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James Acaster Never Wants to Make an Audience Member Cry Again

James Acaster. Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; YouTube

Earlier this year, someone tweeted a clip with the caption “james acaster calling out transphobic comedians for two minutes straight.” The joke, which is from the opening of Acaster’s most recent, critically acclaimed special, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, went megaviral. In it, Acaster mocks comedians, like Ricky Gervais, who, when anyone criticizes them, don’t listen to the feedback and instead pat themselves on the back for having such “challenging” material. The rest of the special is less focused on the state of comedy, but it continues in this vein by exploring what is actually challenging in stand-up, like talking about difficult subjects and taking responsibility when you do so.  

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Acaster talks about how he writes material, figuring out how to talk about mental health onstage, his complicated relationship with his audience, and being on the The Great British Bake Off. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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It seems like the special is questioning what material is actually challenging and what comedians use their free speech for. This is explicitly the case with the joke about Ricky Gervais types.
At the time when I was writing it, I felt that a lot of people felt the same way I did. I thought I was doing an observational bit and just pointing out the inherent ridiculousness of comics who say, “Oh, I’m too challenging,” and “I’m challenging the status quo by saying this.” The status quo is what you just said — it’s small-mindedness and bigotry and stereotyping of minorities and marginalized groups. That has been the status quo for centuries. And what you are doing is you are talking like people have talked your entire life. When you were a baby, people had this point of view, and the point of view that you’re challenging is the progressive one that is actually challenging you. And you don’t like being challenged. You’re doing this routine.

These people also say, “I’m just trying to start a conversation. I’m just having a debate.” It’s like, yeah, and this person is responding to you and you’re trying to shut it down by saying, “I’m just trying to have a conversation.” You’re not responding to them. So, you don’t know how conversations work. You don’t know how debates work. All you want to do is say a very old-fashioned point of view that and no one can challenge it. Everything that you’re saying about wanting to challenge people, wanting to have a conversation, free speech being important, is bullshit, because all of your actions are the opposite of it. So, therefore, this is ripe for comedy, because what you are doing is ridiculous. It’s funny to do a routine about this.

I would find that sometimes I would get people who disagree with me being very vocal about that. I had to kick a man out because he was shouting hate speech at the top of his voice — which is different from freedom of speech, by the way. Free speech and hate speech are different things. So, yeah, originally it was like, Well, this is just a routine that I’m sure most people can relate to. And even if they can’t relate to it, it’s just pointing out how ludicrous something is. And so hopefully that will get them onboard to laugh at that. And that was it.

I would be surprised if I had successfully changed anyone’s mind in a way, because I feel it’s pretty naïve to think that, especially these days. People just get more and more uncomfortable with change. But the main thing was for it to be for people who feel the same way I do, and to just do that routine, because there’s so many routines which are the opposite of it. You just want to put a routine out there going, Actually, I disagree with that, and enough of that comedy, please.

In the show, you give a disclaimer that what you’re talking about is in the past and that you’ve already dealt with it. There are certain comedians who have a different approach — “Let me talk it out onstage” — but you intentionally didn’t want to give an audience your raw experience of that. Can you talk about that and the instinct some comedians have to use the stage for therapy?
It’s not that I don’t think it’s the right thing to do; it wasn’t the right thing to do for me. I want there to be a healthy boundary between me and the audience. Doing a show like this, where I’m talking about my real life and my struggles with mental health in the past, people can feel like they are now entitled to step over those boundaries and speculate as to whether your mental health actually is okay now. I don’t want to encourage that in any way. And I definitely don’t want to open up to them about stuff that I haven’t opened up to people in my life about. If I’m talking to an audience about it, then I’ve also talked to my family about it. I’ve talked to my friends about it. I’ve talked to a therapist. I’ve dealt with it with myself.

Beyond having appropriate boundaries, there will be people in the audience who are going through stuff themselves, and I don’t want to go up in front of them before I’ve got a good handle on things. I don’t want to encourage what can sometimes be quite a romantic phase when you’re inside the worst part of things. Sometimes when you are struggling, you can have a tendency to romanticize it and see yourself as some sort of, like, Hemingway. I don’t want to be onstage being like, “I’m a mess, and doesn’t that make me such a great, mysterious artist?” And then the people in the audience might think, That’s me too. I will continue to go down that path and not get help.

