James Acaster had a breakout year in 2018, but he went through tough times to get there. He talks to Chris Schulz before his New Zealand tour.
"At the time, I wasn't doing well personally," says James Acaster near the end of our interview.
It's nearing midnight in his UK home, and the British comic is telling TimeOut how he created his four-part series of stand-up specials for Netflix.
"I was literally filming the shows, coming off between shows and sitting in the dressing room with my head in my hands, then walking out and doing the next one."
There's a nervous chuckle down the phone, followed by a pause. No wonder, because that's a lot to unpack, especially considering Repertoire was a bona fide hit.
"The funniest thing on TV this year", is how TimeOut described it in our list of the best shows of 2018. "Masterful stuff and bloody funny."
Its success turned Acaster into a mainstream comedy star, one who is about to tour America for the first time and is selling out much larger venues at home.
He appears on TV regularly, including stints on popular UK game shows Taskmaster and Hypothetical, and, thanks to his wry sarcasm, is often the funniest thing on them.
"It's what I've always wanted to do ... it's made all the difference", is how Acaster describes the Netflix effect on his career.
Here's another way to put it: Acaster's already added extra shows to his upcoming Australian tour, and he'll probably have to do the same when he lands here in May to headline the International Comedy Festival.
We'll talk about his new show, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 soon, but let's get back to Repertoire. Acaster admits he filmed his four-part Netflix special as a kind of farewell.
He'd had enough of life on the road. It had taken a toll. The specials were his out.
So he hired a venue, booked a cheap camera crew, and for two days, he performed all four shows every day. That's a lot of comedy, a lot of cameras, and a lot of people.
It's also a lot of pressure. How'd he cope?
Not well. "You go to the pub and get really drunk, immediately," he says, about the moment he finished each day.
But the results were so good, Repertoire already feels like a comedy classic, a showcase of a comedian at the peak of his skills.
Full of sight gags, crossover moments, dark personal stories and slow-burn punchlines, it felt like Acaster was, quite simply, showing off.
On stage, he was hilarious. Inside, he was struggling.
"Gradually, it piled up and I felt like, 'Maybe I can't handle this and maybe I'm a bit out of my depth'. It's almost too stressful to think, 'Okay, I've got to film these shows, I've got to go on tour and write a new show'. I couldn't handle any of that," he says.
"If I thought to myself, 'Look, I can just stop', it just feels much better. I was serious about it in my head ... because a lot of my stresses were coming from the world of stand-up anyway. I had problems with my management ... I was always on my own. I wanted to see my friends and family more."
So he opened his escape hatch. He filmed Repertoire in 2017, sold them to Netflix, and prepared to leave comedy. He regrets how much he charged for them.
"People are always like, 'You got four Netflix specials, that must have been a real big earner'," he says.
"I didn't get paid as much for my four specials as most people get for one special. The only thing that mattered was getting it on that platform where everyone could see them."
Everyone did see them. Repertoire debuted in March last year, and the tweets started immediately.
"I was really overwhelmed really early on that people really loved the shows. We weren't getting any negatives. That made me realise we'd done something people connect with the same way we do," he says.
"The tweets for quite a while just didn't slow down. That was very exciting."
What were they tweeting about? The gags. Like how Acaster spends much of his first episode on his knees. Or in the second when he reveals he shouts, "No more jobs!" before he goes to bed each night.
Then there's his song. People love chanting Acaster's made-up football chant, 'Kettering Town FC', back at him. "I get that sung at me in the street or tweeted a lot," he says.
Which brings us to now. The good news is that Repertoire did so well, Acaster decided to stick with comedy. His new show, which he'll bring here in May, will address everything he went through in 2017. It also ties in with a book he's working on.
"I'm doing this tour about the worst year of my life, and I'm releasing a book about the best year for music of all time, which was 2016. The reason why I got obsessed with 2016 was that I was having such a bad 2017, the way I dealt with it was by buying loads of albums from the previous year, and re-engaging with current music."
Will Cold Lasagne end up on Netflix? Acaster doesn't know. He doesn't have a deal yet. He does know what he's doing next, though, and that's coming to New Zealand for the Comedy Festival.
He'll be here for much of May, and there's just one thing on his to-do list: stocking up on treats.
"I'll have plenty of Whittaker's and plenty of L&P," he says, pointing out that he's down to his last block of Berry Biscuit in the fridge. "My favourite chocolate and my favourite soft drink both come from New Zealand. I'll ... do my annual stock-up and get loads of them and bring them back."
A little taste of the sweet life? You can hardly blame Acaster after what he's been through.
Who: James Acaster
What: Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999
Where and when: Performing as part of the International Comedy Festival, Auckland, May 4-11, Q Theatre; Wellington, May 14-18, Tapere Nui
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