Most comedians wouldn’t use a stand-up show to clear the name of Yoko Ono, repeatedly sing a Kettering Town FC chant or reveal their true identity as an undercover cop.
But then James Acaster isn’t like most comedians.
Over the last eight years the Kettering-born comic has established himself as one of the most playful and distinctive voices on the comedy circuit, and he’s built up a large following from all corners of the comedy-fan spectrum.
Some have been blown away by his six acclaimed solo shows on tour and at the Edinburgh Fringe, others have enjoyed his offbeat appearances on panel shows like ‘Mock the Week’ and ‘QI’, and thousands have discovered Acaster’s wonderfully silly YouTube series, ‘Sweet Home Ketteringa’.
It’s live on stage, though, where Acaster’s at his best. He’s officially one of the best comedians in the country, having been nominated for the most prestigious award in live comedy – the Edinburgh Comedy Award – for five consecutive years. A feat no other comic has achieved.
Ben Williams talked to the 31-year-old stand-up about Kettering, crime and crowdfunding.
For the last 5 years you have played Edinburgh Festival and immediately taken each of the shows on tour across the UK. How do you find the touring lifestyle?
‘It’s all right! The main reason I got into stand-up was because I wanted to tour solo shows in theatres. When I was a teenager I remember saying to my drama teacher that if I couldn’t be in a band I was just going to travel around Great Britain in a van. He called me an idiot, but I had a vision of myself walking through a service station car park and for some reason thought that’d be so cool. You can get a bit lonely on tour, but I quite like service stations.’
‘The Trelogy’ will see you performing these 3 shows across 3 consecutive nights at each venue. Are you looking forward to the challenge of remembering 3 full, different hours of material? How have you been preparing?
‘I’ve been preparing all my life. I never forget anything. I will never forget being asked this question or my answer to this question. And my answer is “by watching old recordings of the shows then repeating them out loud and then going on stage and saying them on stage also”. It’s a foolproof method and it cannot fail.
The shows over the last 3 years all follow a similar legal theme, but where did the ideas come from?
‘‘Recognise’ is a story about my life as an undercover cop posing as a stand-up comedian; that was a lot of fun to perform. ‘Represent’ sees me tackle jury duty, and ‘Reset’ throws me into witness protection. The three of them are a crime-themed trilogy that are all actually about uncertainty, and link to genuine difficulties in life – things like break-ups, understanding faith, and even comments on the referendum last year. It’s all quite subtle and whimsical but offers my own little bit of insight into the world.’
You’re not actually a cop, though. Do enjoy keeping a sense of mystery about what’s true and what isn’t on stage?
‘Some people have come up to me afterwards and gone: are you actually from Kettering? I quite like that. The undercover cop stuff was really about doubting who I was and having a bit of an existential crisis. What audiences really want is to hear about themselves, so it’s about taking the bit that they identify with and making that as true as possible.
Kettering has become a big part of your stand-up. Is the town intrinsic to your shtick?
‘I don’t know why Kettering is the thing I want to talk about, but there’s something about it. When I started comedy, I’d look around and go: what makes me different from other people? And no other comedians come from Kettering!’
What’s it like to play a hometown gig?
‘Great! I’ve taken every tour show to Kettering and they all turn up to see the local boy. The venue’s a church that’s now an arts centre, but it’s the church that I went to Cubs in, it’s where I had primary school services, it’s where my youth group met – so it’s been a massive part of me growing up. When I was in Cubs I wet myself during prayer time and it was the most humiliating time of my entire childhood, so it feels nice to go back there and be like, “I’m doing all right now!”’
You’ve also made an online travel mockumentary about Kettering, ‘Sweet Home Ketteringa’. Did you enjoy making it?
‘Oh it’s been so great to go out and make something with your friends, work really hard at it and learn a lot.’
For the second series you travelled to Kettering’s German twin town, Lahnstein. Did you have any problems out there?
‘We got very lucky with the people we met, and if that hadn’t have happened we would’ve been in a bit of trouble. The storyline was meant to be building up to the Lahnstein carnival. We thought it would be this amazing, happy carnival that could be the big finale. But it was so depressing, bleak and rainy that we had to take the storyline in a different direction.’
You bankrolled the second series by crowdfunding. Were you surprised by how many strangers were willing to finance it?
‘Yeah! I thought we’d be lucky to get anything. I was really encouraged by that. We felt like we owed it to them to do as good a job as we could and not just play it safe. We owed it to them to risk it being shit, almost.’
On TV you’ve become a semi-regular on ‘Mock the Week’. Do you enjoy doing the show?
‘It’s so much fun. It’s all my mates on it now, so you can just have a laugh with them.’
The show used to have a reputation for being quite aggressive. Has that changed?
‘That’s over now. When I did my first episode, I went there with invisible knuckledusters on, going, “Bring it!” But everyone was so great. Dara doesn’t let you flounce – if you throw something out there he doesn’t just watch it drop and move on.
Your fanbase has grown rapidly, partly thanks to TV. Are your fans nice people?
‘I think true fans always are. It’s nice once you get an audience where they’ve all seen you before and that’s their sense of humour. I feel like I’ve made it very clear what I do, and if people are coming not because they like you but because of other stuff, you can’t control that. A very early lesson I learnt when I started was I was trying to write what I thought audiences would like, and it was awful. Then about six months in I did a routine that I wanted to do and it was my first routine that worked all the time. So what I’ve learnt is, write a show that I want to do, otherwise it just starts to be rubbish!’
JAMES ACASTER PERFORMS THE TRELOGY ON THE 30TH OF MAY, 31ST OF MAY AND 1ST OF JUNE IN WHELAN’S (upstairs)