tasks are really anxious.
They’re really full of anxiety. And one bloke describes, he said, he said it was sent out on a task of getting leaflets from – I think it was an… it was, it was a showroom, you know what I mean? And he went in there and he went into the wrong showroom. And he, he said, electric instead of gas, right? Which shows how long ago it was. And he said, it’s a gas showroom rather than electric or whatever. And the bloke was embarrassed and went off. And so the next week we all did, we did sort of like role play about what happens when you make little mistakes. Cause all of us need those. We all need that help. There’s always situations that make us anxious, that makes us constricted. You know, and it can be social, it can be job, it can be societal, whatever. And we’ve all gotta give each other a break.
PAUL BOROSS (00:18:28):
I think the misnomer or misapprehension for everyone out there thinks that you were born with this talent to be able to do this. And I think it’s learnt.
MARK THOMAS (00:18:49):
I think you’re right. I think you’re right about that. I think kindness is also learnt, Paul. (Yes). I think kindness is learnt, and I think that’s really important. I was doing a gig recently and I told a story about Barry Cryer about his funeral and about what his funeral was like. And it was funny cuz Arthur Smith was there and Arthur was always funny, you know, it was a great old story, big laugh. And this woman drunk comes up and said, I met Barry Cryer and, and I wanted to affirm what you’ve said. And she was a bit pissed. And it was towards the end of the show. And I just went, come on them and gave her a microphone and just sat down next to her on the front of the stage and a bit pissed. She just told the story of meeting him in a Chinese restaurant and how kind he was. And I cracked in with a couple of gags that weren’t aimed at her. And when she’d finished the story, she went back. And for me, it’s taken 38 years to know how to handle kindness, to be able to let that woman be herself and go back without hurting her.
PAUL BOROSS (00:19:58):
No, that’s beautiful. Because I think that’s underrated kindness, isn’t it? And I think because the whole Humourology project is really, I always say it’s not about comedy. I go, it’s about humanity. It’s about humility and good humour.
MARK THOMAS (00:20:17):
Yeah. Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. Anyone can tell a joke about someone else and let them be the butt. You’ve gotta be able to let yourself… You’ve gotta have self-deprecation. You’ve gotta be able to laugh and mock the right people. And you’ve got let… you’ve also got to stand back. One of the things that I love about heckling, I love heckling, by the way. Right. I adore it. And it’s not a matter again, bang, bang, bang, bang. I’m gonna put you down. It’s a matter of, if you’ve got a better heckle than me, I’m gonna get you a round of applause and we are gonna move on. You know? And actually I love that. I love the fact that people do that. I think it’s really important. I don’t see it as a… I don’t see heckling as a challenge. I see it as joining in.
PAUL BOROSS (00:21:05):
Well, that’s a reframe. And I completely agree. Because if you enjoy it, by the way, that’s, I always think the old Comedy Store training, which I always say is let it come and enjoy it. And by the way, very often, if it’s funny, you’ve got a microphone and if you repeat it, even if it’s taking the piss out of you, you still get the laugh – you share in the laugh.
MARK THOMAS (00:21:32):
Yeah. Yeah. But more than that, you go, come on, give him a round of applause, ladies, gentlemen, you fucker give him a, you know, <laugh>, and you’ve got, you’ve suddenly turned it into a game. You’ve taken it out of being a battle and you’ve turned it into a game. This is all about the most fundamental thing that we do, which is play. We play, we muck about, we experiment, we try things we fuck about for the sake of it we play. That’s why you have work and play where we do the stuff that we have to do and we have to put all the square blocks in the square holes, and we get play where we can try and put oranges Yeah. Wherever we want. Frankly, sometimes it gets a bit ridiculous, especially if you’re a Tory, but <laugh>, you know, that’s the point. That’s the point. You, it’s about playing. It’s about mucking around. And if you create that atmosphere that we can play, and that actually, if you are really good at the game, you’ll get a round of applause.
PAUL BOROSS (00:22:26):
Well, that’s what I think you do. I was gonna say, you bring a playfulness. You, you actually embody the playfulness. We are going to have fun. And you are having fun. So going back to, if you want anyone to go into any state, you have to go into that state first. And so we’re going, this is going to be fun. And all of us are going back to childhood regressing and going that, oh, we’re gonna play.
MARK THOMAS (00:22:54):
Yes. That’s exactly it. And if you sit there going, well, I’ll be the judge of that. You are the sour face on the table. Do you know what I mean? That’s what it is. And I think you’re right. It is about play. It is about fun, and it is about silliness. Even in the most, you know, even in the most sort of like political moments, you can be silly. You should be silly. You should muck around.
