Since winning the inaugural Scottish Comedian of the Year Award in 2006, barely a year after his first-ever open-spot, Mark Nelson’s mix of dark humour, cutting observations and one-liners have seen him firmly established as one of the UK’s biggest-hitting comedy circuit comedians. Martin Walker catches up with Mark as he prepares for his Edinburgh show.
When I first started I was very much a ‘one-liner’ comedian. I didn’t really engage with the audience much, didn’t really tell stories. But since then I’ve been exploring different ways of delivering comedy. This is my more political phase.
“Growing up I didn’t know that stand-up was a thing that actually went on, out with TV. So when I left home in Dumfries to study in Glasgow, I started going to the Stand Comedy Club. I went to see Michael Redmond on a Sunday night.
“I was studying a degree in politics, so naturally when I graduated I couldn’t get a job.
“I kept going on at my palls about how I’d like to give stand-up a go… I finally went along to my first Red Raw open mic night at The Stand, did my first five minutes and it just snowballed from there.”
Is your comedy political?
“It’s getting more political now as we approach the Scottish Independence referendum. I’ve enjoyed doing the more political stuff, it’s a lot more fun than I imaged. There’s an appetite for Scottish political comedy out there at the moment.
“When I was doing stuff about the referendum back in March there was very little interest in it. But that’s really picked up now.”
Do you believe that Scotland should be independent?
“I am very much in the ‘YES’ camp. I’d like to us enabled to make our own decisions. It’s not about anti-Englishness or even about being better or worse off in terms of money. It’s about governing ourselves.”
A lot of English born adopted Scots like me are voting ‘YES’
“I gig a lot in England now and most of the English comedians I meet on the circuit say we should ‘go for it’
“So I talk a lot about Scottish Independence in my show. There are so few Scots at the Fringe, just a handful of us doing solo shows. I don’t think I’d be doing my job if I didn’t talk about it this year.”
Does comedy make a difference politically? Do you look to change people’s minds?
“I’m not sure that comedy can change people’s views, but I do think that the arts, including comedy, can make people think.
“But first and foremost I’m a comedian. I want people to enjoy themselves. I want to make people laugh. People leaving my shows should be telling each other how funny it was. But that’s not to say there isn’t room for presenting an audience with new ideas.
“In fact, if you can deliver a new or different idea in a funny way, the fact that the joke means something can make it funnier.
“When I first started I was very much a ‘one-liner’ comedian. I didn’t really engage with the audience much, didn’t really tell stories. But since then I’ve been exploring different ways of delivering comedy. This is my more political phase.
“All of my Edinburgh Fringe shows are about my life. The political situation will directly affect me, as well as everybody else living in Scotland… so as usual it’s still a show about me really.”
Are you involved in the ‘YES’ campaign?
“No, and that’s just down to lack of time. I tour a lot, and I have a young daughter now too so I’m always busy. She’s just one year old.”
Is it hard to be away from your family whilst touring?
“Yes, it is. I was away recently in the Middle East for a full two weeks, and that’s the longest I’d been away from my daughter since she was born. In fact, it’s the longest I’ve been away from my wife too.
“We work out routines so I can do my bit. To be honest my wife says it’s easier when I’m away!
“But being a dad is brilliant.”
Living in Glasgow, you won’t be too far away from home during the Festival?
“Which is great for me. I come through to Edinburgh a lot gigging. I perform at the Stand in Edinburgh quite a bit throughout the year. I love The Stand. In fact The Stand in Glasgow is quite close to my house. Great venues. We’re really lucky to have them.”
You’re at the Gilded Balloon, which is a gorgeous big building full of performance spaces and bars. But many comedians seem to be going teetotal now days.
“That’s true. I will have a drink at a venue, I’ll have a drink from the stage. But I’ve noticed that a lot of the younger comedians see what they are doing as a job and won’t drink at all. Meanwhile the older ones, who still can, will have a drink because they don’t believe they are getting paid for doing what they are doing.”
It’s fascinating how the comedy world has changed.
“Yes, it’s a proper professional world now. There used to be a much more anarchic side to it.”
You won the Scottish Comedian of the Year award very early on in your career didn’t you, in 2006.
“You’re right. I was still doing open spots when I won that. It gave me a real leg up. I has to improve very quickly as I was suddenly doing much bigger gigs. It was brilliant. It was a case of work hard or die on my arse.”
I’m making a note… ‘High flyer’.
“My mum and dad would love to see me described as a ‘high flyer’ in an interview!
“My parents a great actually. Very supportive. They came to my first Edinburgh show and stuff. They enjoy my work. They don’t really understand how being a comedian can actually be a job. But they are massively encouraging.
“When I first told my parents I was going to be a comedian full time, I was expecting my father to take me aside and say, ‘Shouldn’t you get a proper job first?’ But not a bit of it.
“They mean a lot to me and it was hard to tell them. I was proper shitting myself actually.”
I imagine it was a bit like a gay person coming out to their folks.
“Yes, a lot like that. Certainly the relief I felt afterwards when they were all right with it…”
Do you talk about your parents and the rest of your family on stage?
“Most of its exaggerated for comic effect. I make them into characters. I talk about my wife a lot, but I’m a comedian and I was a comedian when she married me. She doesn’t mind.”
One final question… Who would be the guests on the Mark Nelson Comedy Roadshow?
“Tom Stade, Mick Ferry and Doug Stanhope. There’s a newcomer I really like who’s doing a lot of gigs just now. A guy called Kieran Nicolson. He’s very, very good. The best open spot I’ve seen in a good few years. Very funny and original.”
Broadway Baby Listing and Edinburgh Fringe Box Office: http://www.broadwaybaby.com/shows/mark-nelson-please-think-responsibly/701079