Elliot Steel on why he followed dad Mark into stand-up

Elliot Steel has followed his father into stand-up, but wasn't inspired by dad's politics and has very different targets.

Comedians Mark and Elliot Steel Picture: Jon Savage

Mark Steel orders a proper cup of tea. Steel Jnr, Elliot by name, orders a Coca-Cola.

I am appalled. “A child screams and dies with every gulp,” I say, paraphrasing Stewart Lee.

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“It is tasty though,” says Elliot, “they’ve not gone to waste…”

Comedian Mark Steel is a regular at the festival

It seems inconceivable (if you will pardon the pun) that Mark Steel could have produced a child whose politics differ so much from his own.

“Is he adopted ?” I ask. “I wish I was, then I could get a show out of it like you did last year,” says Elliot to his father, referring to Steel’s discovery that his birth father was a Jewish-Egyptian businessmen. “You are useless in terms of making a show because you’re alive and you’re my natural dad.”

But spending his formative years around comedians did have some pluses.

“Growing up in that environment gives you confidence … and an awareness comedy is something you can do as a job,” says Elliott. To say nothing of the fact that he got to hang out with people like Jeremy Hardy and Jo Brand.

Comedian Mark Steel is a regular at the festival

“I used to kill with my banter,” says the Coke drinker. “When Elliot was 14,” says Mark, “we went to Jeremy’s house for dinner. He had some friends around who were not comics. And one woman asked Jeremy to pass the salad and he said, ‘Get it yourself, you c***.’

“One of the other guests said: ‘Jeremy! Elliott’s here, he is only 14!’ At which point Jeremy went up to Elliot, put his arm round him and said, ‘Bit of advice Elliot … never kill a prostitute without an alibi.’”

Elliot nods happily. Yet oddly it was not the pithy dinner table wit of Jeremy Hardy which convinced him to go into comedy.

In 2010 Jim Jefferies recorded Alcoholocaust. And little Elliot watched it.

“And I thought, ‘I wanna do that!’” he says.

I asked if, then, it was not his father who inspired him in his comic endeavours. “Naaaah,” he says. “I didn’t want to go on and talk about the French Revolution. From what I saw of his stand-up it was all left-wing, political, satire.” Mark shrugs and drinks his tea. “Then when I was 16 I discovered Doug Stanhope’s Deadbeat Hero Special and it was horrible about babies, women, disabled people … but it was so funny.”

Elliot was born to the laughter life. But Mark was a self-made comic, I assume, because times were a-changin’ and political and the left wing was taking to the comedy stage in anger.

“No,” he says.

He has, he claims, no idea why he became a comic.

“I didn’t have much choice,” he says “I worked in offices, a petrol garage, I was a milkman… shitty, horrible jobs. There wasn’t really a comedy circuit then, otherwise I might have drifted into it at the same age as Elliot. I think that most comics probably couldn’t do anything else. You just feel that, in some way or other that you’re a comic. You know how gay people have what they call a gaydar – they can walk into a room and go, ‘He’s gay, he’s gay’? I think that comics are very similar. And you can see it on stage.”

There is, he says, great camaraderie amongst comics connected on the ‘comedar’.

“Like between firefighters,” he says. “We have very similar jobs,” nods Elliot. “Of course we don’t get to hang around playing snooker till we get the call … ‘Hang on … someone needs a joke in Wilmslow Avenue,’” Mark points out.

“With the people who are sort of playing at it,” he continues, “you can just feel it’s not happening. They’re not vain enough, not egotistical enough, not obsessed enough.”

“Some of the comics I know go, ‘Right, I’m an artist,’” says Elliot, “and I think – you are not ever really going to be any good at this … in the sense of being funny.”

“I think it is art,” says Mark, “and I know Stewart Lee doesn’t always endear himself, but I think some of the things he says are perfectly valid. He is very annoyed that comedy is seen as so low down the scale. People say in interviews: ‘Oh, you did jokes about the Iraq war … is that a subject for comedy?’ and I always think, you wouldn’t ask, ‘Is it right to write a play or a song about this or paint a painting about it?’ Stand-up is seen as very low form of art.”

Despite being on the cusp of Generation Snowflake, Steel Jnr sees himself as a fighter.

“Your fight was against Thatcher and Blair and the Iraq War,” he says. “The fight has changed, what needs to be satirised has changed. My fight is with ‘social justice warriors’ who sit on the internet. The new sort of censorship doesn’t really come from the right wing, it comes from the left. The left wing is making more worse decisions than the right wing in comedy.”

“This is not really from the left …” says Mark, gently.

“What we are getting from the left wing is the kind of thing that makes the right wing increasingly popular,” insists Junior.

Mark sighs and concedes a sort of defeat.

“Most of the abuse I get on social media – which is considerable – is from people who would claim to have a liberal point of view,” he sighs again. “I wrote a thing on Twitter on the day whatnot dropped out the prime ministerial race that said ‘I am in fear of being sectioned today because if someone asked me who the prime minister is I’ve got no f***ing idea’. And I got all this abuse. ‘How dare you use mental health as a subject for humour?’”

His suggestion to his wife that, for their cotton wedding anniversary gift he might buy her a slave was equally badly received. “It was a joke,” he says, looking pained.

His boy feels his pain, having had a cyberstorm blow up over his online pronouncement that people over 30 should have to pass a test to get on Facebook as they are ruining it for da yoof.

The over-thirties – “even comics” says Elliot – were not impressed.

“It’s a joke!” say the Steels in vehement unison. “It is this little tiny core of really peculiar people who don’t talk to anyone outside their own world. And being online just gives them more significance than they have, really,” says Mark.

“It is mainly just cat pictures out there,” says Elliot.

I venture to find out what they think about live performance “safe spaces”?

“A load of shit,” says Elliot.

“Essentially why not just bring back the Jim Crow laws and segregate everyone because we obviously can’t get along?” says Mark.

“But now they are doing it from a left-wing perspective,” Elliot adds. “We are told by someone, ‘You shouldn’t do comedy about mental illness, because I suffer from mental illness,’ but I would ask why are you trying to get the world to change because you’re flawed? Like with the beach body ready campaign. It is an advert for fitness – fitness! – and they have used a fit and healthy person because if they used a big fat person it wouldn’t work.”

Even Mark is nodding now.

“I mean, in most workplaces people are brutal with their humour,” he says.

“In the green room at a gig,” agrees Elliot, “I always think if there was a microphone here, left on and the audience could hear what we’re saying, that would be it … careers over.”

In his school, he remembers, “it was brutal. You show a sign of weakness and it’s not ‘Oh let’s be a bit careful round him.’ It was ‘Let’s see how far we can push him before he breaks.’”

“Well, that’s not really a good thing,” observes Mark.

“Didn’t do me any harm,” says Elliot. “Oh, it didn’t do Ted any harm,” mimics Mark. “Of course he became a serial killer but he learned to love himself in prison and when he gets out he’ll have a f***ing good Edinburgh show.”

Mark Steel’s in Toon is at Assembly Hall until 28 August; today, 9:30pm. Elliot Steel: Netflix ‘n’ Steel is at Gilded Balloon at the Counting House until 28 August; today, 6:15pm.