Interview: Funny he should say that – comedian Stuart Taylor comes of middle age with seminal work
Stuart Taylor’s new show, Funny You Should Say That, is a seminal piece of work. The comedian has come a long way in his career and this might just be the beginning of his peak.
There was a moment in Stuart Taylor’s one-man show, Funny You Should Say That, when nobody really knew how to react. Everybody knew the moment was coming. He’d been suggesting it would all night. Subconsciously, the audience had prepared for it. But even with the whole show building up to that moment, just for a few seconds before that moment is absorbed into a punchline, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Or maybe they don't. Maybe you’re in the audience and you’ve been in this situation before. Whatever your frame of reference, the moment – when Taylor dropped the K-word that reverberated and echoed off the intimate acoustics at Golden Arrow theatre at the Baxter – it seemed violent and viscerally out of place in modern-day South Africa. And yet, it’s not out of place at all. Vicky Momberg recently became the first person ever in the country to be sentenced to prison time for a racist outburst. It’s a powerful moment in the show, which took a lot of panel beating. “The moment is a lot more crafted than when I started writing the material. “When I started writing, the first gag was that I never actually use the word. There were gags about Randy my American friend who owns the N-word, but nobody wants to own the K-word. “So there was this idea that nobody wants it, it's left lying around and somebody picks it up and says I can use it,” Taylor told Daily Maverick. Having just turned 40, Taylor has joked that this show is his version of a mid-life crisis. But if this is what a crisis look like for a comedian, it’s not a bad thing. The final version we’re all enjoying now, though, is a routine that slowly developed on stage, but it never got to the point where he actually said the word. It wasn't until he started working with director Rob van Vuuren where the idea of spitting out the word began to develop. Taylor first tested it out at the Cape Town Comedy Club. But in that moment, he never acknowledged what the audience felt. “And that was one of Rob's things... if you're gonna do it... let them sit in it,” the comedian says. Many who have seen the show would agree that it’s a seminal piece of work from a comedian who is carving a niche for himself where others might be cautious of treading. Taylor’s solo shows like Techni-Coloured, Learner Husband and Bespoke earned him acclaim and award, but the latest piece is on another level. He has a special ability to make the audience both think and laugh – not an easy task in a country as complex as South Africa. He refers to the material’s progression and his work with Van Vuuren as seeing the show progress from being a “very entertaining TED Talk” where people are nodding and smiling to where people are laughing out loud. Sometimes that might mean dick pic jokes, but it’s certainly not the crux of his show. While the use of the K-word is a big moment in the show, that’s not the whole point of it either, he points out. “The word provides context for what can you say and what can't you say. everyone has their own version of the K-word. There are so many words where you go… but I didn't know I can't say that. “The response is then that's on you. if it becomes mainstream not okay, you replace your vocab with something else. “Is that going to change my opinion on the group of people I use that word for? Hopefully it will. Some people might say that the sentiment still remains after you take away the word, but if you interrupt the thought process, maybe the context will start to shift,” he explains. “The whole notion of Funny You Should Say That is about thinking before you speak and being more in tune with what people might find offensive.” Context is something that’s constantly shifting – and which has changed enormously for comedians in South Africa. “It’s been interesting watching how this industry has changed. In the beginning, it was very much jokes about white people do this, black people do that. And lots of comics of colour were playing to their predominantly white audience. “Back then, if you did any jokes about issues now considered mainstream, that audience would turn on you. Often the act who introduced you would introduce you with an accent and you kind of had to do jokes about no front teeth,” Taylor says. Now, comedians are increasingly comfortable in talking about political issues and Taylor’s delivery is impeccable. His irreverence and wit takes the edge off what might be considered serious topics, especially when it feels like we are constantly bombarded with certain narratives on social media. But coming up with relevant material is not always so simple. Topical material can be difficult, Taylor says, because by the time something has happened there are already thousands of memes out there that are funnier than their jokes. This helps challenge comics to dig deeper, but it also complicates matters by “muddying the conversation”. “By this I mean, we have these voices on stage pushing the boundaries, but you also have anonymous voices now being able to push in the opposite direction and not allowing that conversation to happen. “At a comedy club, it feels like a safe space to have those conversations. But when the actual conversation was two opposites when I looked at my phone before I came to the show, it sometimes takes away from that conversation,” Taylor says. He uses the example of how, in David Letterman’s recent interview with Barack Obama, people with different political leanings were asked to search for “Egypt” – all receiving very different results. “Because of these narratives, conversations just become emotive issues because of the constant barrage they receive. “It's so funny how we're fed information that backs up our thoughts and perspectives. The problem is you are fed the narrative that you believe, that's how algorithms work,” Taylor says. “So as much as you are trying to push the conversation, people are sitting with this kak all day long. The audience might go to a comedy show and feel like they just want to relax and so when the dude says let's talk about land... they might think for goodness sake,” he laughs. It’s a tricky balancing act which might often be under-appreciated by the audience. Yet, art in its various forms – from comedy to poetry – has always been a critical part of the South African discourse. Taylor hopes that the muddying of the waters will start to lose its grip as people become more aware of algorithm echo chambers. In the meantime, he is trying to make his material relatable and finding a way to adapt depending on who is performing for – even if that means jokes about dogs and cats. “As long as I'm not man tanning, I'll feel very proud of what I do. Because the other bigger challenge is can you do jokes that do not rely on race, class, whatever. A joke that everyone can laugh at... great,” he says. But there is also the sense that he has not yet reached his peak and his self-awareness in developing new material is remarkable. While Funny You Should Say That will continue to play this year, he is also going to rework Learner Husband. “It was one of our biggest shows, but I got so bored about this benign material that said nothing. It was silly. And it's material that I couldn't do now. I will revisit it next year and focus more on gender politics. If I did some of those gags now, people would roll their eyes. “But I want to explore how women are taking back the conversation and pushing back. I want to see how I respond as somebody who was comfortable to make those jokes,” Taylor says. That awareness is something everyone can learn from. He shares an anecdote of a Facebook friend who wears a massive old South African flag on his jacket, without considering the context of that flag. “Sometimes I think people are just oblivious. But he’s old, so maybe…” Does that mean ignorance can be an excuse? “Never, but we are often quick to judge things. It's about context... if somebody says they do not agree with you, we have to give people room to not agree to us. But that's what social media does not allow for.” There is a flipside, too. “It has given a voice to voiceless. Sometimes it's a very hard pill to swallow for people who have had the control all the time. It’s very difficult for people who had a voice to now be quiet and listen,” Taylor says. It is from this point of view that he is now developing his material from which he hopes conversations will begin – be that on social media or through his work. “Instead of stopping and listening, people shout back or keep their ears closed. “It can’t carry on. It has to change. It's becoming more commonplace and we are seeing things progress so much quicker,” Taylor says. He also hopes that privilege is contextualised. “Privilege isn’t purely the domain of the white male. Once we contextualise the various privileges we become aware of the degrees in which it is found.” As this begins to happen, though, “political correctness gone mad” is often bandied about as a go-to phrase, but for Taylor, it’s more nuanced than that. “It’s not about walking on eggshells it's about not living in a bubble. If we start thinking before we speak, maybe we'll start thinking before we do. “That’s the hope for the conversation.” DM Funny You Should Say That will be on show at the Fire & Ice Hotel in Melrose Arch on 26 April at 8.15pm and in Menlyn on 27 April. Tickets are R120 each and available through quicket It will also return to Cape Town, at the Kalk Bay Theatre from 31 July to 11 August The show returns to Johannesburg from 23 October to 10 November at The Sandton Theatre