PAUL BOROSS (00:23:19):
We had a rockstar on the show, Luke Pritchard of The Kooks, you know, the band, The Kooks, and Luke was on. And he talked about… he said, I saw Mick Jagger when I was young, and I thought, isn’t it great that he can be so silly? And I wanted to be silly, and I’d never thought about the silliness aspect of it, but he kind of, and I’m like, of course. But silly can be sexy.
MARK THOMAS (00:23:52):
Well, I mean, I think you’ve only gotta look at bands like The Sensational Alex Harvey band where Alex Harvey used to come on as Moses. And, you know, he was amazing. All of that, or bands like The Tubes who used to dress up and all of this kind of stuff. All of it is about play and engagement. I think it’s… I love watching, this is where the comedy comes from. You know, Billy Connolly started on the folk circuit. Singing songs and talking. That’s what it is. And what happens is that the songs just got lesser and lesser <laugh>. So fewer and fewer.
PAUL BOROSS (00:24:36):
But don’t you think there’s an intrinsic, music and comedy have an intrinsic dependency on rhythm and which we would refer to as timing. And that arguably evokes only the correct pause before the punchline arrives. And really there’s a lot more to it than that. So it’s a musicality in our brains – a rhythm.
MARK THOMAS (00:25:04):
You’re absolutely right. There is a musicality. I remember seeing Daniel Kitson and he told this gag, and it didn’t really quite fly. And he goes, oh, I’ll get that. I’ll get that tomorrow. It’s not, it’s not quite rhythmic enough at the moment. It was like, yeah, you’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely.
PAUL BOROSS (00:25:20):
Do you think that everyone has the potential to be funny? Or is it only the gift given to the few?
MARK THOMAS (00:25:28):
No, everyone has, I mean, everyone is, I mean, that’s the thing about it. When I do… I do workshops with people sometimes just, and I’ll say, right, just tell me a story, that’s one of your family stories. And what we’ll do is then I’ll put ’em into small groups and get the groups to edit each other and just go, you’re gonna be funny by the end of it. Don’t worry. You know this story, it’s fine. We’re just gonna tell you about the bits that you don’t need to tell, because they don’t serve any purpose for getting a laugh.
PAUL BOROSS (00:26:03):
So it’s the mechanics of that. And the other thing I would add into that, which sounds like what you are doing is you are giving them the quiet confidence to be able to do that.
MARK THOMAS (00:26:15):
You work in small groups, you move it forward, you take them out into bigger groups, Me and my mate Ed, there’s a wonderful chap called Ed who I work with, who is a playwright, but he also runs a short film course at the Accept and Recovery Centre in Manchester, which is quite literally in the shadow of strange ways. And Ed and I are no stranger to recovery ourselves. So we’re working with people who are in recovery, and people in recovery tell their stories all the time, but they tell those horrible, harrowing stories that they need to tell. And we go to ’em, have a laugh, come tell a story that’s a laugh. Just tell us a story that’s funny, that made you laugh. And some of the stories are hysterical. They’re brilliant. And these are people in recovery, you know, which is greater or a lesser degree, some people with real damage, some people who, who are getting there. And actually we’re really proud cuz two of the kids on the course have got into college, which is brilliant. Which is really, really exciting.
PAUL BOROSS (00:27:19):
Oh! That’s wonderful. Is that, is that, is that because there is something really powerful about being able to laugh at yourself?
MARK THOMAS (00:27:29):
Yeah. There’s something brilliant about being able to see that you can laugh at yourself, that you can create a laughter for about you, and that you can create a story and then that story will be taken seriously enough to get in actors and cameramen and editors and women who will be, you know, filming the do, do you know what I mean? So, they’ll make these little short films of them. And there’s, and in the act of making the short film, it’s not only a discipline where they’re learning things, uh, but it’s also this thing about your existence is worth it.
PAUL BOROSS (00:28:05):
So that’s kind of like… have the confidence that it is worth it.
MARK THOMAS (00:28:11):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, one of the funniest sessions that was done, Ed basically said, we’re gonna do a session today. He said, just, just what, by way of, what advice would you give someone who is thinking of taking heroin for the first time? The results were fucking hysterical. <laugh> just hysterical. One person just went, just go up to all your friends and family and say goodbye now. And it was like this real, and he thought that was just like years and years and years of fucking suffering that led to that one line. But what a line. Say goodbye now.
