James Acaster Doesn’t Need Your Sympathy

We’re all familiar with that moment in a comedy special. There’s a hairpin tonal shift as the laughter stills and an air of expectancy fills the room: the comedian is about to get vulnerable. You can almost hear the rustle of the audience leaning in, ready for their next cue—not a laugh, but some variant of a sympathetic “Awww!”

James Acaster is not afraid of vulnerability—his last special, 2019’s “Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999,” offers a candid account of a mental-health crisis that peaked in 2017, which he calls the worst year of his life—yet his work never demands that response, or even allows for it. In his podcast “James Acaster’s Perfect Sounds,” which also emerged from that difficult year, Acaster briskly begins each episode with the declaration “James Acaster here, and in 2017 I had a breakdown.” As he recounts in the show, and in an accompanying book, he weathered this period by immersing himself in the musical releases of 2016, an all-consuming project that led him to a bold, some might say wild, claim: that 2016 was the greatest year in music history. One gets the sense that this is a bit, but also that it’s dead serious. It’s what a lot of Acaster’s work is like—deep contemplations of his real-life difficulties, from breakups to despair over Brexit to the loss of religious faith, overlaid by a dazzling but transparent coat of absurdity.

It’s this quality that makes his standup impervious to “Awww”s. “Cold Lasagne” and “Repertoire,” Acaster’s remarkable 2018 series of Netflix specials, offer plenty of moments that evoke sympathy. Yet they’re almost always mediated by his intentionally flimsy personae, from a cop working undercover as a comedian named James Acaster, to an imaginary duck named Kyle, to his own former agent. Even when he’s telling stories as himself, Acaster’s most vulnerable moments constantly remind the audience of the ridiculousness of the situation—and, by extension, of the melancholy ridiculousness of life itself. In “Cold Lasagne,” Acaster talks about being depressed after a chaotic appearance on the celebrity edition of “The Great British Bake Off”; he calls a mental-health hotline, but, anxious about anonymity, adopts the persona of an apprentice baker in order to express his emotional distress. Such moments evince commitments both to form—the shows are marvels of precision and critical self-awareness—and to emotional honesty. Acaster’s work engages the audience’s sympathy but never relies upon it.

Now thirty-seven, Acaster first made his name on the British standup circuit following a career in music, and between 2012 and 2016 he racked up a record-breaking five consecutive nominations for Best Comedy Show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In the U.K., he’s a familiar presence on shows like “Taskmaster” and “Hypothetical”; internationally, he’s known for “Repertoire,” “Cold Lasagne,” and “Off Menu,” a food podcast that he hosts with Ed Gamble (in which Acaster inhabits the persona of a genie waiter at a dream restaurant), and U.S. tour dates for his latest show, “Hecklers Welcome,” sold out. This year, he’s been working on an impressively diverse lineup of projects: a new, independently produced podcast, “Springleaf”; his third book, “James Acaster’s Guide to Quitting Social Media,” which is out this month; and an album with Temps, a musical collective that he founded during the pandemic. In the midst of all of this, we found time to speak by Zoom about developing new ideas, reigniting old passions, and more. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

You started out as a musician, playing in bands and teaching the drums, before turning to standup. What led you to comedy?

Basically, I crashed my car when I was eighteen, and after that I got a bit obsessed with dying, so I started doing a bunch of things to tick them off my bucket list. As part of that, I ended up doing a standup-comedy gig, just to see how it would feel. And I enjoyed it, but was very much in denial about how much I enjoyed it. I was, like, “No, no, I want to be a musician.” So I would do comedy maybe once every four months, just as a fun extra thing. And then, when the band stopped, I thought, I’ll do that in the meantime, because I didn’t have any qualifications or anything. I’d stopped school halfway through sixth form, so I didn’t go to university. I thought I’d do comedy while I was figuring out what I really wanted to do.

And, as soon as I started trying to do comedy, it was really hard. Before, when I was in bands, I just got up onstage and messed around. Now that I cared about it, I was trying to write stuff that I’d be as proud of as the music I’d been doing, and I found it really difficult. But what I enjoyed was writing new stuff, trying to get better. If you like doing that sort of stuff, standup is perfect because you just get to go up every night and hone what you’re doing.

So you started standup because you were thinking a lot about dying—yet the word that comics use all the time is “dying,” the fear of dying onstage.

I haven’t thought about that before. It’s quite ironic that this fear of dying in my late teens has led to a career full of death.

In 2020 and 2021, you mentioned in a few places that you were thinking of stopping standup. What felt better about not doing it? And, then, what made you go, All right, I want to go back and do it again?

I started open-mike comedy in 2008, and from then to the end of 2019 I was just gigging all the time. It was pretty constant, pretty relentless. I think I got to the point where I wasn’t really enjoying it. I was quite stressed a lot of the time; I’d be grumpy onstage with the audience or blame them for me not enjoying the gig, which is absolutely not the way it should be. And I was going to take a break for a bit anyway because of that.

And, in 2020, we all had to take a break and reflect. Whether it was your job or even just your social life, you had to renegotiate and ask, “How do I actually feel about that?” I definitely found I felt better not doing gigs every single night. I felt the absence of it as a positive thing: not feeling stressed before walking onstage and instead watching a boxed set with my girlfriend. So, whenever anyone would ask me if I missed it in the pandemic, I didn’t want to lie.

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