Almost three years after his hit stand-up miniseries Repertoire hit our screens on Netflix, the time was positively ripe for James Acaster to release more stand-up to the world. 2020 has been the year of streaming live shows, so a better time there could not be for Acaster to announce a one-off live stream of his critically acclaimed live show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 for the good people of Great Britain. With a nation holding its breath for the comedy equivalent of the highly-anticipated second album, I couldn’t wait to see if his 2019 show would stand up (pun very much intended) to his career-defining Repertoire.
Probably the wisest move James Acaster made in writing this new material, was that he, somewhat counterintuitively, didn’t double down on what made him a roaring success. Instead of noticing that his audience clearly liked crazy and fictitious, and trying desperately to recreate the glory of his first ludicrous narrative of the undercover cop, he seemed to welcome us into the world of the real James Acaster. The man behind the corduroy. With more intimate and honest stories to tell, you might wonder whether the overall style of his comedy had shifted too, but at its core, this was still a perfect example of the ridiculous comedy we’ve come to love Acaster for. Coming out of the gate swearing profusely and telling all the old people and ‘Chrizzos’ to get out of his audience, he reassured us immediately that he hadn’t lost his whimsy.
With the release of his book, and subsequent podcast, Perfect Sounds, it has been no secret that Acaster had a rough year in 2017. He’s never been secretive about it, but he has also never yet addressed what exactly happened publicly. Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 goes through every rumour you’ve heard about James Acaster’s personal life, from being left for Mr Bean to be a diva on The Great British Bake Off. To properly address these myriad events in his personal life, there was no other way than to invite his audience into a more intimate space, but he walks the line between intimate and performative perfectly. After establishing very clear boundaries through his fictionalised narrative in Repertoire, writing more personal material was a risky maneuver, but Acaster managed it very well. Whilst still making sure to address everything his fans had been waiting to hear about, he injected his stories with a dose of ludicrousness so as to keep everything light and comical, and most importantly to keep us guessing as to what is really true.
The most surprising impact of Acaster’s newfound sincerity was the credence accorded to mental health. As he details his mental health struggles throughout 2017, and his experiences of therapy as well as emergency mental health treatment, James Acaster takes on a serious issue with his trademark whimsy, but he never mocks mental health. Mental health is treated as an incredibly important and delicate issue, and he encourages his audience to talk about it openly and break the stigma surrounding mental health issues. The butt of the joke is never mental health in general, only his own mental health experiences. If anything, the occasional uncomfortable pause from the audience as we momentarily worry about James makes the conversation even funnier, as he eventually reminds us that it would be ridiculous if the audience at EartH in Hackney were who he turns to first when he’s struggling. Not only is this focus on mental health incredibly refreshing, but it also marks a revolutionary turn in comedy. Comedy has contributed to the deconstruction of stigmas and prejudices in the world before, but here we are witnessing the deconstruction of the stigma surrounding mental health. By making jokes about bad therapists and learning what gaslighting means, I felt that Acaster freed his audience up to laugh about something that is universal but seldom discussed. He encourages us to speak, and joke, openly about our experiences of mental health and therapy, and he leads by perfect example.
As is inevitable in any live show, of any kind, there were one or two bum notes. The lengthy introduction surrounding Brexit felt like Acaster had spent a little too much time with his pal Nish Kumar, and didn’t say anything particularly new, but even this moment paid off perfectly by the end of the show. Moving away from his farfetched fiction that is his Repertoire era, James Acaster kept every element that had made him a household name, whilst opening himself up to a more honest, serious conversation with an audience who felt ever more trusted by one of the best, and most original, stand-up comics on the scene right now.