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James Acaster: Getting Personal

Andrew Young speaks to the stand-up comedian about his new tour, a change in approach, and his upcoming projects

Photo Credit: Ken Cheng Youtube

James Acaster swears now, apparently. As he embarks on his new tour Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, the increasingly popular comedian is evolving his style into previously uncharted territory, and this includes some more colourful language. It’s a fun, minor change that Acaster jokes about in the new show, but it is in fact part of a markedly different approach in his comedy. Much of his success until now has been built on outrageous made-up stories that allow his oddball charm and unpredictable humour to flourish. Now, however, he is bringing more truth into his comedy, and losing his previous fear of being open about his personal life on stage.

With much of the UK-wide tour already sold out, it seems that whatever his style, James Acaster is becoming kind of a big deal. In just a few years he has gone from that funny-sounding bloke on Mock the Week, to rave reviews and a growing level of fame on par with some of the country’s most high-profile stand-ups. His amiable, befuddled persona lends Acaster an unthreatening air that makes his often off-the-wall humour seem all the more hilarious. His new tour will not, we can hope, see a change in this winning style of performance, but rather in subject matter.

The move away from fictitious material to something that is “all personal and all true” was not a conscious decision, Acaster says. “It’s just a bit more open than my previous stuff, but I didn’t set out to deliberately do that. When I originally tried to write a show that was all fictitious, it just didn’t click. You can’t really put your finger on why a lot of the time. Particularly after I filmed all those shows [his Repertoire collection on Netflix], it was hard to be enthusiastic about doing another one of those kind of shows immediately again. I just naturally wanted to do something a bit different. I wasn’t always comfortable with it, I wasn’t always comfortable with being honest on stage when I started doing this show, and it took a long time for me to get the material to the place I want it to, but now I’m really enjoying it.”

Acaster’s ability to feel comfortable being open on stage is something that has come with age. "I think maybe for the first eight years of doing stand-up - and this is probably the same for a lot of comedians - I was trying to figure out who I was and what suited me. I thought, ‘I can’t go on and do a routine about sex, because people don’t like it when I talk about that; people don’t like it when I talk about politics; people don’t like it when I swear a lot; people won’t like it if I talk about my real life’. So I kind of listened to that and fed back to it and did the comedy that I thought suited me, but in the last couple of years I feel like I’m more in control of things. It’s less of me looking at this big daunting task of being a comedian and trying to figure out how to do it, and instead now feeling that I’m in control and I know how to do it. So now I can dictate what I do and what I don’t do and this new show even starts with a silly routine where I say ‘oh, I swear now’.”

The turn towards the personal is not as big a change for Acaster as it might first seem. He suggests that he always “naturally” put whatever he had been thinking about into his material, just not “in a very conscious way.” He explains: “In a lot of the shows that are on Netflix, there’s this reveal of ‘this is what this show was actually about, in my personal life’. That was kind of how I wrote them; I’d write this silly show and then I’d realise, ‘oh you’ve written a show about identity because you don’t know who you are this year, and you’ve been really struggling with that’. I was always writing about what was going on in my life, I just didn’t realise at the time. I was a newer comedian so I was less aware of the link between my life and my stand-up.”

This theme of age and experience keeps cropping up in our discussion of the comedian’s new material. “I’m a bit more confident going in to talk about that stuff, because I’ve been in stand-up for ten years now so I’m less scared of it going badly. I now think ‘if this work in progress routine doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world’. I’m more confident going into those routines because I think ‘you’ll find a fleck of something in her that’s worth pursuing.’ So it’s more just a confidence in oneself I think.”

It’s not just confidence that Acaster has gained over his decade in the business, but a reputation and fanbase that seems to get bigger by the day. It has been a not-too-shy of meteoric rise that now sees Acaster performing in large venues across the country, including York’s own Grand Opera House. He says that the size of venue doesn’t affect his process much however: “I don’t write it differently depending on the venue. I don’t really have a preference with venues. I guess I do really love theatres and stuff, that’s really nice, but I love doing work-in-progresses at small comedy clubs as well. As long as the space is built for performance, that’s all you really care about. When you are starting out, you do a lot of bad gigs in places that aren’t suited to live performance. As long as it’s designed to be a comedy club or it’s a theatre or something like that for live performance, then usually I’m pretty happy with it.”

