From Socialist Voice, May 2011

Making trouble for all the right people

An interview with Mark Thomas

In March the leftist comedian and social activist Mark Thomas was in Dublin with his new show, “Walking the Wall,” in which—in his own inimitably hilarious manner—he relates his experiences of walking the 723-km length of Israel’s illegal apartheid wall in Palestine.
     I caught up with him for a short interview about modern topical comedy. Mark was once a familiar face on British television but now finds himself consigned to BBC Radio. He says his break with his long-time Channel 4 collaborators came when it was suggested that he host a show called “Celebrity Guantánamo Bay.” After that there was no longer “anything viable there” for him. Nor does he expect to return to television any time soon. “There’s no ice in Hell yet,” he quips.
     When it comes to the state of contemporary topical comedy Mark doesn’t really “want to discuss the state of play of TV comedy, ’cause that’s just . . .” “Depressing?” I venture after a long pause. He smiles sadly, and says, “Some of the people in it are really good. There is some great stuff, like ‘Inbetweeners’ and ‘Phone Shop’.” He also has praise for the “sharp as a dart” Bremner, Bird and Fortune and HBO output like “Breaking Bad,” which he describes as an “incredible state-of-the-nation declaration about what happens when you take money out of the public sector.”
     His distaste for the “proliferation of very cheap panel shows” is palpable. He describes them as the comedy equivalent of neo-liberalism—“economically viable to make, because you don’t need a scriptwriter, an editor, a cast, or rehearsals. You just have very highly motivated individuals with a vested interest in doing the best they can writing their own material.” He also mourns the advent of “awful free-view satellite” (“I now say ‘This is shit’ about eighty times a day”) but points to the live comedy circuit and theatre as places that remain creatively exciting and socially engaged—singling out Gregory Burke’s play Black Watch for special acclaim.
     Yet he also sees the panel-show disease infecting the live circuit too, as “people will go to see a comedian in the O2 after doing a couple of series of a panel show . . . and it’s a fucking panel show! You buy a Frankie Boyle ticket and you’ll have seen all the stuff on television already!”
     However, when it comes to his own work Mark is far from complacent. His new show and tie-in book Extreme Rambling (London: Ebury Press, 2011) are both brilliantly funny while remaining politically engaged and empowering. He modestly says that he “is really pleased with this work that’s going to get out to fifty thousand people,” and so he should be.
     Thomas remains a courageous, trouble-making, muck-raking, rabble-rousing lay preacher of truth, justice, and progressive action: an enemy of all the right people, and funny to boot.

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