James Acaster Is More Personal Than Ever in His New Comedy Special

James Acaster in Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999. Photo: YouTube

In January, a clip went viral of a comedian calling out Ricky Gervais for his transphobic material. “Edgy comedians — no one tells them what they can and can’t say. They walk straight onstage, top of their specials sometimes, do ten solid minutes just slagging off transgender people. Just straight out of the gate,” says the comic. “And if people on the internet get upset about it, the comedian’s always like, ‘Bad luck! That’s my job. I’m a stand-up comedian … What’s the matter, guys? Too challenging for you?’ Ah, yeah, because you know who’s been long overdue for a challenge: the trans community. Oh, they’ve let their guard down for too long if you ask me.” The clip has been viewed over a million times, and it’s from a much-anticipated new special by the English comedian James Acaster.

The show was filmed in December 2019 at the EartH theater in London after an extended world tour that included the West End. The title, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, is not explained in the special itself; rather, it’s a reference to jokes that were cut before the taping (seen here on The Jonathan Ross Show), which feels uniquely fitting for this delightful hodgepodge. After a one-night-only release on in December 2020, Acaster announced today that the show will finally be available for purchase on Vimeo this Friday, March 5.

You may also know Acaster as the guy in the Great British Bake Off meme who said the now internet-famous line “Started making it. Had a breakdown. Bon appétit.” In fact, a decent chunk of Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 is about his appearance on that show, culminating in the moment he realized he had become a meme. He was a guest on a celebrity episode in 2019 to raise money for charity, and he talks through the filming, how miserably jet-lagged he was for the taping, and his dismal attempt at making flapjacks for judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. “I don’t remember saying this, but it’s apparently how I talk,” he says in the special. “I’m a meme in America now.” He exhales deeply. “I’m an American meme.”

Acaster received a record-breaking five consecutive nominations for Best Comedy Show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 2012 to 2016, and he released the four-part Netflix comedy special Repertoire in 2018. He is a frequent guest on British panel shows and is the co-host of the podcast Off Menu. His comedy style is eclectic and experimental, featuring act-outs, props, and long stories in addition to crowd work and one-liners. He’s playful yet cagey and keeps the audience at arm’s length. “Favorite number? Umpteen,” he says in Repertoire. “It’s a curious number because it sounds big … but it’s in the teens.” He frequently plays with comedic forms onstage, whether by spending the first 15 minutes of his Netflix special on his knees or by weaving fiction into his comedy. It’s common for comedians to exaggerate for the benefit of a good story, but it’s rare to see pure fabrication, as when Acaster insists he’s actually an undercover cop masquerading as a comedian or when he tells stories about his time in witness protection.

Cold Lasagne doesn’t feature props or stories of his days on the force. For the first time, Acaster talks frankly onstage about his real life. The show is full of confessional stand-up covering stories of breakdowns and breakups. It’s clear that his previous avoidance of getting personal has led to a surplus of material — a confessional floodgate of sorts. Acaster has always been prolific, but this show feels as if it could easily have been three specials. As it is, Cold Lasagne clocks in at around two hours — split down the middle by a 20-minute intermission — which is long even by British comedy standards. And in case two hours isn’t enough, Acaster is releasing an additional 40-minute bonus show on Vimeo alongside Cold Lasagne, titled Make a New Tomorrow.

In Cold Lasagne, Acaster establishes early on that he’ll be dissecting the best and the worst years of his life: 1999 and 2017, respectively. It’s clear this special took many different forms in the touring stage, and not just through the absence of the cold-lasagne story. There’s a loose thread of the 1999/2017 theme throughout, but it’s a framing device that no longer really serves the special; it has become something more complex and expansive. That said, if you aren’t bothered by a little casual chaos, all this messiness yields a performance that is dynamic, earnest, and perhaps Acaster’s best work to date.

If there is a theme running through Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, it’s breakups — specifically, people breaking up with Acaster. There are no less than five stories about relationships ending, from those with girlfriends to agents and therapists. One story is about his agent dropping him after a fight. In an effort to be fair, he tells the audience he doesn’t have time to tell both sides of the story, and because his former agent isn’t there to defend himself, Acaster has decided to tell only the agent’s side. “I ruined everything. And I did it,” he says with a pause, “for a laugh.”

While each breakup story has its own magic, one stands head and shoulders above the rest: Acaster does a good 20 minutes about the time he was left for Rowan Atkinson. Yes, Acaster’s ex-girlfriend left him for Mr. Bean. “As if this happened to you, you’d keep your mouth shut,” he says, laughing. “It’s my job to say things that are funny, and the funniest thing that’s ever happened to anyone happened to me.”

“This fell into my lap,” he continues. “I’ve written four solo shows in the intervening years about being an undercover cop, and my real life was this.” He’s quick to point out that he’s the butt of this joke and that he harbors no ill will toward the couple, but that doesn’t lessen the strength of the words “She left me for Bean.”

“They’re a proper good couple. She met and fell in love with Rowan Atkinson. We’re not here to make fun of that,” he says. “But also — and this is very important — I got left for Mr. Bean. And those two things can coexist.”

Acaster isn’t the type of comedian to make things easy for himself. This special is a true feat, and it simultaneously feels like a homecoming and an entirely new chapter in his career. As he continues to gain traction here in the States, Cold Lasagne may be what launches him over the top. It’s brimming with some of his best, sharpest bits ever and poses an interesting question about what shape his career will take next. And even if it is a loose thread, there’s something remarkable about watching someone list all the reasons any year other than 2020 was their worst.

James Acaster Gets Personal in His New Comedy Special