Every creative art form, be it music, comedy, writing, is built on the average; the good, the entertainers, the steady-goers. But every so often, through the mass of the good, emerges an artist poised with so much potential that their rise to the top seems inevitable. In the world of stand-up comedy James Acaster is one such man. With his unique brand of hyper-trivial comedy Acaster has forged a new path in comedy and his steadily growing loyal fan base are following his every move.
Stand-up Comedy has never been so diverse. On one end of the scale we have Michael McIntyre packing arenas as Live at the Apollo transforms comedians into rock stars and on the other you have the likes Simon Munnery and Daniel Kitson, who make every attempt to avoid the limelight in pursuit of higher artistry. The breadth between these two poles is astonishing in its scope and as such the middle ground of comedy has become a very tricky thing to define. In this no man’s land you can find comedians who are influenced by Peter Kay as well as the Dogme 95 movement. Notions of alternative and mainstream comedy blur into one as comedians focus on the most important thing of all; making people laugh. It is this calibre of comedian that Little Wander, the people responsible for the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, are inviting to the Cardiff Comedy Scene. With the promise of Sarah Pascoe, Nick Helm and Josie Long already on the horizon, the first of many exciting comedy gigs in Cardiff kicked off this month with three-time Edinburgh award nominee James Acaster.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Acaster tends to focus on the hyper-trivial and the seemingly insignificant details of a story. No topic is inconsequential to Acaster as he dissects innocuous ideas with a philosophical rigour that Immanuel Kant himself would be proud of. The result is a truly unique type of silly comedy that somehow manages to linger with the audience; a type of comedy that can be enlightening in the most unlikely of ways. Needless to say, this style has won James a steadily growing loyal fan base across the country and his arrival in Cardiff was met with a packed house in Clwb Ifor Bach. I was fortunate enough interview James before the show and ask him a few questions about his method, his life and his comedy.
Q: How’s the tour going so far?
Yeah it’s been good, I’m enjoying it. Each tour gets a bit more fun and this one has been a little bit more fun than the last one. Audiences are showing up knowing what to expect rather than just taking a punt.
Q: How much does this show differ from your previous shows?
With each one you just get more people who have seen you before so they are coming to see you do what you do, rather than going to see someone who is meant to be good, which doesn’t mean anything. If they’ve heard in a magazine that something is meant to be funny and they go and see that, they are taking a massive risk, much bigger than they think they are. If people come who know what you do, it’s more likely they’ll enjoy it.
Q: Do you think that because your brand of comedy is so distinctive that it perhaps divides audiences more than the average comedian?
I don’t know, I’m midway between an alternative comedian and a really mainstream comedian- both audiences can like me but when they have a whole night of me it depends you know? If you like really mainstream stuff, this show starts with me kneeling down straight away and it seems some people find that off putting. I think some people just want me to come on and tell jokes so when I go on and just kneel down they go, “Oh here we go- this will be hard work”.
Q: Brian Logan described you as the volcano of British comedy that’s about to blow but do you want to blow? Is the sky the limit or do you feel like your style of comedy is suited to intimate settings?
I don’t really know what the “about to blow” stuff really means. That stuff has been said about so many people over the years. I think you’ve got to take it as it comes and make the call. If I was to end up in big rooms it would be because the material suits it. I think if I keep writing the shows I’m writing, which I’m going to do, then it will just get the audience it deserves. I think everything does- if your stuff doesn’t suit big environments you’re not going to suddenly get a big audience. Someone like Stewart Lee can sell 1000 seaters now and that because he’s been gradually building it up over the years. If I was to suddenly get those kind of numbers they couldn’t possibly all be people who know who I am and what I do; they would just be people who are going to see what’s meant to be good and then they’d get a bit annoyed. At the minute I’d rather fill a small venue with people who want to see me. If you start thinking about career stuff rather than the comedy then your aim is a bit screwed. You can’t second guess that stuff; what people would like, what critics would like, what awards would like- you’ve got to do what you’ve done all along.
Q: I suppose it’s always dangerous when you treat comedy as a means to an end.
Yeah you can’t think, “Oh so people are starting to like it now so what do they want?”, because you got where you are doing what you wanted not what they wanted. They don’t know what they want, if you get a mainstream audience, they think they know what they want and you can get an easy laugh from them somehow but if you start doing that all the time you’re going to hate your own stand-up. I feel lucky that just by doing exactly what I want to do I got somewhere that I didn’t think I’d be, so I’ll just carry on for now.
Q: One of your most well-known routines focusses on a friend of yours who cheated on his girlfriend on a night out. The whole thing pivots on your disapproval of the situation. Would you say that it’s much harder to make a sincere thing like that funny as opposed to a controversial subject?