PAUL BOROSS (00:28:49):
Okay. It’s brilliant, but it’s also, here’s another thing that, you know, ever since I’ve known you, I think one of the things that you are is brave, cuz you… now I know and you slightly balked at that, but I think there’s a bravery in everything you do. You will go forward. And I think that’s where humour comes from as well, is the bravery to try something, to say something, to put it out there, because you have to… we, we talked about humour and resilience, but there’s also the other side of it, the bravery to try this, this may not work, this may be inappropriate.
MARK THOMAS (00:29:34):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean that, that I always, I told the story the other night of, of being in Belfast in 87, 88 and doing a simple routine and, you know, mocking everybody but doing a simple routine of, of, uh, about the Pope endorsing contraception, right? Holy Trinity pack of three three now is water, water-based lubricants – holy water-based lubricants, right? And just a silly little simple throwaway. And from the back of the room, someone else, what about Mother Theresa? Who was alive, right? And holding up Mother Theresa as this kind of like beacon beyond reproach that you couldn’t, you know, that I’d offended their identity. And they’re holding up Mother Teresa to say this, you cannot get away from the brilliance of this. I refute you thus, and if you’re on stage, you go with the first thing. And I just went, best fuck I’ve ever had. And the places went… and then it burst and I had to be that big. I had to go that big. It was funny as fuck, Paul, it was fucking brilliant.
PAUL BOROSS (00:30:49):
It’s a, it’s a great line, but it’s brave.
MARK THOMAS (00:30:52):
And they just fucked the whole order. It kind of like destroyed anything that was left of a barrier in the room. Do you know what I mean? Just wrecked it. Anyway, years later, I was doing a pro-choice benefit, me, Josie Long, Robin Ince and Bridget Christie. We were doing a pro-choice benefit. It was about six, seven years ago in Belfast. After the gig, a woman came up to me and said, excuse me, Mr. Thomas, do you remember that gig where somebody shouted it? What about Mother Teresa? I said, I do. She said, that was me. I was like, you’re at the wrong gig. You’re at the wrong gig. This is a pro-choice gig. You’re at the wrong gig. She went, no, no, no, these are my politics. I said, well, why did you, I was off my tits on acid.
PAUL BOROSS (00:31:33):
MARK THOMAS (00:31:34):
Said, why didn’t you tell me that at the time? She said, Martin McGuinness was sitting two rules in front of me. Who’s gonna admit to being on drugs in front of fucking Martin McGuinness?
PAUL BOROSS (00:31:43):
Oh my God, what a story.
MARK THOMAS (00:31:46):
And I love that. I love that. I love that. You know, every part of that story, I adore it. You know, because it is just like the wonderful puncturing of any kind of barrier or pomposity or anything around us. And the fuck that everything is fair game and in a fucking city rent a Sunday by sectarianism where it’s all up for grabs. Oh, yeah. Do you know what I mean? And that’s really exciting. And then years later at this rather, you know, a progressive benefit, you know, just for health rights for women, up comes this woman with the punchline,
PAUL BOROSS (00:32:23):
Well, then we go back to stories about, you know, what a beautiful story arc that is.
MARK THOMAS (00:32:29):
Yeah. It’s this, well, that’s it – jokes and stories.
PAUL BOROSS (00:32:32):
It is. But I go back to the bravery as well, because you’ve, you’ve put yourself there. I mean, you walked the wall in Israel and that’s 723 kilometres long. Yes. Of which, and it took three months. So that takes extraordinary bravery, stamina, endurance,
MARK THOMAS (00:32:54):
PAUL BOROSS (00:32:56):
And stupid. Well, maybe, but, but that’s where the comedy comes from, isn’t it? That you are brave enough to try stuff.
MARK THOMAS (00:33:05):
I’ll tell you something that walk, we walked on both sides of the wall, but we walked predominantly on the Palestinian side, because a lot on the Israeli side, you’ll just get walls. You’ll just get roads going straight past. Do you know what I mean? Yeah. And there’ll be motorways. So, the kind of topography of it militates against walking so much on the Israeli side. And we had really, we were pelted with stones, like proper big rocks. We were arrested by the Israeli army. We thought we were gonna be deported. You know, I fell off the side of a mountain of rubble. Every single day something would go wrong. And every single day something would go right. Really amazingly right. And it was one of the most amazing experiences in my life.
