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.
Let’s return to something you said earlier, about writing the fourth show after returning to, and reviewing, the first three. I imagine the writing of Recap was the most work-intensive of all of these because of that.
When I was touring them, I was originally touring the first three shows. I’d do three nights in the theater with them. Recognize was on the first night, Represent on the second, and Reset on the third. Then I came up with Recap while I was on tour with those, and after a while, I would do that on the third night as well. Ultimately, the show order became Reset in the first half and Recap in the second. The audiences were changing from one night to the other, so that made it a good test for the fourth show, to see if all the callbacks were hitting and people were realizing what they were and enjoying them. Especially if they hadn’t seen the show just before it. It ended up being better than the third one, which meant that I didn’t have to explain the context of why I was a lollipop man and stuff like that.
But I also realized that audiences would have definitely had to know of, or at least seen, the first two shows. So that was also a good test of whether those bits would spoil their enjoyment or not, and they didn’t. I knew when I filmed them that those references would get more of a response, but I wasn’t entirely sure how it would turn out because that was the first time I’d ever done all four shows for the same audience, when we filmed them all one after the other. When I was doing all the callbacks, I didn’t know what they would and wouldn’t get. I was really pleasantly surprised by the reactions, though. I think it excited people, because they were in on the joke when watching Recap after having seen the first three. It’s something people aren’t used to seeing in stand-up.
In a listing I found for the taping, Recap‘s show description mentions your love for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at least three times. Did you write that?
Yeah, that was me. [Laughs.] Originally, when I was doing a weekend comedy festival in Wales, the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, I was originally just doing the first three shows and asked to add the fourth. They asked me to quickly write a blurb for the program. I think they were going to push the program out the next day. So I just blurted out about how I basically watched Rogue One and loved it, just to fill a gap in my show’s story. When I went to The Tabernacle, I thought that would still work. That might as well be the blurb then. Everyone there had seen the other three shows, and they were already there for them and the fourth one. And it made complete sense to me, because I loved Rogue One. I really liked watching it, and how the filmmakers took a story that we all knew, but specifically a part of the story that we all know but had never seen, and told us that story. I wanted to do that with my show. I said I was going to do that, but without talking about doing it. It’s a challenge, and it’s fun.
I think did it like that also because I watch a lot of fan theory videos on YouTube. I really enjoy them. I watched a whole thing about the Pixar, this fan theory about how all of the Pixar films happen in the same universe. I mean, it’s clearly bullshit. But to them, it’s not just all happening in the same universe — all of Pixar is essentially one single story. If you put the Pixar films in the right order, they’re just telling one story. I was like, “I really love this and it’s great how much work the fans have put into this theory to make it hold together.” I thought, “If they can do that with something that they didn’t even write and make it make sense, I can probably do it with my own shows. I could go back to them and try to figure out how the first three are actually one story.” It was a mixture of things that I like, anyway. Why can’t I do this with my own stuff?
The Rogue One bit is a great comparison, but I love the idea that Recap is essentially your own fan theory video for the first three specials. Switching gears, you’ve said in previous interviews that you write the kind of comedy you would like to see. Tying this back to what you said earlier about the kind of stand-up you like to watch and re-watch, I’m curious… whose comedy do you prefer? Or, whose comedy did you grow up with?
Now, I like to watch comics who have an individual voice. They’re distinctive. I think it’s the same with everything, too — music or films or books or anything like that. I like people who are doing their own thing and nobody else is really like them. Or, someone who is the best at doing what everyone else is doing. I end up liking the really popular ones that everybody else likes, but I’m also into the obscure performers as well. Comics who I can’t necessarily predict where they’re going to go. That’s what everyone likes about stand-up. It’s a surprise, and that’s what makes you laugh. Even if someone is doing a really familiar type of comedy, they can still choose a word or a world that you wouldn’t have thought of.
I was watching Chris Rock’s new comedy special recently. I was with a friend of mine who’ve I watched Rock’s stuff with many times over the years. We know who Rock is, and we kind of know what we’re getting based on what we’ve seen before. But what was great about his special, Tamborine, is that he did a lot of things completely different from before. He surprised us. For example, he filmed it in a place that you wouldn’t expect him to film it. It’s a smaller venue compared to what he used for previous specials. It also looked really different from what he’d done before. He’s wearing a t-shirt instead of a suit. He’s got a mic that has a lead coming out of it, so he can deliberately whip it around the room. He challenged himself. There’s a bit where he’s just going on about the phrase “a few bad apples.” He says, “I had a bad apple once. It was tart.” Just the word “tart,” the way he said it, made me laugh unexpectedly. It was funny. It was the right choice of word to make, and by using it he made a joke about how a bad apple isn’t actually all that bad. It was all from a longer bit about cops who shoot black kids, and how you can always find a few bad apples. Why an apple? That’s the perfect non-complaint about an apple. And that’s what I love, watching someone who is still being so creative and challenging. That’s the sweetest part of it.
