Is comedy nature or nurture? Mark Steel offers a fascinating perspective
Mark Steel high res image

He may not believe in a “joke-telling gene”, but revelations about comedian Mark Steel’s birth parents – and conversations with other adopted stand-ups – have got him thinking about what makes us who we are.

He spoke to Jay Richardson about his acclaimed new show. 

With Lord Lucan officially declared dead earlier this month, Mark Steel can only chuckle about his unlikely connection to one of the most notorious crimes of the twentieth century.

The veteran left-wing stand-up has spent a lifetime “ranting and hollering” against the sort of privileged capitalists who frequented the disgraced Lucan’s gambling haven, The Clermont Club in London’s Mayfair. But then he found out that his own flesh and blood may have had a hand in Lucan’s infamous disappearance.

Growing up in Kent, Steel always knew that he was adopted, and only developed an interest in tracking down his birth parents when his son was born.

“You can’t help but laugh”

His acclaimed show, Who Do I Think I Am?, traces the journey by which the 55-year-old comic learned the circumstances of his earliest days. It contains the revelation that his birth father was a backgammon champion and part of Lucan’s intimate circle, and thus a credible source of the debts and mental instability that sent the disgraced peer into exile from the law.

“I find it funny more than anything else,” the comic wryly reflects. “My natural dad was one of the main customers of the [Clermont] and almost certainly won the money from Lord Lucan that sent him doolally.

“You can’t help but laugh.”

Mark Steelbenchpic by Idil Sukan

Photo by Idil Sukan

Prior to him investigating a family tree that threw up all sorts of challenges and endorsements of his political views, Steel thought that human beings were largely products of their environment, with nurture triumphing over nature in the formation of our personalities. But that didn’t really explain his sense of humour.

“My [adopted] mum and dad, bless ’em’, there’s no sense of them having a jokey way of looking at the world” he explains.

“My dad’s long gone. But my mum doesn’t have a clue if you’re making a joke. ‘What? I wouldn’t have thought that a dinosaur would fit into a pub.’

“Then it turns out that my natural father, who I never knew of his existence, or he of mine, is someone who’s known for doing jokes all the time. A classic Jewish joke-teller. I just don’t know what to think now. I can’t believe there’s a joke-telling gene.”

“I never felt like an outsider”

Steel certainly isn’t interested in “studying chromosomes or whatever”. But he has talked to fellow adopted comedians Stewart Lee and Robert Newman about their experiences.

Newman has ventured that there are a disproportionate number of adopted comedians because they grow up seeing the world one way but always know it could be another.

“He may have a point there” Steel acknowledges. “We’re all quite similar in a way, in that we’re all a bit puzzled by it.

“But in both of their cases, I think, they’ve had much more contact [with their birth parents]. And we’ve all come to live with it. I don’t think any of us are in a state about it. I never felt like an outsider.”

Mark Steel high res image 2

He hesitates momentarily.

“Well, actually, I did. But there you go, you can only start talking in circles and that only leads to madness.

“It’s best to leave it alone or you’ll go round the twist. It’s like trying to work out where the universe ends.”

Intriguingly, his son, Elliot, has followed him into stand-up, while his daughter is a comic actress.

And although he’s inclined to attribute this outcome to his son, at least, having been around comedians all his life, Steel recalls Elliot as a 12-year-old cracking the same joke as him, when his wife confused the RAC and RSC in an story that she shared with both of them independently.

“What made that his natural way of thinking – ‘what’s the joke here?’” he despairs. “If it’s not in his genes, I should probably be done for child cruelty.”

“I’m not being brave”

Who Do I Think I Am? was originally conceived as a book. And with the show already expanded beyond its hour-long, Edinburgh Fringe format, Steel is hoping that the story has a life beyond the stage, perhaps on television.

He speaks approvingly of Danny Baker’s adaptation of his memoirs into the BBC’s Cradle To Grave, as “really funny and light. It was poignant but it wasn’t specially designed to tweak all your buttons”.

Indeed, he has little patience for audience members who’ve told him he’s been “very brave” for sharing the more emotional moments of his own tale, sardonically telling them that “you must have come on the night I did it in a cage with a leopard”.

“If people go away saying it changed my whole perception of humanity, genetics and the environment, well, that’s pretty useless for a comic,” he snorts.

“Comedy’s fairly simple really. If everyone’s laughing, it’s working.”

Mark Steel is on tour now. Head here for a full list of live dates.