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31 March 2011

I didn’t do anything even vaguely funny for Comic Relief

By Mark Watson

We all try to resist the cliché that, as a nation, we’re obsessed with failure but it’s hard to miss the glee in the papers when a story comes up like this: a woman in Southwark has failed her driving theory test for the 90th time. After a total outlay of almost £3,000, she has yet again been defeated by the kind of troubling questions aspiring drivers face: “You are driving on the motorway when a giraffe appears. Do you a) take steps to avoid it — ie, brake; or b) plough straight into it?”

And this is just the theory component of the test, only the second most taxing aspect after the bit where you actually have to drive the car. There’s a man in the Midlands, incidentally, who’s had 36 goes at that. He and the instructor must by now be seeing each other socially, perhaps arranging to take in a movie or have dinner after the next failed test. When he finally passes, both of them will probably experience a strange feeling of emptiness, like those players I wrote about during Wimbledon who played out the longest ever match.

The reason we know this is, according to the papers, “a freedom of information request”. In other words, someone thought: I’d love to know who the worst drivers around are — let’s invoke the law to get hold of that data.

This is a very British impulse. Should we be a little ashamed of our prurience on the subject of failure? Perhaps not, because the tone of the reports has been affectionate — even celebratory — rather than mocking. We love failure not because of some cruel impulse towards our fellow man or woman but because it’s one of the few things that unite us all. Virtually everyone knows what it’s like to devote huge amounts of time and money to something that continues to elude us.

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Most of us are relieved and surprised when we realise that other people are as incompetent as we are — for example, arriving at the lost property office to reclaim a wallet, only to find that the office, too, has misplaced it. Failure brings us together in ways success never could. So, long may these people continue not being allowed to drive. Not least because I haven’t got a licence myself yet and they’re making me look good.

Total mayhem

I’m in Australia at the moment but, as I write, half of my homeland will be gearing up to raise money for Comic Relief. “Do something funny for money” is the slogan this year, as well as being a pretty good approximation of my career brief. By the time you read this, some one will have “won” an eBay auction to have me follow them on Twitter and write a stand-up routine in their honour, courtesy of an initiative called Twit Relief. The top bid for this dubious privilege is, at the time of writing, £310.

Some people have been getting pretty indignant about this idea. Are comedians and actors really so arrogant as to sell, in essence, the chance to have a fleeting friendship with them? Does the general public deserve to be patronised with the idea that — if it’s very lucky — it might get a tweet from someone who’s been in The Thick of It?

This sort of cynicism seems misplaced to me because although it may well be ludicrous to part with hundreds of pounds so that Leona Lewis (or her representatives) will follow you on Twitter, the end more than justifies the means. That end is raising money for the many deserving causes Comic Relief props up and it’s important enough to vindicate almost any approach: emotional blackmail, banal sponsored events, even prime-time shows where people dress up as Lady Gaga. Even if you decide to sponsor yourself £20 to watch Channel 4 all Friday night and throw that into the pot, it’s been worth it. Twit Relief is going to yield a lot of money for charity and that’s really all that matters.

But the complaints about Twit Relief are a useful reminder that people can get charity fatigue. To judge from my Facebook messages alone, there are so many people doing “something funny for money” for Comic Relief that there’s almost no one left to perform the unfunny but necessary task of donating.

I imagine the Red Nose Day Britain I’ve left behind as a place of total mayhem where virtually nothing is accomplished, because everyone is busy having custard pies shoved in their faces or wearing an oversized pair of trousers or lying in a bath of baked beans.

So I’m going to make my contribution by sitting here on the other side of the world, donating online and not doing a single thing that’s at all humorous. Or it could be that I’m scared of failing, I suppose.