So it’s not just with comedy, but with art in general. You enjoy being challenged.
In anything, in any art form. It’s watching someone who is creative and not on autopilot. For me, Rock’s new special is great specifically because of this. He’s still great because he’s still pushing himself, thinking hard about he’s doing. As for the comics who first got me into comedy, it was people like Eddie Izzard, Ross Noble, and Josie Long. They are more whimsical than what I was used to seeing. What I saw before was more the mainstream, everyman kind of comedy. It’s a bit easier to see where that kind of comedy is going, but I like them because I can’t second guess it. There are a lot of different view points, life experiences that I don’t necessarily share. With comedy like that, you’re hearing about things that you don’t already know about, which is what comedy is meant to be. There’s stuff you can identify withm but I like hearing Eddie Izzard talk about cross-dressing in the ’90s when everyone in his audience probably wasn’t fully chill about it.
A lot of stand-up can be, and is, social commentary. I do love to see a comic try to push me forward in those kinds of terms. Not just saying tired old phrases that we heard our uncles say. It’s great when someone is being a bit more challenging, and not just doing shock comments for its own sake. I just don’t really find that kind of stuff challenging, but the people who do that often think it is. You have to present a challenge to the audience. That’s the problem. They’re bored of it otherwise. They’ve heard it so many times before, and to be honest, you’re not challenging anybody when you’re just trying to shock people. I prefer an actual challenge.
I would actually prefer it if they were offending me. If I was getting offended, I think I would prefer that, ’cause then I’d be feeling something different. Something that is challenging my cagey little needs. I guess it’s that kind of stuff I like. Stuff that forces you to engage with others and yourself. Stuff that excites you. Some of my favorite comedy audiences are the ones who are clearly mainstream. Audiences that didn’t know what stand-up can be. And when you see the mainstream audience watching a comic who is very inventive, and they begin to realize they love that kind of comedy… That’s really fun for me. I saw Josie Long on her tour in 2008 and I loved it. It’s not just something I watch every now and then. It’s good for a laugh and then I go off and think about it for a long while. Her jokes are the type of shit you might not hear very often on stage. It was more than just me sitting there, turning my brain off, and then going home. It was this quite energizing and exciting kind of thing.
Challenging is great, but I also love comics who’ve evidently put a great deal of work into something as seemingly small as word choice. Like Chris Rock using the word “tart.” It seems so simple but it’s not, because a lot of time and energy went into getting that right — not just choosing the word, but playing it before an audience. With your routine, for me, it’s the joke about Dr. Pepper tasting like a “sexy battery.”
It’s not the kind of thing you always hear when you go and see stand-up. You’re exactly right about that. Also, when you’re writing stand-up, that’s the fun part of it. Figuring out the wording of a joke and then working it out in front of people. It took me quite some time to find that particular line for that joke. It was only when I was reworking the show last year that I came up with the “sexy battery” thing. I originally did it in 2014. Then I was doing it with the other shows and I thought the bit wasn’t doing as well as it usually did before, so I give myself permission to mess around a bit more on stage with it. I think it was an improvised line that I thought would be fun. A lot of the time people already know things like that are weird. You just have to tell them in a way that they’re not disgusted by it. With me, I try to be as stupid as I am right. So with Dr. Pepper, you still have to say something that’s stupid, like “sexy battery,” instead of something that would make more sense.
The first time I saw you perform was on Conan last summer. Especially since Repertoire will be streaming in the U.S. too, do you have plans to come back anytime soon?
I should be coming over in May just for a short amount of time. I’ll be doing some gigs and stuff like that. I really love gigging in America. I also love America in general. A lot of my holidays are in America, in different parts of the country each time. I like exploring it. I like the food there. I like finding new places to eat and just seeing as much of the country as I can. For me, any excuse to go over there is good enough. When I did Conan, I was really glad that I had two weeks in the country for that. It gave me the time to go and find all these places to eat and all these things to do. You want your career to go well, of course, but it’s nice to think, “If it all goes really badly, I don’t care if I’m just in America having a great time.” So yeah, I’ll go again in May and I’ll eat some more. Actually no, I won’t eat as much. I shouldn’t do that again, but it was great.
You’re not wrong, though. It’s easy to eat poorly here.
It’s so good, though. Especially for me, because I have so much fun coming over there and just going crazy and eating as much as I can. The comedians I know and don’t know in America are very helpful when it comes to helping foreigners find good food to eat. I really appreciated that last time I was there. People I didn’t even know would say, “Watch your email. I’ll send you a list of places to eat.” They were all great recommendations.
What was the best recommendation you got?
I can’t remember what the place was called. It was a taster menu. I remember that. It was a really amazing, very fancy place. I usually don’t go to very fancy places in America. I like to find the best barbecue place or whatever. The best Mexican place. This one was a bit of a fancy-pants dining experience. It was bloody nice.
All four parts of James Acaster: Repertoire are now streaming exclusively on Netflix.