You can’t sort it out onstage. You can probably develop inappropriate relationships with audience members who come up to you after shows, want to talk to you about it, and then the codependency stuff happens and all this mess could arise from that. So as long as you’re not trying to fix yourself and it’s more cathartic, it’s probably fine.

Though people have been talking about their struggles with mental health in the States for a while now, I get a sense that it’s still fairly new in Britain. Especially the part where you talk about calling the Samaritans, after your experience on The Great British Bake Off. How did you approach it?
I’d already been doing a lot of the routines that touched on mental health, though I didn’t deliberately set out to do a mental-health show. Those things happened to me, and it was all I wanted to talk about onstage. The more that I did it onstage, the more that it got treated like a mental-health show. People would either come up to me after to say, “Thanks for talking about that,” or people would heckle during the show. After I said what I say about having suicidal thoughts, I had people heckling me “Man up!” or saying I was a crybaby. Things like that would happen and you go, Oh, this is a bigger deal than I thought it would be. When that happened, you kind of get a bit like, Okay, there is some responsibility here. 

I had a work-in-progress show, and during a routine about my agent dropping me — and a lot of that is about being gaslit by my agents — I was still filling out the routine and it was getting nothing. When that bit got nothing, it just felt like I was oversharing with the audience; I was telling them a really personal thing that felt heavy and depressing for them to hear. There was a man in the front row of a very small group of 50 people in a very small room. He was right on the front, virtually in my lap. And he just sat in the silence, until he said, “It’s hard, isn’t it?” And I thought he was saying, “Stand-up comedy is hard and you’re doing it badly.” I got slightly defensive, but then he was like, “I’ve been through some similar stuff recently.” I was like, “Oh, I’m sorry about that.” And then he started crying. I gave him a hug, because I thought that’s what I should do. So, it’s just me and a man onstage hugging, and the rest of the audience is just sitting there.

Afterwards I was like, I have to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I have to make sure that that man or whoever in the audience doesn’t feel like that, and that I haven’t just pushed them to the point where they relive their own trauma and start crying. That was the big thing of going, Okay, how are you doing this routine? Make sure it’s funny, because if it’s funny, it’s relatable to that guy. If I make the jokes relatable and I’m not laughing at myself and going, “Haha, I was feeling bad,” and instead it’s the situation and how we’ve let it get to this point. It’s the ludicrousness of how it’s got to this point where no one’s helped me, and it’s more of a reflection of the society we live in, and therefore, everyone’s in on the joke in the moment; no one’s been laughed at. And those people hopefully won’t cry and feel like, Now all I’m reminded of is a bad time in my life.

I stumbled into that Samaritans bit. Luckily, the first time I did it, I realized the joke is that I have been on Bake Off and I went to talk to Samaritans while covering up the fact of being on Bake Off. The joke in that situation is I had to lie and say I was a baker, which is what really happened. In the special, I kind of undersell saying I called them. I do it as a faraway thing, and I move quite quickly onto the next thing. And I put that line in there as well: “If you’ve done it before, you know that the first time you do it, it’s like this …” So then you’re not assuming that the majority of the audience don’t call. Because normally in a lot of comedy, the punch is down, and it assumes everyone in the audience is like the comic, and the comic is “normal” and doesn’t have anything “wrong” with them or weird about them: “We can laugh at minorities or other vulnerable people or whoever, because that’s not us.” But the fact of the matter is those people are in the room, and you’re currently making them feel like they’re weird and they’re sacks of shit. And actually going like, “Those of you who have done this, you know that this …” Suddenly the people who haven’t done it, you’re not making them feel like outsiders, because they already think they’re in the majority because that’s what the society tells them. But it will make them go, Oh, those people are here. So, actually, it’s probably quite rude to laugh in their face.

You learn to try to flip the assumption of what’s “normal” and that everyone in the audience is the “normal” person, because actually, none of them are. They’ve all got something that they’ve been made to feel ashamed of. And it’s much more interesting to try and go, That thing that you’ve been made to feel ashamed of? That’s mad that they did that to you, and actually, you’re not weird. The ludicrous thing is the system that’s made you feel like that. We can laugh at that, but we’re not laughing at you because you’re actually all right, and you don’t need to go away from this gig feeling even worse than before and feeling like you’re more on your own than you were before.

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