And we’re still working with some of the people. One of the places we went past was the Jenin Freedom Theatre, which is a theatre and a refugee camp. And I loved, I loved what they were doing. I loved it. I really fell in love with it. And I used to go back there and see the guy who ran it. He was half Israeli, half Palestinian. And if you got in an argument with someone, go, ah, we Israelis are always like this. And then the next minute he goes, ah, that’s us Palestinians. You know, he was brilliant. And he was actually murdered outside the theatre. He was shot outside the theatre. And this is the important thing about humour and art, is that it’s a threat. It genuinely is a threat.
and we went back and it still worked with people and we spent ages working out how we could go and run a standup comedy course. And a few years ago we did it. We went and ran a standup comedy course from that theatre and then we put on a standup show in the refugee camp – all in Arabic. We put it in Arabic. And then some of the lads who did the show came over and we wrote a play together and toured it. It was called Showtime From the Frontline. And it was all about what that experience was of trying to put on a comedy show and the various forces. It’s not just the Israeli occupation, it’s the conservativeness of the Palestinian authorities. It’s this force that you, all your stories must be about the struggle. It’s a thing that says, you know, men must be men.
You know, all of these things, women should be in hijabs and they shouldn’t be on stage. You know, all of that, you know, comes… all of that was in the show. Right. And it was, it was really, really exciting. The most wonderful thing for me is that when we finished, the lads went back and one of them continues to work with my friend Dr. Sam Beal, who teaches standup at Middlesex. And they are now, and we’re working on a thing, it’s called Palcom and it’s coming over to Hay-on-Wye and it’s coming over to Rich Mix in the East End which we’ve been going over there continually. I haven’t so much as Sam and Allah And they’ve been teaching comedy courses to women in Nablus, in Bethlehem. And now they’re, they’re on the verge of building a comedy circuit in the West Bank in Palestine. And, you know, this stuff is proper stuff. This is the stuff that changes people’s lives. I love it. And I’ll tell you what, I’m a mouthy old gobshite, but I’m grateful for every moment of it.
PAUL BOROSS (00:36:54):
Here’s the question. Do you think humour can be a successful bridge between opposing political leanings?
MARK THOMAS (00:37:03):
I think you can show people your situation and they can have empathy or not. We had a wonderful, there was a wonderful routine that one of the lads did, which was about the curfew. He said that, they put everyone on a curfew and he had to be inside. And he said, and he said, which meant that they had nothing to do. So the father was saying to the mum, they used the word Maqluba right? Maqluba is one of the most popular dishes. It’s upside down. And Maquba is where you put in the carrots and the onions and the chicken and all of that. And then you put the rice on top and you turn it over and you’ve got Maqluba. And it is about seeing his dad say to his mom, do you think we should have Maqluba tonight?
And it being the little clue for sex? And we were going, we’re gonna get Maqluba. We’re gonna get, you are not getting Maqluba <laugh>. And so they had this whole thing, and after a while the Israelis are looking, and this actually happened. The Israelis are looking and saying that the Palestinian birth rates are increasing. And they’re really worried. The Israeli sort of like, government and, and institutions are very worried about birth rates. They’re very worried about demographics in a similar way that in fact, more so I think than the kind of entrenched areas of Republicanism and, and unionism in the north. But the, he does his routine about how the Israelis go, why are they breeding so much? Oh my God. And they’re all the Israelis are going round at night, get outta your house, come and party <laugh>. And these dads standing at the window going, we are having Maqluba – leave us alone.
PAUL BOROSS (00:39:03):
MARK THOMAS (00:39:06):
And I love that. I love that. And it’s a story about the occupation, but it isn’t… it celebrates and it plays with it.
PAUL BOROSS (00:39:15):
And also, I was just thinking that whole thing about that humour is, you know, everybody’s in tribes and but humour can… the same tribes can – with a story that’s humorous – can relate to it, can’t it?
MARK THOMAS (00:39:32):
With luck. Yeah. With luck. I mean, it’s kinda like you can sometimes see, you know, I think .when Frank Carson would talk about paddies, he wasn’t talking about unionists, he was talking about paddies – Ireland. He was talking about Republicans, he was talking about nationalists, he was talking about Catholics. Do you know what I mean? So that when you say people can relate to it, you know?
PAUL BOROSS (00:40:09):
Yeah. It’s a, it’s a difficult one
MARK THOMAS (00:40:10):
Punching up or punching down or sharing. Right. You can’t punch down and share.
PAUL BOROSS (00:40:17):
Well, which is brings me onto the whole thing of like the use of comedy and in inverted comma “charisma” in politics. We’ve just been through the era of Boris Johnson, who I know you’re an enormous fan of, and you just can’t get enough of him. You did say one of my favourite quotes about him, which is, “Following Boris Johnson’s premiership. We have less international standing than a bag of Haribo.”
MARK THOMAS (00:40:45):
PAUL BOROSS (00:40:48):
I just thought was beautiful. But do you think we’re now reliant to a certain extent because now everybody’s going, you know, we need somebody who’s charismatic and fun in order to lead when, you know, I would just kind of like competent and caring.
