James Acaster interview
Three-time Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee James Acaster is zipping about on the radio, in the online series Sweet Home Ketteringa, and touring his show Recognise around the country. Last week he performed at Nottingham’s Glee Club; and so, with a face inexplicably redder than any face has ever been, I asked him some questions.
Hi James. How is the tour going?
It’s been getting better and better as it’s been going on. The numbers have been better, and the audience coming along have been more informed about what they’re going to see I think, so they’ve been on board earlier on than normal. Yeah, so it’s been a really fun tour, and a noticeable difference in the audience that’s turning up to it.
I saw you here last year at the same time.
With [Joe] Lycett?
Yeah. And the audience tonight is a lot bigger…
Yeah, I’m delighted. This is one of the ones that is a noticeable jump up. Like there are some that I’ve been to every year, and bit by bit they’ve got a bit bigger. But yeah, I’m amazed with this one, that it’s got this many people. I was a bit worried when we booked it in; last year I was doing it with Lycett, and between the two of us we weren’t getting that many people. So yeah, this is a very nice surprise.
With your comedy, you seem to have a very definite stage persona. How different is that to you as a person?
Pretty different, I think. Yeah, I think with anyone, most comics, if they acted like they did on stage all the time it would do everyone’s head in, you’d end up with no friends.
It would be tiring…
Yeah. In real life I’m not as sure about every single one of my opinions as I am when I’m going on stage. I think it’s funnier to pretend like I genuinely believe everything I’m saying and that I’m behind it. But in real life I doubt everything that I think, and I’d never kind of enter into a debate with anyone with any sort of confidence. I’d just think, well, I’m probably wrong actually. So, yeah, I think it’s that I think it’s funny to think that you’re actually right.
Your show this year, Recognise, follows more of a narrative than your shows in the past. Did you set out to write something with a stronger narrative, or did that just sort of happen?
No I didn’t, no. I just thought, this time last year, I thought that it would be funny to say I was an undercover cop. That was all it was. So I just thought, because I kind of hadn’t enjoyed writing the show I did before that. I’d put a lot of pressure on myself, and stressed out all year about writing it. And with this show I’d just decided I’ve got to enjoy it.
So, when I thought about going on stage and saying I’m an undercover cop, I thought yeah I’ll do that, that’ll be funny; and I started doing it and people weren’t really laughing, but I knew I wanted to do that. So I decided this year, just follow through an idea and see where it takes you. It’s more fun, and I think it’s how I’m going to do a lot more shows from now on: I’m going to just lead with whatever ideas I think are the funniest from September/October when it doesn’t matter, and then see where it leads, really, and see where your natural sense of humour takes you.
So, it’s obviously important that you’re enjoying it.
Yeah, you’ve got to believe in the idea enough, because it’s going to fall flat on its face not only when you’re trying it out but also when it’s honed and it’s finished. You’re going to get on stage and maybe have a bad gig in Edinburgh, or maybe a handful of bad gigs in Edinburgh where you don’t feel it goes down very well, on tour you might have that, so you know: you’re always going to have nights where it doesn’t go down very well. So you’re better off being someone who believes in it, rather than going up and going ‘yeah, I actually agree with you, it was pretty rubbish’ or whatever. So yeah, I think first and foremost you should have an idea that you think is funny and that you believe in. It makes it more fun and you want to keep writing it.
Your BBC Radio 4 series, James Acaster’s Findings, is on at the moment – I saw the second of the recordings…
Oh yeah? Wheels and Paint.
Yeah, it was really good. How did you find writing for radio? Was it very different to how you write normally?
Yeah, it was quite different. But then there were a lot of similarities as well. I think next time, I would probably – if there is a next time – I would try and write more the way I do for stand-up, in a lot of ways, like trying a lot of it out on stage and stuff like that. I didn’t try a lot of that stuff out on stage, so although I was happy with how it went I would have liked to have felt more familiar with it when we were recording it. Especially when you’re recording in front of a live audience.