It’s always a thing that the funniest character in a sitcom is the most ignorant; always. It’s funnier to laugh at that person and maybes there’s a chance that they’ll say something that you’ve thought about but would never dare admit. Even the most liberal person probably sometimes has slightly right-wing thoughts and then you hear that voice through a character or a stand-up and it’s more likely to make you laugh. But then with an example of someone cheating on someone: we all know you shouldn’t do that and so doing stand-up about it is a little harder. I did it once and another comic, an older comedian, told me that I came across as judgemental. But I knew that it made me angry, and I decided to do something about it. But I wouldn’t say that I always do sincere stuff. I often disguise it anyway.
Q: You started doing stand-up in 2008 and it’s been an incredibly fast rise in terms of comedy. Was your style something that you began with, or was it something you had to feel your way towards?
When I started out I could improvise a little bit but I couldn’t write material and I had no idea what my persona was. The first six months were horrible, I was just throwing stuff out there and one night it would work really well and the next night it would go really badly. Some routines I was trying shock comedy because that was what everyone was doing at the time. It took me about six months to find a routine that I liked that worked consistently and then it took me another year to work out that I wanted to do stand-up as a job. Originally I was just doing it a lot so that I wouldn’t end up just kicking about doing nothing. I didn’t go to university and I went straight from school to being in a band and then the band stopped and I got a part time job in a kitchen. I think because I wasn’t looking at it like it was a career all I would focus on was how good an actual stand-up I was. I started to get really obsessed with the ides of persona and how you come across on stage and creating that comic character that people want to see. I’ve never really completely known who I am but after about two years I had a better idea.
Q: You’ve spoken before about your time as a musician and how your genuine ambition was to be the best band of all time. Have your ambitions changed since you’ve moved into comedy?
I definitely would like to be more than just a comic gigging around who once they stop doing comedy everyone just forgets about them and that’s it. I would like to do something that really is different because that’s what excites me about being creative; it’s about trying to come up with something that no one else is really doing and stand-up is great for that because it really rewards you in that respect. If you’re doing something that’s abit different people go “oh look at this guy, that’s pretty good”, whereas with music people just sort of go “we don’t know what to do with you.” Also with the band, when I look back at it I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have because I was always thinking about the future and so I never enjoyed it as much as I should have. So when we decided we were going to split up we recorded an album in a studio for a month and it was one of the best months of my life because I wasn’t thinking about the future for once I was just thinking about doing what we were doing there and then and making that as good as we could. So with my stand up I just try and concentrate much more on the here and now. I love stand-up now way more than I ever loved being in a band. I really enjoy it and I’m living much more in the moment as well as trying to do something I’m really proud of.
Q: Your style has been described as the hyper-trivial. Do you think that it’s just a funny comic device or is there something more to it?
To begin with it’s just who I am anyway. The reason behind it is just because thats the kind of person I am. My first routine I ever had that worked consistently was about bearing a grudge against a guy at Kettering train station and it was because I was getting obsessed with this little thing. It took me a while to work out that that’s why that routine worked. To begin with, it’s always because I find it funny. When I’m doing a show I start writing inthe autumn and work all the way through to Edinburgh and sometimes after Edinburgh in a tour; the more you write it the more you realise how these things mirror what’s going on in your actual life. Once in this show that I’m touring now, I choose to reveal that actually this is all about something personal in my life. All my other shows as well have been about bigger things and I haven’t revealed it to the audience because I don’t think that it’s necessary for the comedian to do so, it’s often patronising and ultimately they don’t need that sort of lesson from a comic. This year I felt like they were owed some sort of explanation about what the show was about and why it existed.
Q: Who influenced you and who would you say are impressing you now on the comedy scene?
The first comic I got into was Lee Evans but I thought there was no way I could do that but then when I saw Ross Noble and Eddie Izzard it made me realize that you can talk about whatever you like and that seems fun. Then the more I got into stand-up the more I got into people like Dave Gorman and Wil Hogson and people who did really long engaging stories where the jokes sort of came from the situations. Now I feel like I’m really into my peers who inspire me. I love watching Anish Kumar, Helm, Widdicombe, John Kearns and people like that, you know, people who are my friends who I find funny. But also you get inspired by things that aren’t comedy like; if I’m honest then my favourite comic character of all time is the Rock. Just the way he would take himself so seriously but he was an absolute idiot.
James Acaster is currently touring the country with his show Recognise.
Keep up to date on Little Wanders comedy show at Clwb Ifor Bach right here