I Saw James Acaster but Maybe Not His Show? (It Was Weird) – Comedy Review (#33)

A few months ago, I went to Gotham comedy club with my sister. The line-up was, as to be expected, of varying quality. But there was one guy in particular who was having a very bad night. In the audience’s defense, he really wasn’t that funny. His joke framing device was weird and the punchlines themselves contradictory. A drunk woman in the back asked for (well, demanded) some clarification. It got personal. The energy got real weird, and when his time was up, he just sort of shrugged and handed the mic back to the host.

I thought about this during James Acaster’s late-night performance of his show Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999 at Littlefield in Brooklyn last week.

Like Daniel Sloss, whose show X I reviewed here some number of weeks back, Acaster is a comedian from the UK (though English rather than Scottish) who I first saw thanks to the simultaneous release of multiple specials on Netflix. And, like Daniel Sloss, it was specifically a recommendation by Phillip DeFranco that pushed me to check them out.

The shows, collectively titled Repertoire, are very funny and I highly recommend checking them out. I hope this one ends up on Netflix too. But not, as with X, because I think everyone else needs to see the show; it’s more selfish than that: I want to see it. Because what I saw at Littlefield was not actually Cold Lasagna Hate Myself 1999. I’m still not entirely sure what it was.

Hi, by the way. Welcome to The Week I Review. My name is Mid-Tier Comedy Fan, and today I’m talking about… that show.

It was Acaster’s second show of the night. The first one ended less than thirty minutes before the doors of the second opened. And though the show didn’t start until 10:30, he came out onstage at 10 anyway.

He sat there in an iredescent jacket and sunglasses, holding his phone and a black iPod classic, changing the music wildly and frequently.

A gift and head of cabbage were placed on the stage. He opened a gift. It looked like Robitussin. He removed the head of cabbage. My companion, an Acaster super-fan, told me later that that was A Thing.

He played the first half of the song Euroleague by Paul Williams five times over that half hour, on each the lights would change and he would look out into the crowd and we’d wonder if it was starting early, but no. He’d go back to the stool and check his phone some more. He replied to a tweet my super-fan friend tagged him in.

As the starting time drew closer, the gaps between plays shrank; eventually he was literally cutting the song off mid-way to start it again.

Euroleague – at least in its first half; I haven’t listened to the second – is about having a not-so-great 2017 but pushing past it: getting back on the grind in 2018. While in 2019, it seems a little dated, it wouldn’t have felt so when he started doing this a year ago.

Eventually, we would learn the thematic connection to the song: that the 1999 in the show’s name really meant nothing and it was actually about 2017. He was going to tell us the story of his dirty rotten no good very bad year. A year where he lost a girlfriend, an agent, and… I think there was a third thing, but I don’t actually know, because we never heard the story. We never really heard any of the stories.

After the first extended bit of the show, a 20-minute-or-so run about a breakup he had in 2013, he did something interesting: he addressed us directly and asked us please not tweet about it. I’ve heard this before, and it’s pretty much always the same reason: because people tend to miss the point because most of us just… aren’t funny. He mentioned Twitter specifically, but I imagine he’d find it at least as frustrating for me to relay it here, so I won’t. Because I wouldn’t be able to do justice to his threading of that needle. Suffice it to say it’s a great story.

I don’t know if that line about Twitter was an official part of the show or a diss at Brooklyn (or maybe American audiences more generally), but it set a new tone with this particular audience, one that ultimately overtook the entire set.

Littlefield is a small venue, but it was crowded – being a sold-out show and all that. I was right up at the front of the standing-room-only crowd, probably 30 feet from the stage. About fifteen feet to my left were a trio of girls who couldn’t have been older than 22. Maybe they were even younger but had quality fakes. In any case, they were drunk. And they were talking. Not heckling or anything, like that woman at Gotham had been. Just… talking. To each other. Like no one else was even there, and there wasn’t a show going on.

This happened for a long time before anyone said anything, and it was ultimately James Acaster himself who did so. As he geared up to reenact a mental breakdown he had on a telephone call in 2017, he paused and asked them to stop. The worst offender attempted to explain herself: “I was putting on lipstick,” she said.