I think if we’d been recording it without a live audience I wouldn’t have minded as much because it’s just the energy in the room with the three of you (because there were two other people in the show [Nathaniel Metcalfe and Bryony Hannah]). But in front of an audience, I would have liked to have been more… I would have liked to have done it in front of an audience more, because then you know where their laughs are; you leave a pause there, you speed this bit up – and that’s more like stand-up. Yeah, I think if we were going to do it in front of an audience again I’d want to write it on-stage and off-stage, like I do with stand-up comedy. But if we didn’t have an audience I’d write the same way I wrote it this time.
So, in 2012 when you did the BBC Radio 4 Comic Fringes, how did you go about writing your story Sorry For Your Loss? Did you write it just as a short story, or were you writing with radio in mind?
Yeah, I kind of wrote it just for that specific thing. I had that idea, and had knocked about with that idea in stand-up of the loop hole… fuck, I should have put it in this show – the loop hole with the honey – and because of that… shit, I really wish I’d put it in this show.
No, no, it’s my fault. I can’t believe I didn’t remember it. It’s one of my favourite loop holes ever, the honey loop hole. But yeah, I’d been knocking around with that in some stand-up and it wasn’t really working. But I thought I could write as a story, so I did it for that show. So yeah, that was just knowing that I was doing that Radio 4 show, and writing especially for that. Actually I was quite nervous because I thought they were getting loads of people to do it, and at that point I’d done one solo show and that was it. And there were three of us doing it: the other two were Russell Kane and Mark Watson who both had novels out. They’d written properly, and I was like ‘oh God…’ I was out of my depth. But I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it a lot. I was relieved with how it went.
So, you’ve done a few things with Turtle Canyon Comedy – the third episode of Sweet Home Ketteringa was released last week, and you’ve done some acting in several other Turtle Canyon projects. Of course you already have this persona on stage, but is acting something you’ve enjoyed doing?
Yeah, I do enjoy it. Obviously I’m new to it, so you know, I’m learning bit by bit how to do it really. Tomorrow I’m doing my first sitcom appearance.
My first actual bit of acting on the telly.
Is that Josh?
Yeah, yeah. So I’m a bit nervous about that. It’s like, I’m at the stage at the moment where I’m more nervous about it than I enjoy it. Still I enjoy doing it, but tomorrow I’m going to be like ‘oh okay, I’ve got to act, I’m an actor now, got to get into character’. But yeah, it’s definitely something that I’d like to do more, but only stuff that I would want to be associated with or was proud of. I don’t just want to be an actor, I want to be a comic and stand-up comedian. So you know, I’ll do bits of acting because I think it’s funny and I like the project, but I don’t have ambition to be an actor.
And it’s with your friends as well.
Yeah, it’s my friends. Also the part I had to audition for was Josh Widdicombe’s nerdy friend, and I was like, well, I would hope I’m going to get this otherwise I guess we can’t hang out anymore, because I’m not good enough to be his nerdy mate. So it was one of those parts where I was like, it might be alright, I might be okay.
As well as acting, then, you’ve done more writing outside of stand-up – you wrote Sweet Home Ketteringa, your short film Like Buses – do you think you’ll do more writing like that in the future?
Yeah, I really like writing. Me and a friend are trying to write a sitcom at the minute and I’m enjoying working on that. So, I definitely think I’ll write more stuff like that. Whether any of it will get made or see the light of day is out of my control; but I think, I like writing and I like doing different types of writing. Stand-up is still my favourite because I know my way round it the best, so I know what I’m doing a bit more. But I’m definitely now enjoying sitting down with someone else and trying to write a sitcom, and going ‘okay: what would that character say, who’s the best character to say that line, and who would do this?’, and coming up with where the story could go. I really enjoy doing that with someone else and knocking it about.
A lot of the time, like with this show, it’s got a narrative but I didn’t really know what that narrative was a lot of the time, and sometimes I’d do a preview and my friend Nish Kumar would be there and he would say afterwards ‘you know, Springleaf wouldn’t say that’ and I was like oh yeah, he’s right. Nish kind of understood it better than I a lot of the time. But yeah, I think knocking about ideas with someone else is fun, and I’d like to do more of that for other projects (not stand-up).
Are you writing with someone who’s written before, or is this with another comic?