Despite it not affecting the creative process, the size and style of a venue can have a huge effect on a comedy show’s audience. Small comedy club gigs often have an atmosphere of mirth created by the sense that everybody knows everyone else in the audience a bit better than at a large-capacity venue. Laughter in these environments can be contagious, stemming from a greater shared personal experience of the performance than in large venues. This is something Acaster is aware of: “I think it’s different for the crowd. Some people at my show yesterday - which was in a small room, a 50-seater - said that they really liked seeing it in that venue and that they’d been to see me the previous month in a thousand-seater venue and they preferred it in a smaller one.”

The larger venue capacities for Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 coincide nicely with the more personal subject matter of the shows. Acaster suggests that, “with this show it always feels like like it makes more sense to me as a performer when I’m doing it in a big venue. Maybe it feels safer; I don’t feel like I’m exposing myself as much when I’m not in an intimate room with a few people telling them loads of personal stuff. So maybe I feel more relaxed in front of a big audience weirdly.” There is certainly a nice irony to the fact that James Acaster is choosing to open himself up on stage as his fanbase grows and media attention on him is increasing.

It is not just a lack of truth that has been notable in Acaster’s previous routines. He has also often come across as one of the least political comedians on the circuit. For someone who appears so much on Mock the Week, he rarely says anything aggressively partisan, nor does he ever rely on shocking or offensive humour in his material. Many comics in the modern era seem to feel the need to come across as “edgy” or gain laughs based purely on an “I can’t believe they said that” reaction. Acaster’s humour is quieter and smarter, managing to fuse mundane observational comedy with absurd flights of fancy.

He suggests, however, that he is not deliberately trying to avoid discussing political issues, but rather often avoids politics due to his own abilities: “I don’t do loads of political routines but only because I’m not very good at it. I talk about politics a lot in my work in progress shows, when I’m trying to figure a show out, and a lot of the time I’ll lead with
emotion a lot more than humour, and I don’t quite nail the humour side of it. Sometimes I do get a routine that’s funny, like the Brexit teabag bit.” Ah, of course, the Brexit teabag. Baiting many a Brexiteer, Acaster’s analogy has done the rounds on social media and has an amusingly simple view of the referendum. In short: if you leave a teabag in, the bag looks like it’s getting weaker, but the tea as a whole gets stronger; if you take a teabag out, the tea is weaker and the bag goes straight in the bin. It sounds better when he says it, of course. Like much of James Acaster’s humour, it is a seemingly simple joke elevated by his excellent comic timing and signature facial expression – an odd mix of faux anger and bemusement.

“There’s a new kind of political Brexity bit that I’ve got that works,” he says. “Definitely since the Brexit referendum, I’ve felt it’s more important for comics to be talking about stuff now. So if I can come up with routines that are linked to that in any way I will. You never want to be restricted as a comedian, so I didn’t want to say ‘I’m a clean comic, and I can’t swear, and I can’t do personal stuff, or do politics’ because then you back yourself into a corner. I’ve never deliberately backed myself into that corner. This show feels different, and after this show it could be another completely different thing altogether. Or, it might be the same thing again – I might go back and do another fictional show. You never want people to think, ‘right, this is what this person does’.”

Pinning down exactly ‘what he does’ is no easy task with James Acaster. Perhaps the most strikingly impressive thing about him is not his sharp wit and hilarious on-stage persona, nor indeed how polite and friendly he is during our interview, but just how many strings he has to his comedy bow. The majority of the population will recognise him from consistently being the highlight of programmes like Would I Lie to You? where his unique style marks him out among the pack of panel show regulars. Yet beyond his ubiquitous comedy TV presence, James Acaster’s humour seems to be cropping up everywhere.

Last year he joined the ranks of some of comedy’s biggest stars on Netflix with Repertoire, a series of four filmed stand-up shows showcasing some of his strongest material. Compared to their American counterparts, British comedians with their own comedy special on Netflix are fairly rare, allowing Acaster to place himself alongside some of UK comedy’s most successful and popular performers, including Ricky Gervais, Jack Whitehall and Russell Howard. The rise in popularity of Netflix’s stand-up collection is something Acaster acknowledges has “definitely been a good thing for me. Loads more people know who am now, and about my comedy. Before that, I was on TV and stuff but people tended to turn up to see me live without a real idea of what I did and what my shows were like. My live audience now are really on board and they know what to expect and that’s really great. I can go to other countries now and get audiences, which I couldn’t do before.”

As is often the case when discussing Netflix’s impact, there is a flip-side to the enjoyment it brings. Some may fear that the streaming service takes away the live experience of stand-up comedy, encouraging people to watch everything on their laptops instead of experiencing live performances in the flesh. Acaster doesn’t seem too bothered by this however: “We tried quite hard to make the specials capture a bit of what it’s like to see a live show. We didn’t put any laughs in where there weren’t any, we tried to keep the laughter up, we tried to keep it as authentic as possible.