And, of course, there was disbelief. “It seems to me that that’s one of those activities that is made significantly harder by talking.” She said something else. He told her that he hated her. Then it got weird.

I was in full agreement, but apparently the crowd wasn’t. Or, that was the impression that he had gotten, because he immediately felt compelled to justify himself. He talked about differences between American and British audiences, and about the fact that he likes being in a job where can tell garbage people that he hates them and couldn’t we all be so lucky, and he was confused about why people were on her side when she was *still freaking talking* during this whole rant! And suddenly we’re fifteen minutes past the point where he was supposed to have started that phone call.

He tried to get back into the headspace, but then a bottle fell at the bar and the moment was lost. He gave up and decided to just skip the bit entirely. “We’ll go back to it at the end,” he promised.

We didn’t.

I assume that what followed, a bit about his home town of Kettering, was part of the show that we had tickets to see. But then, with half an hour left to go, he said that he was so glad the show was almost over before realizing there was a full third of the performance left to go. He then apologized for not sounding more excited that there was half an hour left. (I found this hilarious.)

But then, instead of going back to the bit that he cut off mid-thought, he thought for a few moments and said “I know what I’ll do. I’m gonna talk about Bake Off” – or, as Netflix has decided to call it state-side, The Great British Baking Show.

This… was new. James Acaster’s appearance on the Great Celebrity Bake Off aired just a few weeks ago, so an extended sequence about his experience behind the scenes couldn’t have been part of this show he had been performing for the past year.

What it actually felt like was something he was working out for his next special. And it was very funny. Sad, too – tonally fitting right in with the rest of the set – but as someone who is a big fan of the show, there was some interesting insight into it alongside all the humor and pathos. Still, it wasn’t totally ironed out: literally the last thing he said – the last joke of the entire show – was immediately recanted as an uncalled-for ad lib: a bit of Paul Hollywood body shaming.

At the very beginning of the performance, he made a bunch of remarks about quoteunquote Edgy comedians, folks like Ricky Gervais who have given up on trying to be clever, instead doubling down on lazily insulting marginalized groups. He did so while saying that he was not going to be one of them. Between the audience insults and the body-shaming, he admitted, he kinda was.

Which is funny.

I hadn’t watched the Bake Off episode yet. And doing so afterwards was fascinating. The context that Acaster gave for his genuinely bizarre appearance really adds to the whole thing. My favorite fact? He was stirring that crème pat for 45 minutes.

But perhaps just as interesting were the inconsistencies between his stories and the show itself: the specific details he added to certain moments were just straight-up wrong: he said that he was asked for six “Identical” cream horns during the technical but the host said no such thing; he was asked for Identical flapjacks in the Signature. He described a bit that the hosts did as they called for 30 minutes when that bit actually came at the half-way point.

Of course, these little details don’t matter. But they serve as a fascinating example of two things:

  1. How memory is unreliable. Every time a story is retold, it goes back into memory anew. So over time, as something is repeated, the details shift. It’s why eyewitness accounts are really rather unreliable in court proceedings. This fits with the bit about the hosts and their marshmallow gun, since the timing of that is irrelevant to the joke itself; and
  2. How little tweaks make a story more compelling. Here’s a fun fact: I intentionally fudged one part of the pre-show timeline that I discussed at the beginning of this video. While it is true that James Acaster did respond to a photo my friend tagged him in on Twitter before the show began, he actually did it while we were waiting outside for the doors to open. He was on his phone while he sat up on the stage, just not doing the thing I said he did. But the story flows better the way that I told it. Just as the “identical” thing does the way Acaster did.

When he finally left the stage, he restarted Paul Williams’ Euroleague. After a rough 2017, he’d be back on his grind the following year.

Its irrelevance to the performance that we had just seen felt like its own kind of joke, a coda to the show that we were supposed to see but never did.

James Acaster told us that, though it may have seemed like a uniquely memorable performance, he was going to have forgotten it by Friday. I don’t really doubt him. By the time this video goes up, he’ll have performed it at least a dozen more times. Those shows probably went better… or maybe they were worse. Regardless, they’ll all just blur together.

But you know who is never going to forget this show?


Eight Point Zero out of Ten

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