JFL42: James Acaster talks standup & his first show in Toronto

by W. Andrew Powell
James Acaster JFL42

British comedian James Acaster touches down in Toronto for five shows at JFL42, starting tonight, and the award-winning talent recently spoke to me about his show, how he works on material, and comedy genres.

You can find remaining tickets for some of Acaster’s shows at JFL42.com.

Andrew Powell: When you’re preparing for a show, I know you’ve done numerous set shows in the past, do you pull from those? Do you intend to bring a certain show that you’ve already done before?

James Acaster: A new show that I’m performing at the moment, and so I’ll bring that to Toronto, called Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, about the best year of my life, and the worst year of my life. I talk about those. The best year is 1999, the worst is 2017. I compare and contrast, and it’s all about loneliness and trying to connect with people. That’s the show that I’m touring at the moment.

I’ll tour this show probably for at least another year or so. It will change and evolve around that time. It will get longer. It will become a tour show where I do two hours at an interval. It will keep on evolving until I film it, and then I’ll put it to bed, and I’ll start on a new one.

It’s more common over here to do that, and maybe Australia, or at certain festivals. You hone material for a year. I always feel like if they’re paying a certain amount to see me, then I’ve got to give them the best show that I’ve got. That doesn’t mean doing it the same every night like a robot. You still change your delivery. You throw in new lines. You improvise and stuff, but you’ve got this foundation of a show that you know works, and that you know is worth their time and money.

I like certain things that is afforded to you by rehearsing a show and honing it. Structure and call backs, linking them together, subtext, all things like that that can run through it that you can’t necessarily get out a show that you just randomly fire out.

It’s different, and it’s a different approach. Someone like Seinfeld, he works 9:00-5:00. He gets up, and he writes, and he has a break for lunch. He just does the job, and that’s how he writes his shows.

I don’t write off stage. I only write on stage. When I’m working up a new show, I definitely do it, but I’ve just got a random set list, and I’m firing stuff out. The audience are paying less, I should point out, but I’m working out new stuff in front of them. Then, the more I do that, the more stuff works. I’ll go away and be like, “Okay, this is the structure of the show.” Then when you structure it, you know its little links, and how to join it all together, and things like that.

Then other people, there are absolutely amazing comics who just improvise. What I love about comedy is that there is just so many different types of show and different types of approach. It’s a shame that people don’t recognize genres in comedy like they do in music, or films, or books, or something like that. There’s loads of different senses of humor, loads of ways of presenting it, loads of ways of finding comedy. It might be improvised. It might be a PowerPoint presentation, whatever it is.

If I’m ever at a comedy festival, especially for like a whole month, I really at some point want to go and see an improvised show. I also, at some point, want to see a tightly structured, tightly written show.

Lately on Netflix there’s been so many different specials now, comedy specials, that really showcase that you can have a show that is inconsequential and silly. Then you can have a show like [Hannah Gadsby’s] Nanette that is really hard hitting and at times quite upsetting, even. It’s all comedy. It all comes under that umbrella.

I think definitely the more people say, “That’s not comedy,” or, “That is comedy,” and put up those boundaries… especially when its comedians who do that, weirdly. Comedians will point at a certain shows and go, “I don’t consider that comedy.” You’re like, “Why are you saying that?” You’re limiting yourself to what you can do in your own art form. This is what we’ve all got to do now. We can’t do anything but that. Actually, what’s so great about this is we can do anything we want.

Powell: I was even speaking to Reggie Watts earlier this week. I haven’t seen his full show, but I know he’s very much a musically driven comedian, but it’s still a comedy show. It’s fascinating to me, the same thing as what you just said, that there are no definitive genres of comedy, but at the same time there really are. Do you think it would ever benefit comedy to be able to one day say, “Here’s the genres,” or is that out of reach?

Acaster: I don’t know if that will ever happen, in my lifetime anyway. If someone says to you, “Do you want to go and see a band?” You would ask what kind of band they are. People would be able to say, “Oh, it’s a folk band,” or, “It’s a metal band.” Those are two very different types of music, and you would know if you want to go and see it or not.