MARK THOMAS (00:41:08):
I would agree with you, the fact that you get Berlusconi, Trump Johnson they are of a type, you know, the Farage type of kind of showbiz person. And actually what’s interesting is that Sunak has no charisma. You know, people call him the tech bro. I’ve described him as saying, no, he’s not really here. He’s not… he’s sort of offshore do you know what I mean?
PAUL BOROSS (00:41:46):
<laugh> with his money.
MARK THOMAS (00:41:49):
Yeah. So he, but I mean, that’s the, the interesting thing is that they would use bluster and joke as a way of evading responsibility.
And Johnson, you know, when he was editor of The Spectator referred to black people as, piccannies with watermelon Smiles, he referred to the city of Liverpool in an editorial as being obsessed with its own victimhood. And this was a time when Hillsborough had not been properly investigated, you know? And actually it was a scar that ran through that city. And so I think the callous glibness with which they attack people – the joke is rarely on him. And when it is, it’s all fine, because I’m still in power.
PAUL BOROSS (00:42:49):
Yes. But there’s always that, that last vestige of, well, you can’t take a joke, can you? You know, I’m being funny. And that seems to capture a lot of people in the same way that Trump seems to capture a lot of people.
MARK THOMAS (00:43:06):
Well yes and no. I mean, the fact that Johnson turned Number 10 into Magaluf for Covid while people were burying their relatives, you know what I mean? You can’t escape that. You can’t escape that. The fact that he lied every single day, you can’t escape the fact that actually the PPE scandal was there was incredible. The fact that Brexit wasn’t done. It was a modge podd show that he could get into power. That’s what it was. Dominic Cummings and Barnard castle, absolute outrage, you know, PPE, absolute outrage, all of these errors, all of these mistakes, all of the corruption. He puts his dad into the House of Lords. Do you know what I mean? Presumably, cuz it’s cheaper than the care home. But you look at it and you go, look, this, this is remarkable. I’ll tell you the thing about it. This is how fucking scared they are, Paul. This is how scared democracy isn’t just about putting someone in. It’s about getting someone out. Right? That’s an important part of it. Do you know how many elected prime ministers have been publicly voted out of office since 1979?
PAUL BOROSS (00:44:15):
MARK THOMAS (00:44:16):
One. John Major is the only elected prime minister that was publicly voted out. The rest, they’ve gone, oh quick hide them. We don’t like that one anymore. Get ’em out the way.
PAUL BOROSS (00:44:31):
MARK THOMAS (00:44:32):
And actually it’s a betrayal of democracy. We’re marginally more democratic than the Vatican. That’s how we need to look at it. So all this power is the charisma of power and the power of charisma. They’re kind of interchangeable at these moments in time. Actually, what you want is, Clement Attlee was known as the accountant. He created the welfare state, he built the NHS, he created council flats. He started de-colonialisation his actions led to the nationalising of the mines of steelworks, of rebuilding the country. And he was known as the accountant. I’ll settle for that.
PAUL BOROSS (00:45:12):
Yeah, me too. But also they, that 20 outta 55 prime ministers went to the same school.
MARK THOMAS (00:45:24):
I know that’s one of the things we should do
PAUL BOROSS (00:45:24):
It wasn’t my school.
MARK THOMAS (00:45:26):
I mean, we should ban anyone from Eton holding any public office. That’s one of my manifesto things that we need to ban it. We just need to stop them doing it. Do you know what I mean? I think this will have a dual effect. One is it will mean that sort of ordinary people will start to get into positions of power and hopefully have a degree of empathy with other ordinary people. But also what you’ll get rid of is sociopaths. Cuz Eton is basically an empathy draining school. It will take out any compassion that you have for anyone else and teach you how to exploit guilt and shame in others. And I think what we need to do is to regard those people not as future prime ministers, but as damaged individuals who need to be institutionalised and helped on the road to recovery.
PAUL BOROSS (00:46:15):
But what they are doing – I agree with that – but what they are doing is they are giving them all the tools to take power, which we talked about in human terms – confidence.
MARK THOMAS (00:46:31):
PAUL BOROSS (00:46:34):
You are considered to be somebody who is worthy of power, if you have that level of confidence.
MARK THOMAS (00:46:43):
Yeah. It is gonna come to them. It’s expected, it’s entitlement.
PAUL BOROSS (00:46:48):
Yeah. Which is… we’re not getting many laughs out of this, are we?
MARK THOMAS (00:46:53):
No No, you’re absolutely right. But look, the point is, is that they use comedy as a way of exploiting… of getting people to humanise themselves.
