Along with expressive use of language, deft storytelling and a sense of romanticism, Stuart Black’s stand-up comedy is powered by his aptitude for dubious choices. But rather than attempting to titillate or impress with this litany of excess, he simply depicts an existence away from privilege, convention or indifference.
Moving from the West Country to Brighton in the 90s, his imagination was instantly captured by the tail-end of the rave scene. Living in an attic, a housemate introduced him to the legendary Zap Club. “I was never cognoscente with the dance scene,” Black admits. “I just wanted to have a good time and get off my tits.” We’re both soaking up the watery spring sunshine outside the Komedia and he’s reminiscing about being lost whilst driving around London on acid, getting sucked off in the Market Diner and an extended depressed lethargy when he wouldn’t wash for seven months. The Brighton he knew then isn’t really different today though. It may have moved upmarket, but remains a place where free-thinkers like Black can flourish. “I haven’t lived a very normal life, but if you look around here it’s full of people who wouldn’t dream of living a normal life,” he laughs, looking up the street.
Blithely ignoring the mental effects of a languorous dole-financed lifestyle, Black admits he was probably his own worst enemy back then. Things calmed, at least for a while, when he landed himself a job. “It’s so true about routine. I was probably financially worse off, as I couldn’t get housing benefit. But I had a reason get up.” From here there was a range of different jobs, from cleaning to putting lids on bottles of dog shampoo. But impulsiveness can be a powerful mistress, no matter where you are. One moment he was gainfully employed by a global software giant, the next he’s sold up and immersing himself in the Cape Town underworld.
I had braced myself to find Black arrogant or abrasive, but in person there’s no boastful edge to him. Like a puppy that’s just bitten a balloon, there’s a sense of bemusement when he recalls his misadventures. Not taking up comedy until well into his 30s, he realised he’d a plethora of colourful life experience to fall back on. Trying a range of different styles initially, his comedy evolved into something far from the trend of over-enthusiastic 20-somethings and their ‘whacky’ observations. “I understand, but it’s the Starbucks of comedy! If you want something with a bit more depth, more spikey or more unusual, then I’m your man!” His last show ‘The Crossroads’ assembled am almost fetid collection of his experiences. This vivid and occasionally wretched assembly of wretchedness is reflected on, not with horror at the depravity, but as lessons learnt
Urbane, chatty and thoroughly charming, Black is happy to discusses with me why oppressive regimes run great holiday destinations, the hypocrisy from freedom of speech advocates and why is it called the ‘beauty industry’ when it aims to make you feel so ugly? If he’s an indulgent rogue or counter-culture hero, it’s hard to say. He’s a romantic idealist certainly and as with Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, or Thompson’s Dr Gonzo, he appears utterly enamoured with life and all its varied experiences.
Maybe with his air of the poetic outsider, he would have been better living in 20th century America. His spirit of adventure and endless quest for something undefined would sit perfectly with the ‘Beat Generation’, at least more than with Britain’s aimless modern culture. We gave up our search for a philosophical identity long ago, instead embracing mass neurosis and the pursuit of celebrity status. The media encourages us to obsess about moral values, but we expect more from others than ourselves. It’s a society Black observes from the periphery, his humour combining honest opinions and the wrongness of his anecdotes. “Even in some horrific political events there’s some humour to be found, at least in our reactions to them.”
Far from being self-obsessed, infatuated with money or blind to inequality, Black seeks to share his hard-earned worldly wisdom with us, regardless of how unpalatable it might be. Even his visit to Fringe is typically leftfield, performing free performances every weekend at The Caroline of Brunswick. This new work ‘Lemsip & Cigarettes’ remains complex and thought provoking, he is slowly allowing his sense of silliness onto his stage. “We’ll have a serious talk about something. Then I’ll just dick about a bit,” he laughs. Having given up drinking four years ago, the show partly details his journey into sobriety. Now the titular cigarettes are also gone. So when does hilarious recollection turn into poignant nostalgia? “It’s one of my big fears. I don’t want all my good stories to be from 20 years ago.”
Funny, eloquent and profound, Black seems immune to the desperation of past predicaments. After an adult life spent peering down the wrong end of the telescope, he’s got some pragmatic viewpoints on age-old themes – sex, money and death. This gentle and affable man may have embraced sobriety, but he’ll never become boring. “I always say: ‘Don’t take people’s advice!’ I’m not trying to be contrary, but it is better to find out for yourself… Just experiment a bit.”