With comedy, it tends to be like, “Are they funny?” “Do you want to come see a comedian?” “Are they funny?” “Yeah, they’re hilarious.” Then you show up and it’s not the same. Hilarious isn’t the same for two different people. The closest you’ve got is people say political comedy, or clowning, something like that. That kind of stuff is bubbling up a little bit, and people are like, “Observational comedy.” Yeah, people are starting to get used to those things, but the average person won’t use those kinds of words. It would be good if they did.

Powell: Do you think there’s a difference between North American comedy and European, or even specifically British comedy?

Acaster: Yeah, I think there’s a difference wherever you go because it’s always a product of your environment, whatever comedy you do.

You go to London, or Toronto, or Auckland, anywhere, and there’s loads of different types of comedians there. They’re still reacting to what’s around them and using their own voice to do so. So you get similar subjects or things pop up wherever you go in the world.

You go to one area, and they are all responding to what it’s like to live in Toronto in this day and age, and so forth, or what it’s like to live in London in this day and age. Even though you get different voices in all these places, they’re all influenced the same environment.

Yeah, I think it is different.

I haven’t gigged in Canada before, so I have no, “This is what comedians are like in Canada,” frame of reference.

“I don’t know what you expect from Toronto, which is quite exciting, actually.”

When I started out, a lot of the Canadian comics who had come to London, they were the ones who were, for one, they were hilarious and really good. People like Phil Nichol, and Craig Campbell, Glenn Wool.

They were all pretty rock and roll, and quite animated, and loud. They could tell really long stories really well and improvise on the spot. They were all quite sex, drugs and rock and roll, those guys actually, back then.

I wouldn’t say it’s the same now. I’m trying to think of the Canadian comics that I gig now with over here. People like Mae Martin. Who’s over here, actually, from Canada? Katherine Ryan, another two completely different comedians. I don’t know what you expect from Toronto, which is quite exciting, actually.

Powell: I do find it slightly amusing to hear anyone refer to a Canadian as sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but I definitely know what you mean.

Acaster: Maybe that’s why they left Canada?

Powell: Maybe that’s it. Maybe they’re not Canadian enough.

Acaster: Yeah, “This doesn’t work for me. I’m going to go to London where I can really fly.”

Powell: Having never been here before, what do you do to prepare for a show when you’re doing it in a different city or a different country? Is there anything you can do, or do you just see how it goes?

Acaster: I think there probably are things you can do. I don’t do them, but there probably is stuff. Yeah, I just tend to turn up, and then do what I normally do anywhere else.

You just read the room as it goes. That’s never been a problem. It’s always like people get where I’m coming from, and I can adapt it a bit.

Also, when you’re abroad, part of the fun for audiences seeing you is that you’re not from there. You’re from Britain, and you have different perspective. Yeah, I just tend to go with it, and it’s usually fine.

Powell: At this point in your career, do you still have to worry about disaster shows? I’m sure it’s all about going with the flow, but do disasters still happen, or is that a thing that really happens more to amateurs?

Acaster: Oh no, you have disasters forever, I think. I don’t think I’ll ever not have bad gigs, or have ones that really take it out of you, make you think that you’re in the wrong job, or embarrassing. They keep coming, especially if you’re trying to improve, and you keep trying to push yourself to get better. You’re always aiming for something a little bit out of reach, and so you’ll fall short a few times before you actually hit the bullseye.

Yeah, there’s still plenty of gigs where… and sometimes people turn up to see you because they like you, then they you don’t do what they wanted you to do, and then they get angry. They shout stuff out, and you’ve got to deal with that.

Yeah, it never goes away. Some problems are just there forever, like it’s always going to be hard to generate new material and decide what you want your next show to be. Then some problems go away, and then are replaced with new problems. You stop having to perform to audiences who don’t know who you are, and didn’t know what kind of comedy you were going to do, and so get angry that it’s not the kind of comedy they like.