You know what I mean? It’s fear or comedy. Those are the two things you’ve got if you’re a leader.
PAUL BOROSS (00:47:11):
Yeah but bizarrely, they are the most, they keep talking about freedom of speech until it’s something they don’t like to hear, and then they become incredibly thin-skinned about the whole thing.
MARK THOMAS (00:47:27):
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Freedom of speech is something that works one way. I remember having an argument with someone who said, I criticised a comic for what they said about one of Britain’s swimming team. It was a woman swimmer. And they referred to her as a porpoise. And I said, you’re just the other side of the coin from the Daily Mail – judging in women’s bodies. And another comic jumped in and said, you are just there clamping down on freedom of speech. I said, no, freedom of speech is him saying it and me saying that to him. That’s what it is.
PAUL BOROSS (00:48:05):
Yeah, I agree. Anyway, Mark, we’ve reached a point in the show which we like to call quickfire questions.
MARK THOMAS (00:48:14):
Okay. I’m reached a point where I’m thinking, oh, I’ve missed my lunch by about an hour.
PAUL BOROSS (00:48:19):
Oh, okay. Well then, we’ll this will be
MARK THOMAS (00:48:21):
Quite quick. Fire questions. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.
Quick Fire Questions
PAUL BOROSS (00:48:28):
Aside from comics, who’s the funniest person that you’ve met? That could be in business, it could be on a building site, it could be in charities.
MARK THOMAS (00:48:41):
One of the funnest people I’ve ever met is my mate Pete, who I met at Wakefield at drama school who was just genius. He was a teacher, but he was just the funniest. He was just the funniest bloke and just fearless. Absolutely fearless. He was amazing bloke. We found out… he used to run the student union. We found out the principal of the student union – the principal of the college had been to South Africa and broken the sanctions during the apartheid era. And he was also an architect with this principal. And we drew a picture on the front thing of him selling cardboard flexi-ghettos to Soweto inhabitants, right and published it. We also did this whole thing about where he was taking students’ artworks and saying, I’m gonna hang them in my office so people can see it and you’ll get benefit from it.
But actually he was hanging it in his house just to decorate it. And we made a comparison with another art collector in the thirties. So he went fucking nuts at us and called us in and he said, I could sue you, I could sue every one of you. My mate Pete, who is the union official went, that’ll look good in Guardian, wouldn’t it? And it’s like changed overnight. Pete was genius. He could make anything funny. He was great. My mate Ewen was very funny. We used to be in this theatre group together, which was called Armchair Theatre, and we banned rehearsals. Banned. You wrote the show, but you only wrote it and then you went and improvised around it because we thought rehearsals were bourgeois <laugh>.
I mean, we were shit. But he was just absolutely genius. One of the funniest guys that I’ve met, in fact, was Paul Kenny as Trade Union leader, who’s now in the House of Lords. And I’ll tell you why he was funny. I saw him do a speech, about health and safety and he walked into this meeting late and it was in a, Labour club and there’s loads of bottles and drinks on the table. And he just goes right and said, please Paul Kenny, you walked in at the right moment. And Paul walks in straight up to speak and he just goes, management think they know what they’re talking about when it comes to health and safety. That’s bollocks. And he moves a few glasses around on the table. He said, I remember my first induction meeting on working with Dangerous Chemicals.
He said, the bloke leading the instruction, leading the the session said the most important thing. And he moves a few glasses. He said, the most important thing is knowing what substances you are working with. And with that, he picked up a bottle and inhaled deeply. It was me that called the Ambulance. Now, when he told that gag, you could see just years of trying to get people’s attentions in a canteen. And he was brilliant. He was funny as hell. He was amazing. My uncle David was brilliant. My uncle David was hysterical. He was just genius. I mean, he was also deeply traumatised from the war, but he was the funniest bloke. And I always remember him sitting there during the Falklands thing and everyone was sitting, getting drunk, blah, blah, blah.
We love Sunday lunchtime, blah blah. Go, go in there show ’em what’s right. And everyone will go around the table having there say, my Uncle David will go. It’s always them that’s never been that are first to shout for it. He was from the north, he was a Geordie So all those people, I love all of that. My sister’s funny. My sister’s a vicar – we’ve got lots of vicars in our family. And she came in late the other day, <laugh>. I said, where you been? She goes, oh, Mark, don’t. I’ve had to get rid of the donkey after the Easter service. <laugh>. It’s just great <laugh>.
PAUL BOROSS (00:52:17):
MARK THOMAS (00:52:18):
I love all that.