I’m writing with another comic, Dan Cook. He used to be in a sketch group called Delete The Banjax, but they’re not around anymore, and he’s done some solo stuff. Basically just because we look like we could be brothers, we started writing a sitcom. And he’s written stuff before, but not a sitcom.
You’re on more and more panel shows at the moment: how have you found transferring your on-stage persona to that environment? (Sorry that I keep talking about your persona.)
(That’s alright! It’s all I’ve got going.) To begin with – because obviously it takes a lot longer than it seems, so like, you audition for some panel shows: 8 Out Of 10 Cats, you audition for it first, and if you get that you get through to another round of auditions, you audition again. Then you might get on the show. And to begin with I was going for these things just trying to be an 8 Out Of 10 Cats panellist, thinking like right: what would they normally say? So, the news story is about X Factor, and I’ve got to slag off X Factor and say how stupid it is and make fun of it. And I just wasn’t feeling myself, I wasn’t coming across very well, and they weren’t asking me back. And then I just realised that actually it’s better if you just go on and do what you would do on stage anyway.
Yeah, because that’s how you’re funny…
Yeah. So if you just transfer it like that, you just literally go: what’s the world of the panel show? I’m being air-dropped in, so how does my character react to Jimmy Carr being there, and doing his kind of jokes? And how do I react to Nick Grimshaw, or, you know, whoever’s on the show? So, Kelly Osborne: like, where do me and her fit into a world together? How do I react to it?
So, deciding before I go on, okay I’m going to deliberately agree with everything that Rylan says, because that’s funny. Or whatever, you know. I’ve never been on a panel show with Rylan, but that would be the kind of thing. Like, I’m not going to disagree with everything that Rylan say because that’s what people would expect me to do. So instead if I’m going on and being like ‘that’s right, man’, and every stupid thing he says just going ‘yep!’ – just going along with it. So it’s kind of deciding where I’m going to fit in there.
But sometimes you break out of it. I was on a viral clip show once and they showed a clip of this guy, Sam Pepper – before he was in the news – they showed a clip of him basically going round forcing girls to get off with him on a beach. And I just broke persona completely and had a go at him, and they kept it in the edit because I’d said I don’t want it not to be in the edit if you keep the bit with him in. So sometimes you break persona and decide to keep it in there because you don’t want to be associated in anyway with it, and you think actually they shouldn’t be showing that on the show.
So I’m going to say this instead, because I don’t really want to sit there and go ‘it’s all about the comedy, just keep in your persona, just keep it in your world’. Instead it’s just like, right I’m going to actually swear a bit now, and say what I think about it. And it’s about judging when to stop doing the persona, step out of it and go actually… But then that’s like if I’m doing a gig, and someone then starts being really obnoxious – I mean, a bit disruptive: I can stay in persona, but if someone starts shouting out racist stuff, for example, I just break out of persona, step out of it and do that instead. Yeah, I think you’ve got to read things like you would a gig.
From when you started stand-up, how much do you think your comedy has changed? Or just you on stage?
A lot. When I started out, I was energetic and really made an effort to be affable. And I told all true stories from my life and didn’t change any details, just kept them all true. And I just got bored of it. I got sick of going on and wanting them to like me, and acting like I wanted them to like me, trying to be their mate. I didn’t like that anymore, and that’s not because I don’t like comedy that does that; it’s because I didn’t feel that’s how I naturally was, I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t feel like I wanted everyone in the room to be my mate so why was I pretending? And I thought, they can see through this. They can tell that this isn’t genuine.
And also I was getting frustrated that true stories were getting met with scepticism anyway, so I was like well, what’s the point in not changing a single detail? Telling them all about the time that I slept in a dress wearing a bush – no, yeah, that’s what I did: I slept in a dress, wearing a bush – no, slept in a bush wearing a dress. And they’d look at me like ‘that didn’t happen’ when it did. And I’m just like, what’s the point? They don’t care what’s true. They think they do, but they don’t: they care what’s funny. So I just started lying, and it was much more fun.
Do you have any recommendations of comedians that’s perhaps a style of comedy that you don’t do, or that you think other people might not know about?
All your support.