Last summer, Conan O’Brien introduced his audience to a young British comedian named James Acaster. Wearing a shirt to match his slightly unkempt red hair, the comic embraced his heritage (and thick accent) without a single measure of caution. “Good to see you all! My name is James. I’m from England,” he began. “So it won’t surprise you that this first joke is about apricots.” Of course, telling jokes about apricots is not exclusively a British thing, but Acaster managed to wittingly convince Conan‘s mostly American crowd that it was while simultaneously poking fun at himself for doing so.
Acaster is a comedy star over in the U.K., having appeared regularly on popular panel shows like Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats, as well as debuting multiple crowd-pleasing and critically-acclaimed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the past few years. Over time, the “trilogy” of shows he performed across successive festivals — Recognise, Represent, and Reset — were combined into a much larger set piece that included a new fourth show, Recap. Acaster spent most of 2017 revising, performing, and perfecting this massive comedy project, which is now available to stream on Netflix as Repertoire.
Uproxx spoke to Acaster about the trials and tribulations of putting together what amounts to four hours of bingeable stand-up comedy, and whether or not he thinks viewers should watch it all in one go. “If you watched all four straight through in one viewing, then all the things that link the shows together would be a lot more apparent,” he says. Then again, he admits, “however they want to watch it is up to them.” Either way, Acaster explains, it all comes down to the brilliance of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and fan theory videos on YouTube. (We’re not kidding.)
Repertoire consists of shows you’ve workshopped and performed at Edinburgh and elsewhere for years. Was there a grand plan for bringing this all together, or were you doing this one show at a time?
I was just doing it one show at a time originally. Then the more shows I wrote to take to Edinburgh, the more I felt like they belonged together stylistically, and then I decided I was going to film them all at the same time. I actually was just going to film three of them. The first three, that is, but then I decided it was better to do all of them. I needed to relearn them all, figure them all out to get them looking as good as they could be. While I was doing that, I linked them together more — spotted more points where I could link them together — and then wrote the fourth one as a result of all that work. It helped tie them all together completely.
If I’m not mistaken, you filmed all of these in a single string of shows on one night, yes?
It was two days, but we filmed them all twice for safety. So I did them all in one day, yes. Then the next day, we did them all again. We started filming at like three o’clock in the afternoon and finished at about midnight.
You were basically doing a giant show with small breaks. Most comics will jump around from venue to venue in a single night, doing shows for just as many hours, but the same routine. How did you prepare for this?
I toured it most of the year beginning in January, then we filmed it in September. So from January through to September, all I was doing every week was performing those shows and touring around the country. I went to comedy festivals everywhere and did those shows, getting them completely cemented into my head. On the days we filmed it, I lucked out by getting a really good team who knew how to make shows. They were an amazing crew. With them working behind the scenes, I didn’t have to think about anything else but going on, performing the shows, and having fun while I was performing. I was really lucky. This team made it ten times easier than it would have been otherwise.
I imagine your audience for each night of filming was there for all of it, but they chose to be there. And while many will watch TV at home for four hours straight, you’re still making a big ask of them with Repertoire.
Yeah, you just kind of hope. I think that anything you can do all year round is great. You just hope that the right people show up. The people who want to see it. The people who share a sense of humor with you, whether you’re just doing a show or filming one. When I watch comedy specials at home, I actually don’t care that much about how the audience are reacting. I care about the performance from the comic and the quality of the show. So I just tried to focus on that the entire time. Otherwise, I knew in my head I’d be way too critical of the audience reaction and whether I was any good in that moment. I’d think about it way too much if I let myself. I’ve done all of these jokes a million times. If I don’t give the best that I possibly can, it’s no use in the moment to be like, “Oh no, this is getting recorded and it’s going to go out on Netflix and everyone will see it.” But if my performance is actually good, then the jokes will come across whether or not the cameras are there.
This reminds me of Netflix’s series The Standups, which collects half-hour routines and presents them in an easily bingeable way. Do you have an idea about how you want people to watch it? Should they watch it all at once, or take their time? Or does it even matter?
I would like them to watch all of them, but however they want to watch it is up to them. I think people would get a lot out of sitting down and watching all four hours. If you watched all four straight through in one viewing, then all the things that link the shows together would be a lot more apparent. I don’t always flag them up, but if you had just watched one and then went on to watch another, you’ll definitely see that there are a lot of back references. You’d go, “Yup, I watched that an hour ago and I know it.” The fourth show is quite heavy on the callbacks. If you’ve just watched the first three shows, then you’ll completely get the fourth one immediately.
If you space them out one week at a time, you might get to that fourth one and go, “I know that was something he said before, but I can’t get what it was.” My real hope is that by the end of the fourth one, people will want to go back and re-watch the others. It’s something that, when I was growing up, I love to do — watching and re-watching stand-up specials for all the callbacks and connections. Giving people a reason to go back and watch it again, and having it sink in the second time or third time around because there’s even more information they can pick up on, is wonderful. That really excites me.