PAUL BOROSS (00:52:19):
Yeah. What book makes you laugh?
MARK THOMAS (00:52:23):
I think anything by Spike Milligan. Spike Milligan always makes me laugh. Always like giggling uncontrollably. John Cooper Clarke’s book is funny as hell. Brilliant genius describing Weetabix with its colonic scarring integrity… with its colonic scarring abilities intact. The breakfast of the worried well, you know, it’s just his beautiful descriptions everywhere. I mean Cooper Clarke makes me laugh. I’ll tell you what else makes you laugh is The Fate of the Good Soldiers by Jaroslav Hasek. That still makes me giggle to this day but definitely I think David Niven, uh sorry, who is it? It’s not David Niven, John Niven, John David Niven. (The Moon’s a Balloon) John Niven is the writer who wrote, Kill Your Friends, which is about the record industry, which is really funny.
PAUL BOROSS (00:53:23):
Oh, I haven’t read that. I must read that.
MARK THOMAS (00:53:25):
It’s really good stuff.
PAUL BOROSS (00:53:28):
What film makes you laugh?
MARK THOMAS (00:53:30):
Well, loads of films. I still love Bringing Up Baby. I think that’s one of the greatest films ever. You know, Cary Grant and Katherine, I can’t bring you anything but Love Baby Sing to the Panther, you know, the leopard and all the characters in it I think are great. I love that. I love The Blues Brothers. How can you not laugh at the Blues Brothers? It’s just a monumental film. I think Takashi Miike, who’s Japanese director who is so out there, it’s incredible. I took the kids to see one of his movies called The Blade of the Immortal, which is a shambara, which a Japanese sword fight film. And it starts with this sword fight, right? And it’s in black and white. And this guy takes on all these gangsters or these, well they’re not gangsters, they’re the, they’re kind of mythical figures from feudal Japan.
And it’s just like hundreds of people dying- slashes and heads going off and arms up in the air and every bits have gone off everywhere. And then he’s dying of injuries on the floor. And this sort of wizard sort of witch hag appears and goes, I will now let you live forever. These are Tibetan blood worms that will make you invincible. And she puts the worms in and they reform all over the things and suddenly you just see this spots of blood and it goes Blade of the Immortals and all the kids. And I just lent in and went
PAUL BOROSS (00:54:53):
MARK THOMAS (00:54:55):
It was the funniest, you know what I mean? Those things are funny as hell. Those moments where you just like Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan has me laughing all the time. I mean, seriously any movie he’s in will no matter how crap it is. And he’s done over 150 films, right? So some of them, I’d say the Everything Everywhere All At Once is fucking hysterical. Have you seen it?
PAUL BOROSS (00:55:18):
No not yet.
MARK THOMAS (00:55:19):
It’s got Michelle Yeoh in it. It’s absolutely brilliant. This sort of like multiverse but very, very funny. At one point they’re going to this sword fight and everything’s in this psychedelic, anything can happen and this woman suddenly appears with sex toys. It’s this kind of like martial art thing. Hilarious. It’s brilliant. That makes me laugh a lot. I’ll tell you, Hitchcock always has a good laugh. There’s always a good laugh in a Hitchcock film. Takashi Miike has always got shock laughs in his.
PAUL BOROSS (00:55:48):
I’m trying to get a, a laugh out of Hitchcock. I’m trying to think of The Birds and if there’s the laughs in The Birds,
MARK THOMAS (00:55:54):
There’s always a laugh, if you remember Rear Window, he’s always got these sentimental little bits wher the exercise woman who keeps on having men coming into the apartment and she keeps trying to slap them cuz they keep trying to make passes at her, her boyfriend comes in. He’s this little tubby fella. Do you know what I mean? And she’s, you know, there’s always a laugh in there somewhere.
PAUL BOROSS (00:56:18):
Alright, we’re going to take a shift to the other side now, very briefly, what is not funny, I think we’ve touched on it already.
MARK THOMAS (00:56:28):
The things that I don’t find funny are victimising people at the bottom of the pile. People who’ve been traumatised. People who’ve, who who’ve got nothing taking the piss out of. I hated Little Britain because it would mock, you know, to just mock someone’s skin, the colour of their skin to mock people being poor. It was just like, you know, shut the fuck up. You’ve got really well paid jobs. Go and take the piss out of actors
Good. What word makes you laugh?
The one that makes me smile is my mate is Peter’s, when I came in, <laugh> came in with a Mohican to college and he just went, what the fuck is that tonsorial aberration
PAUL BOROSS (00:57:20):
MARK THOMAS (00:57:21):
Tonsorial aberration – a monk’s tonsure. It was the round bit of a…
PAUL BOROSS (00:57:27):
Well you see, you had to educate me there cuz I was like, what? I’ve never heard the word tonsorial.
