Classic Interview: James Acaster

James Acaster Talks Wrestling With Dave Bautista
This is an interview with comedian James Acaster, which first ran in 2017 in the Evening Standard. He seemed in pretty good spirits, although there did seem to be hints of a darker undercurrent. Looking back now after seeing his show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 and reading his book, Perfect Sound Whatever, there was clearly more going on under the surface as he grappled with the demands of both life and his career. In fact in a recent podcast interview he has said he might not do stand-up again (though he also goes on to say that a return is not out of the question).
You can read a version of this interview that appeared in the Standard here. And read about his recent podcast interviews here. He is on The Jonathan Ross Show on Saturday, May 15 at 9.35pm on ITV1.
If you read James Acaster's new book, James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes, you might think he is gaffe-prone. In a twist on the traditional gags-to-riches format, the 32-year-old stand-up has charted his life through a series of comic escapades. From inadvertently smearing soap on a classmate’s coat to trapping a sausage dog in his puffer jacket sleeve.

The book came about after he had a regular slot talking about his scrapes on Josh Widdicombe’s radio show on XFM (now Radio X). When he thought about it he realised that he had already mapped out his autobiography, the genial comic says while sipping a lime and soda in an Edinburgh bar. “When you write them down in chronological order it’s my whole life and they explain why I am the way I am.”

Those hapless days are behind him now. Acaster — notable for his lanky poise and geek chic that makes him the Jarvis Cocker of comedy — is riding high. In September he is filming his back catalogue at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill (update - it can now be seen on Netflix). Along with the book he feels as if he is putting a phase of his life to bed. “I’m basically burning all the comedy I’ve ever written.”

The book is a mix of minor mishaps and major events, such as three serious car crashes, where he miraculously walked away unharmed. The first was in his parents’ Ford Fiesta when he was 18 and skidded, writing off the car — “I felt like I was in a pinball machine.” The second was on the way home from Yorkshire, where the band he drummed in, The Wow! Scenario, had just done their final gig. They hit a truck and the central reservation. Acaster was showered with glass and lost a bongo.

His third accident was the most serious. He was driving through Wales with comedian Josie Long when their car hit a truck carrying logs. It span out of control as flying wood smashed through the windscreen. The polite performer had just been listening to a CD of Cee Lo Green’s F**k You earlier and couldn’t get the tune out of his head when being interviewed by police.

“The crashes were progressively more dramatic,” he recalls. “I thought ‘You’ve had enough warning shots’.” Acaster does not drive any more. Apart from the fact that his insurance premiums would be astronomical, he rarely needs to. He lives in Ladbroke Grove and gets around London by public transport. On tour he is now successful enough to employ a driver.

He always wanted to be a performer, growing up in Kettering and dropping out of the sixth-form before his A-levels. His father David was a science teacher at the same school before he went there. “There was a picture of him in the staff room with a purple Mohican haircut he had for charity. I was threatened with it being shown to the class if I misbehaved.”

When his band split he did stand-up “to pass the time” but was hooked. He eventually became one the most acclaimed acts at the Edinburgh Fringe, picking up a record five consecutive Edinburgh Comedy Award nominations. Onstage he is a pedantic über-nerd, comparing Britain’s relationship with the EU to a teabag’s relationship to a cup of tea (the longer it is in the stronger it gets), or reflecting on why home massages are never as good as professional ones.

His shows are playful with a serious subtext. In 2015, Represent was superficially about jury service but actually about his loss of religious belief. “It was about how I could never be 100 per cent confident about my opinions. I think that stems from me losing my faith.”

Acaster grew up in a progressive Christian household. “My parents are very good examples of Christians. They are big on forgiveness. They are not homophobic and believe in same-sex marriage. I wish I still believed in a way.”

His loss was gradual. “First I stopped believing in hell, then the afterlife. Sometimes that connection is still there and I’ll feel an impulse to pray if I’m stressed or upset. There is still a version of me that wants to reach out to something.” Did he pray as his car was hurtling out of control in Wales: “Well, I was thinking ‘Can I not die, please’...”

Despite his rise there have been points where he has seriously considered giving everything up. “I did the Conan O’Brien show in America in June and felt the audience wasn’t giving much. I thought I looked like an amateur and started to think the good gigs were just flukes. I felt this wasn’t making me happy and I wanted to quit.”

The thought of early retirement lingered even though he had a book and a tour in the pipeline. “I thought I’ll film these shows and do the book tour and quit. I spoke to my agent, friends and parents, who were supportive, so I imagine I’ll carry on doing it.”

​Acaster does not seem like a tears-of-a-clown tortured soul, with his gags about apricots, Dr Pepper and Percy Pig sweets. Yet if you look harder there are hints of sadness. In one joke he suggests there are only four stages in life: “sober, tipsy, drunk, hungover — tipsy is the only one out of the four where you don’t cry during it.”

“I’m not a big depressive but I have my moments. Though now I know what to do.” He has had counselling since being a stand-up. “It’s a by-product of the job. Your level of self-awareness rises so much. There were plenty of times before I did stand-up where I needed counselling but I didn’t go because it would have meant I was officially ill. Like after that first crash. But the reason to go is to sort it out.”

It seems that therapy is the answer. And not just visiting a therapist. “Maybe writing about all these scrapes was a form of therapy too.” Thanks to incidents such as a sausage dog getting trapped in his puffer jacket sleeve, hopefully James Acaster will be making us laugh for a long time yet.

James Acaster is not on social media at the moment, but he is here:

James Acaster is on The Jonathan Ross Show on Saturday, May 15 at 9.35pm, ITV1.



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