The General Secretary of British comedy | Alan Varley salutes his comedian of 2013, Mark Steel

The General Secretary of British comedy

Alan Varley salutes his comedian of 2013, Mark Steel

Another year in comedy over and a new one just begun.  The year has been rounded up (although it ended with 3 so it should have been rounded down - there’s a joke for mathematicians) and ten of the stand-up comedy DVDs released on November 18 have been knocked down to £5 or less.  Judging by the number of copies left in shops perhaps last New Year lots of people resolved to not buy stand-up comedy DVDs before Christmas, or to give them up.

There’s still some unfinished business but most of 2013’s comedy awards have been handed out. One in 47 of you may have watched the live broadcast of the 2013 British Comedy Awards ceremony, although more people watched Channel 5’s Mummy's Little Murderer instead.  During the 2013 BCAs a self-pitying alcoholic gave a foul-mouthed self-serving speech.  There was also a great speech from Johnny Vegas.  Johnny stole the show.  Not literally, although I wish someone had stolen it, taken it to a deserted industrial estate and set fire to it.

There is one comedian who wasn’t nominated for a British Comedy Award in 2013 who I think should have been.  Indeed, there are lots but there’s one in particular who I thought produced a lot of great comedy in 2013 but who was overlooked.  They will probably continue to be overlooked because much of their work appears in a non-TV medium that’s not usually seen as the best place for comedy, but perhaps should be.

On most Fridays, The Independent newspaper publishes a column by the stand-up comedian, broadcaster and writer Mark Steel which sometimes also appears in its sister paper the i.  In 2013 Mark Steel was on brilliant form, writing many hilarious and informative columns about the major news stories of the week.  For example, here’s a quote from a column about the Help To Buy scheme:

If the Help to Buy scheme doesn’t work, they’ll change the rules again, so the payday loan companies can give you a mortgage. You’ll be able to ring Wonga, buy a two-bedroom flat 20 minutes later, and by 5.40pm owe them 70 billion quid and get evicted, but at least you’ll have had somewhere to call your own for an hour and a half.

Here’s a quote from a column about the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas:

Her arrest, along with the other protesters, according to a police spokesman, was due to the fact she was “disrupting the life of the village”. So now they’ll be able to carry on with their tranquil lives, enjoying the sweet morning coo of a 25-ton boring drill clacking into the earth to extract gas in a process likely to cause underground tremors, without it being spoilt by the racket of a Sussex MP standing in the mud.

If that hasn’t convinced you of his comic talent here’s a quote from an article about the acquittal of George Zimmerman who had been charged with murdering Trayvon Martin:

It was also stated that Trayvon Martin appeared suspicious because he was walking slowly. Presumably if he’d run that would also have been grounds for suspicion, so again it’s up to black people to work out exactly the right speed they should walk at to avoid making people shoot them.

If you’re still not convinced try reading his articles about mis-selling by Lloyds, the Tea Party’s campaign against Obamacare, energy prices, welfare reform, the death of Margaret Thatcher and unqualified teachers in free schools, to name just a few. Try reading his articles about the aftermath of the Boston bombings and the new inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster and tell me they are not outstanding pieces of satirical writing.

How much material do professional comedians write in a year?  An hour for a live show which could be released on DVD?  How much material does Mark Steel write in a year?  Enough for a DVD box set, albeit one that you have to read and in ten-minute chunks which are released shortly after they are written.

You don’t have to go out at night to a club, theatre or arena for that comedy.  You can have it delivered to your home by a child doing some low-paid work before school, buy it from someone working for the minimum wage or a self-service machine that has replaced them in thousands of shops for less than the price of a pint of beer or get it for free online.

What I would really like is an e-book compilation of Mark Steel’s best Independent columns which would not only be a collection of great comedy writing but also a chronicle of the era.  Dear Santa, for Christmas 2014 please could I have an e-book of the best of his first five years available to download from some of the world’s leading tax avoiders, with more volumes to follow in subsequent years?  I would even buy them.

Mark Steel is comedy’s equivalent of a coalminer.  However, Britain is now a country which may have more professional footballers than coalminers working underground.  

Are comedy’s equivalents of footballers going to help fight, week in, week out, for the political parties and policies they support and make you laugh at those people in power and policies that deserve to be ridiculed?  Maybe the comedy scene needs fewer equivalents of footballers and more equivalents of coalminers, digging hard for laughs in dirty and dangerous conditions deep below the surface of society.

British newspapers have been publishing satirical columns for decades, if not centuries.  They should be one of their staples, alongside expert analysis, serious polemic and… err… what’s that other thing? …err ...news.  However, who else in the British newspaper industry is producing the sort of high-quality hard-hitting topical satirical writing about the major news stories of the times as Mark Steel has regularly done?

There are other comedians who write newspaper columns and some are described as satirists.  How many of them pay attention to the news and write about the major news stories of that week?  How many of them see major news stories and turn the page or turn the TV over and write about something they saw on page 27 of the Daily Waste or about something on TV they half-watched whilst drunkenly tweeting or about themselves?  Are those so-called satirists actually shallow, trivial, self-obsessed and irrelevant?

Mark Steel produces a column on a consistent basis, is consistently topical, is consistent in the views he expresses and is consistently funny.  He’s a socialist but given that in recent years much of the news has been about a crisis in capitalism socialists are best placed to satirise it.

Mark Steel is in a class of his own. That is unfortunate for a socialist and for society.

Here are all Mark Steel’s Independent columns.

Published: 13 Jan 2014

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