MARK THOMAS (00:57:33):
Tonsorial, but it was, what the fuck is that tonsorial aberration. I love, I love that. I think that there, there’s lots of… after gigs what happens is, right. And Tine will tell you this cuz when she’s tour managing me, you know, Tine, right? – who goes to football, who’s also my lover. I love using that word
I’m nearly 60 <laugh>. I’ve got lover. You know. So, I actually wanted her to call me her consort, but she refused.
Consort. There’s a great word. That’s a fabulous word
What’s your consort? Oh yeah. Consorte all night. I love… consort’s a great word. I like it.
PAUL BOROSS (00:58:23):
No, no, it’s a great word. What sound makes you laugh?
MARK THOMAS (00:58:33):
I’ll tell you what other sounds is, cuz after gigs This is what I was gonna tell you. We always have this thing where I’m on stage for two hours. You know, you come back, you’re signing books, you’re chatting to people, you get in the car, you’re off, you know, you’ve got time to get the wet wipes out and go round your nethers before you jump into the car. And then you’re driving back home. And I always have an hour where I just do poems, songs, make things up, talk to Tine, start telling her important things, forget about it, start a joke, tell a story, go back to telling a poem. And she calls it ‘the brain dump’.
And what I love are just making… so I’ll make up songs and limericks. Tine actually recorded me the other night. She woke me up and said, I recorded your limericks just before you went to sleep. <laugh>,
Because all these people cuz I was laughing cuz all these people at the Larne festival always saying, I’ve written a poem. And I said, I want to get up there and go. I have written a poem too. There was a young lady from Bow <laugh> and I started making up all these lyric, just nonsense. I love all of that. The sounds I like, I think, I think…
PAUL BOROSS (00:59:44):
How about when a goal goes in at Wimbledon? It’s a rare sound these days, but…
MARK THOMAS (00:59:50):
I’ll tell you what else makes me laugh is the “you’re shit – Ah” and how long the ‘Arrs’ go on for. And it just, I love that
PAUL BOROSS (01:00:01):
It becomes like a pirate thing, doesn’t it? <laugh>, it does make me laugh as well.
MARK THOMAS (01:00:09):
I love all of that.
PAUL BOROSS (01:00:10):
Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
MARK THOMAS (01:00:14):
PAUL BOROSS (01:00:16):
All day long? I think you have to be a little bit clever or rather clever, in fact to be funny.
MARK THOMAS (01:00:24):
I’ll be clever of an evening, <laugh> <laugh>.
PAUL BOROSS (01:00:30):
And finally, Mark. Yes. Desert Island Gags. You can only take one gag with you to a desert island.,what is it?
MARK THOMAS (01:00:39):
That’s a question. I think the gag that I would take with me is Dave Allen’s routine, which he did in front of LWT studio. And it was when he was doing his LWT days. So officially he was past his prime, but he was fantastic. And he said, I get into trouble for telling Irish jokes. I get into a lot of trouble. But, I’ll tell Irish jokes. What’s the point if you can’t laugh at yourself? And the audience goes a round of applause. Oh, you gotta be able to laugh at yourself. Don’t you agree? Eh, I’ll tell Irish jokes. Sod ’em,. Two paddies leave Dublin, go to work in London. The IQ of Dublin halves overnight. Right? Big round of applause. You gotta be able to laugh at yourself. Don’t you agree? Yay. When they get to London, the IQ doubles. Silence and he turns and looks at the audience and said, I thought we’d agreed. You’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself.
PAUL BOROSS (01:01:36):
MARK THOMAS (01:01:38):
Bigotry, straight on the jaw.
PAUL BOROSS (01:01:40):
MARK THOMAS (01:01:42):
It was, it, it was a moment where you saw the power of comedy.
PAUL BOROSS (01:01:50):
I absolutely love that and I love spending time with you because…
MARK THOMAS (01:01:55):
I love spending time with you, mate.
PAUL BOROSS (01:01:59):
You know what? You are the baboon with the brightest ARSE!
MARK THOMAS (01:02:04):
<Laugh> Now that is going on A poster. <laugh>,
PAUL BOROSS (01:02:09):
Mark Thomas, thank you so much for being your wonderful guest on the Humourology podcast.
MARK THOMAS (01:02:14):
Thanks for having me.
PAUL BOROSS (01:02:18):
The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross, produced by David Rose Music, by Steve Haworth, creative direction by Les Hughes, and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.