Then the new audience that come in have a different set of expectations of, “I saw him on this show. I hope he does that stuff.” If you don’t, they’ll get annoyed at that. It will always have challenges. I think once it stops having challenges, that’s when you probably start to slide in terms of quality. I think that’s a comfort, at least.

“I love doing standup. It’s where I can be most creatively free, and in control of it, and do what I want. I live or die by being good or funny. ”

Powell: In terms of your career, do you ever think, “Oh, I want to do some scripted stuff?” There’s comedians who do that cross over, moving to sitcoms, or movies, or whatever else. Is that an interest ever for you?

Acaster: I’m interested in doing that kind of stuff if I like the project, and it’s something that I’m passionate about. Just in terms of thinking, “I want to do scripted stuff,” or, “I want do a panel show,” or, “I want to do a talk show,” none of that is anything that really inhabits me. I think just wanting to do a thing… I want to do standup. I love doing standup. It’s where I can be most creatively free, and in control of it, and do what I want.

I live or die by being good or funny. Audiences only come and see you if they like it, and if people are saying good things about it. All these other things, if I’m really passionate about it, then it’s worth my energy, trying to get a sitcom off the ground. If I just want to write a sitcom for the sake of it, and I’m just going with an idea for no reason, it’s just way too much energy to put into it.

At the minute, I’m working on a sitcom script that I’m excited about. I’m writing a book that I’m excited about. I’ve just filmed a panel show that I absolutely loved. They were all things that I wanted to do those specific things, rather than just wanting to do the thing in general, because then it just becomes about trying to get more famous or whatever. That’s a fool’s game.

Powell: Okay, this is more of a just for kicks question. Have you had one of those jokes that you thought “this is going to be epic”, and it ended up being like the biggest bomb, and it stuck with you? Do you have one of those stories?

Acaster: I have so many. Every year, I write a whole new bunch of jokes, and a bunch of them end up in the show, and a bunch of them don’t. Of the ones that don’t, there’s always at least one that you’re like, “This is going to be great,” and it doesn’t work.

The first one I remember doing, so this is the only one that stuck with me because it was the first time it happened. I got a pen from the bank, and on the side it said, “I used to be a plastic cup,” is what it said on it. It was a recycled pen. At the time there was open spot I’d been doing for year, and I thought writing a routine … I can’t even remember what the joke was now.

It was about the main appeal of something is what it used to be, or something like that. I had this whole bit. I think I could write a much better version of it now. At the time, it was like if different things told you what they used to be. A table going, “I used to be a tree,” or whatever. I thought that would be so funny. There’s nothing funny about it.

The seed of the idea, there’s something there, and then the execution is just appalling. I was a new comic, and I didn’t know that. I knew there was something there. I often think it was my first experience of knowing there’s something funny in this, so I assumed it was then going to go really well. It just didn’t. You can see the audience going, “Oh, we liked the basic premise, and then you didn’t deliver at all on the payoff.”

That’s a routine that … I wouldn’t even want to write it now, to be honest. I don’t necessarily always love routines about signs and things that are written on stuff. At the time, I thought … and I wrote a long bit, as well. It was a long bit about this pen, and how it used to be a plastic cup. I tried it about five times. I gave it more opportunities than I would normally give something because I was so sure that these crowds were getting it wrong and not me. It was hard to accept I was clearly doing something wrong.

While you’re learning, I should say, to be a standup, there are so many things that you don’t understand why it didn’t work. You eventually learn that, “Oh yeah, the idea is fine. It’s just the execution isn’t funny enough.” The observation of a table telling you it used to be a tree is so obvious, and babyish, and route one. Actually, it would be a funnier routine if you managed to do that but work an observation in there as well.

Andrew Powell: That reminds me of your bit about “they” versus “he or she” and how men use both. It’s those interactions that no one is thinking about what the underlying meaning is, I guess, is where it really hits home.

James Acaster: Yeah. It’s the kind of routine that potentially you could get a lot of grief about it from men who feel like it’s a bit of an attack on them. It has them because the observation at the core of it is just true. Men do say he or she quite a lot. If the observation gets a big enough laugh, the rest of the routine will hold up.

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