I caught up with Mark on a Saturday lunchtime over a lime and soda at the Bill Murray, following his work in progress show. We chat politics, service stations, and comedian’s football.
Jay Jay: So are you very early on in this work in progress?
Mark Steel: Oh god, yeah, thats the first time I’ve ever done that stuff. Some of it I’ve done at two or three other tryouts – not the politics stuff – I haven’t done anything political at all for years.
JJ: One of the questions I was going to ask is how long you give a bit before you decide to ditch it or keep it? Presumably you’re keeping your [voice memo] recordings to listen back to?
MS: Quite a lot of it you know straight away – [you’ll think] “that bit’s rubbish” – but it’s not until you do it live that you realise. And you’ll think “what was I thinking?!” Or sometimes it just meets with utter bemusement. Sometimes you can listen back and think,”oh I did something really silly there, I didn’t explain it or I did it wrong”. The most exciting thing is when you get a character right, that works.
JJ: I really loved your characters today, I’ve never really heard you do that before.
MS: [Characters] are the most fun. It takes a long time sometimes to get that right. In my last show I had a bit about Andy Murray, and I found when I got the voice quite right it just got a much bigger laugh. But that’s a long way down the line yet [with this show].
JJ: So in terms of the political stuff, do you still think that political comedy has got the capacity to be a force for good, or are you just preaching to the converted?
MS: Oh god no, we don’t change anyone’s mind!
JJ: What about social media? Do you think it’s a help or a hindrance in terms of getting across political points?
MS: I think it’s a hindrance, because people imagine that they’re doing something when they’re not. It would be so easy to put a really bald statement about Theresa May on Twitter right now, and get a thousand retweets, and convince yourself you’re doing something that’s changing things, but its not; it’s a menace, I think. Twitter is great fun for being funny, but you can get dragged into conversations [by being @-ed in] and I tell them to go and argue somewhere else while I have a kip!
Social media allows for comedy to be taken out of context – I have a disabled mate who I take the piss out of when I push him to the pub in his wheelchair. If disabled rights activists took what I say to him out of context they’d be up in arms. The radio show I do [Mark Steel’s in Town] means I really have to like a place in order to be able to take the mickey out of it. Once you know a place well enough, and people know you like it, you can take the piss. That’s the context of it.
JJ: What’s your favourite service station?
MS: Brilliant question! I’m going to be really obvious…Tebay.
JJ: Popular choice!
JJ: What makes for a good room?
MS: Well, any comic who says otherwise is lying, because to do [this job] you’ve got to have a huge ego. So it’s got to be a big room. I don’t like arenas, particularly, but 1000-1500 seat place, it feels like “this is showbusiness, this is good”.
JJ: What about things like the physical environment, the acoustics…?
MS: Seann Walsh says that he likes it when a place is uncomfortable, he likes the seediness. I do know what he means, I’m privileged enough that most of the time I can do theatres, if you’ve got a really beautiful theatre like the Theatre Royal in Brighton, or the Hackney Empire…
JJ: Like the Leeds City Varieties…?
MS: Yes! Oh that one. That’s my favourite, I’ll go with that. It’s only 500 seats but its informal enough…the last time I was there people in the audience were trying to get me to go to some Health Service demo the next day, they were all shouting and it was really good fun. Or getting me to go to the pub with them all. Really intimate.
JJ: Who’s your most underrated comic?
MS: Oooh, a good question…I don’t see that many people really. The people I see aren’t really underrated: Jeremy [Hardy], Mark Thomas. I actually think Al Murray deserves more acclaim, I saw him recently and he was fantastic.
JJ: He doesn’t seem to do the panel show circuit? It seems very much a thing for comics, they have to get on Mock the Week, in terms of getting their name out there.
[The phone rings, and we have a short break while Mark reviews his gig with his pal Jeremy Hardy.]
JJ: What would be your dream comedy bill?
MS: Louis CK makes me cry laughing – I don’t know why because it’s so simple, he doesn’t do characters, he doesn’t act it particularly…he makes me cry. And [Billy] Connoly…it’s really, really hard to make other comics laugh.
JJ: When you watch comedy, do you find yourself being drawn into the processes or techniques?
MS: Yeah, I was with Angela Barnes last week and she was doing this open air gig down in Brighton, trying lots of new stuff out, and afterwards I was like “that joke – better off that way round, this one you need to set it up, this one isn’t going to work…” The [comedic] process is fairly obvious really, it’s just thinking of things that are funny and trying to find a way of conveying it. There’s no great trick to it.
JJ: What do you think of comedians like Stewart Lee, who dissect the process as part of their act?
MS: What he does, he sells thousands of tickets, and people love all that don’t they? Very, very watchable…I’ve spent many an hour on Youtube watching him. There’s different styles…people like Tim Vine can just do half an hour of puns, people love it. I was sat with him once, and he just said “I saw a second hand television the other day. It was only a pound, but it had no volume control. Well, I can’t turn that down”. [Laughter] I could barely carry on! It’s not so much the joke, it’s the audacity of saying it!
JJ: OK. I’ll leave you with a choice of two questions. Do you want a question about the future of Edinburgh, or to tell me some comedy gossip?
MS: Comedy gossip? I don’t know any!
JJ: Come on, I bet you know loads! You play comedians football [with other comics who live locally to Mark in Crystal Palace]!
MS: Comedy gossip…let me see… Mark Lamarr I know very well. Turns out he’s trangender. He was a woman until he was 41.
JJ: Thats not gossip! It’s bollocks! Nice try!!!
And we both dissolve into laughter as Mark packs up his stuff and trundles off to watch the FA cup final.