“Also, we try and make it feel like its own thing, so it’s not replacing live comedy. The two are still fairly different; you can never get people to feel like they’re in the room completely so you want to make it a good experience to watch at home and cater for that. For me it’s definitely not having a negative effect.” The experience may even have encouraged Acaster to go down the same path again: “I’ll be filming this tour show along with filming another show which is material that I’m not taking on tour, but I like just as much. I’m kind of working on a project where we’re releasing them all together, but that’s going to take a while because I’ll be filming the tour show at the end of it.”

On top of the Repertoire success, late 2018 and early 2019 have seen the launch of a book (James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes), a TV game show (Hypothetical with Josh Widdicombe) and a podcast. The latter, Off Menu, Acaster hosts with Ed Gamble and features a different guest each episode who must discuss their dream menu. It is a project he says is “really enjoying,” adding that, “I’d love to do more stuff with this food podcast idea; I’d love to see if it works in other mediums.” Off Menu suggests a real interest in food, but this level of enthusiasm is outweighed by Acaster’s love of music. He has been a drummer in several bands and still dips his toe in some musical projects now. “I really threw myself into being in bands between the ages of about 17 and 22,” he says.

After this, his transition into performance of a quieter kind began. “When my final band split up, I kind of just wanted a break because I didn’t want to go straight into being in another band. I didn’t really have any qualifications or anything to fall back on. I didn’t have a full-time job. I just started doing stand-up because at the time I’d done a few gigs just for fun and enjoyed them and I was 23 so I thought I’ll just do this for a bit and then I’ll think about what I really want to do with my life. The more I did stand-up, the more I enjoyed it and I’d say now I enjoy stand-up more than I ever enjoyed doing music; it’s something I really love.

“Maybe the reason I didn’t carry on doing music was because stand-up offered more in terms of a career. I felt like I was more in charge creatively; I could do more of what I wanted; there were more gigs that I could do; the audiences were paying attention to me more. With comedy you could work really hard on a routine, get it really good and actually get good things off the back of it. You would get more gigs, you would get more work, whereas with music I felt like I’d work really hard on a song with my band and you wouldn’t really get anything or move forward. It was quite an unintelligible industry.”

His love of music is still strong, however, and on his website you can find an enormous list of albums from 2016 that Acaster loves. His choices vary wildly in a manner befitting a true music obsessive. There is everything from Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo to a variety of heavy metal albums. He is now turning the list into a book, Perfect Sound Whatever, that is out later this year and adds yet more to his growing list of projects. “I’ll be doing a tour show with the book,” he explains. “It’s about me getting obsessed with all the music that came out in 2016, why I got obsessed with it, and why I bought so many albums that came out that year. It’s me reconnecting with modern day music and using it as a way of feeling better really.”

Among the huge variety of albums on his 2016 list is the soundtrack to The Lonely Island’s musical comedy Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Seeing this, you can’t help but wonder whether Acaster himself would ever consider writing a comedy song or incorporating more music into his routines. “I’ve never really had an idea that would be best executed as a song,” he explains. “I’ll only ever do music in comedy if I think that’s the best way for that joke to work. Otherwise, I’m quite happy keeping them separate. I’ve done little musical projects along the way, just for a little bit of fun.”

Despite his reluctance to merge music and comedy, it is tempting to wonder what medium Acaster will bring his comedic gifts to next. “The right sitcom would be great,” he admits, “but that is quite a narrow target to hit really, finding a sitcom that suits you. That’d be fun - writing or appearing in it. Probably the same with films as well; I’d love to write a film or pop up in a film [...] I’ve not got much experience in acting. I’ve done bits and bobs and enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t really know where my abilities lie with that. I’d probably be more confident sitting down and writing something. If I was writing it, I’d know what my abilities are, I’d write a part for myself pretty easily.” With two books nearly under his belt, Acaster’s talent as a writer is clear, but he stresses how important performance is to him. “With my shows, I don’t really sit down and write as much now. I always work it out on stage, and I love being on stage, performing the shows.”

On current form, James Acaster seems to be able to succeed at just about everything he turns his hand to. He is a comedic talent who is not satisfied with just doing more of the same, who knows when things aren’t working, and who has the confidence to evolve his style when it feels right. He has an attitude and talent that see him well on the way to becoming one of British comedy’s biggest stars.

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