comedy review

James Acaster Hates How Much He Needs You to Love Him

James Acaster in Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999. Photo: James Acaster/Vimeo

James Acaster resents his audience. He resents some big portion of them, at least: the fans who get angry at him for swearing, the people who try to make jokes with him after a show, and especially the ones who engage with him on Twitter. In his new special, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, available on Vimeo, Acaster picks at the relationship between a comedian and an audience, laying out a fundamental strangeness about who he is and how this all works. “Audiences are the worst part of this job, I swear to high Christ,” he says. “Do you have any idea how demeaning this job is? Night after night, I’m the one out of everyone in the room who knows the most about comedy, and I’ve got to win your approval.”

In a vacuum, that line comes off as a familiar comedian’s complaint about audiences who are too sensitive, who whine about being “triggered” instead of laughing at a joke, but Acaster’s point is exactly the opposite. It’s not that the audience is too sensitive; it’s Acaster himself. The whole situation is mortifying, and the problem is not specific to comedy. But it is a key piece of the mesmerizing and frequently hilarious trap Acaster lays out over and over throughout his to-hour special. (Two hours! What are the Brits doing over there?!) As he says more than once, and as the title suggests, he hates himself. He’s terrified of rejection and he’s exhausted by his own need for acceptance and appreciation, but his job is to continue to put himself on a stage and risk rejection night after night. So here he is, stuck at the center of this inescapable morass that is also fantastic joke fodder in a hilarious routine: He needs his audience, he hates himself for needing them, and he is filled with self-loathing about the whole giant mess.

It’s the central idea that returns throughout, in big, wandering stories that a two-hour performance gives plenty of space to play out. One large setpiece from the first hour is a step-by-step recounting of Acaster’s experience on a celebrity edition of The Great British Bake Off, where he went viral for setting a tray of flapjacks in front of the judges and saying “Started making it. Had a breakdown. Bon appétit.” There’s a whole long backstory leading up to and following after that moment, which Acaster lays out in painstaking detail. He was terribly jet-lagged, for one thing, and things with his girlfriend weren’t great, and there was the mortifying realization that the Bake Off people recognized he was a bit fragile and started tip-toeing around trying to keep his spirits up. But Acaster’s construction of that story takes it from Here’s the backstory to my hilarious viral moment and threads it back through all the ideas he can’t stop plucking at. It becomes a joke about the disorienting, vulnerable experience of being famous, and the strange feeling of wanting to hide parts of yourself while also having a powerful urge to get approval by revealing those precise things.

The audience is one piece of that equation, one that Acaster can’t get away from and also can’t control. He can’t make people who like him less racist, and he can’t control the fact that sometimes he’s going to get onstage and an audience member is going to yell at him for being a liberal baby crying about Brexit. Where does that leave you when you desperately want audience approval and being good at your job requires it, but you also find some portion of your audience to be loathsome? What a trap for a comedian, but also for any artist: They love you, but you hate yourself, so their love isn’t worth anything.

The part Acaster can control, he’s realized, is what he says onstage, and how he tries to process that self-loathing. So he’s the butt of many of his own jokes. Certainly he’s at the losing end of much of that Bake Off section, and he also does several self-lacerating minutes on the (true!) fact that his girlfriend left him for Rowan Atkinson, the actor and comedian better known as Mr. Bean. In most cases, though, that initial set-up then turns around into something else. It’s not a joke about how he made a fool of himself on Bake Off; it’s a story about how he did realize that he needed help in that moment. It’s still a joke. Getting help was still absurd and very funny, largely because he could not (and still cannot) escape himself. The emphasis of that story shifts, though. It begins as self-loathing and turns into a more universal awareness that the situation is absurd, for him and for everyone involved.

At one point late in the performance, Acaster explains that he did not plan to write a “mental health” show. He has a long sequence about the time when his agent dropped him, which segues into a run about an unfortunate experience with a therapist, and as he’s transitioning out of that and into the show’s final button, Acaster says he’s about to get to the most embarrassing part of the show. It’s a story about shitting his pants at a steakhouse, and he hates telling it. “I can always sense a wave of disappointment,” he says. “‘That’s not the most embarrassing thing you’ve told! You’ve said some really personal stuff tonight!’” Sure, he says, but that other stuff’s not embarrassing. “It’s just normal, struggling, mental-health stuff.”

Acaster’s winding up to a big finish here, but the audience interrupts him, clapping and cheering at his insistence that discussing his mental health should be a typical, unembarrassing subject. “Well you’ve absolutely fucked up that joke, well done,” he continues. “Absolutely fucked up a joke with your wokeness, congratulations.”

There it is again, his impulse to push the audience’s desire for comfort and familiarity back in their faces. In the special, Acaster tells the audience that this has never happened before at this point in the show. No one’s ever clapped for that line about mental health, he says, and it’s completely ruined his rhythm leading up to the neat closing button he’s carefully built for the last several minutes. I didn’t see any of his other shows so I have no idea; it could just be a line! But Acaster does seem legitimately flabbergasted for a moment, and he smiles in a way that reads as genuine amusement about his closing bit going a little awry on this, the night the show’s being filmed. He’s got his giant pair of aviator sunglasses in his hand — he starts the show with them on, takes them off as the show gets underway, and he’s clearly planning to put them back on as a closing gesture for the ending. Now the ending’s gotten screwed up, though, and he does a small double take, not sure if now should be the time for the sunglasses or if the room needs to breathe a little longer.

He figures it out, and he sticks the landing, eventually maneuvering himself and the room back into a space where he can give that last wry, self-effacing closing joke. But that short break where the show cracks apart and Acaster has a chance to stitch it back together is an opportunity, and he takes advantage of it. There’s that familiar self-loathing, twisted up together with his disgust at the audience: He took the line a touch too far, he screwed up the rhythm, and now these idiots can’t even tell that they weren’t supposed to clap. But then the joke expands again, and he can’t help but crack a smile because yes, of course this happened. It’s all absurd. He puts the sunglasses on and finishes the show, with an almost-too-neat closing line that gets rapturous applause. Now if only his audience could never talk to him about any of this again, especially on social media, maybe Acaster could figure out how to live with that well-deserved approval.

James Acaster Hates How Much He Needs You to Love Him