Latitude 2018: I didn’t plan on a comedy career says James Acaster

James Acaster Picture: CONTRIBUTED

James Acaster Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Contributed

James Acaster is one of several standout stand-ups appearing at this year’s Latitude Festival, returning to Henham Park, July 12-15.

James Acaster Picture: CONTRIBUTED

James Acaster Picture: CONTRIBUTED - Credit: Contributed

James - who you’ll have seen on shows like Mock The Week, Live At The Apollo, Would I Lie To You, QI and Have I Got News For You - is hunkered down for a couple of hours of interviews, hoping to squeeze in a catch up with a friend before testing new jokes at London’s Soho Theatre when I call.

Q: How’s the work in progress coming?

Good. I’ve got a long time to work on it. I always try to start off with all the things I really want to talk about and start talking about it regardless of the fact if it’s funny or not and then hopefully by autumn 2019 it’ll be a good show. At the minute I’m just enjoying jumping into some new material and messing around with it.

Q: Do you find starting something new, especially after touring the same show for a while, nerve-racking or exciting?

Maybe nervous for the first one? No, you feel excited for that one as well. Maybe the ones where it jumps up a notch, like when you’re working on new stuff and then you do a work in progress that maybe people have paid a bit more to see it or the room’s a bit bigger. You feel like you’re in a decent show by this point, you get a bit nervous for that because it’s like “okay, it’s the true test of whether it’s ready or not”. It’s all good nerves I think.

Q: Talking of high stakes, your four-part special Repertoire recently aired on Netflix?

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There’s a bit more pressure because you want to capture them [the shows] at their best. I did each one at Edinburgh, toured each one of them for a year and then toured them again for a year at the same time in preparation for the filming. We filmed all four in a day and then all four of them the next day for safety in case something had gone wrong with the cameras or something, so eight hours in two days and little change overs between each.

Going out on Netflix, it’s a bigger platform than anything I’ve ever had before. There’s definitely pressure there, but then you also have to be aware that if, when you’re on stage, you treat it like there’s a lot of pressure then the show’s going to be s**t. It’ll be like you - nervous, rigid and not performing properly. If I ever feel any pressure or nerves it’s always off stage. Then, as soon as you walk on stage, it kind of leaves you. It’s like jumping out of a plane and then if the parachute opens it opens and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. There’s nothing you can do about it so you might as well enjoy falling [laughs] and how exhilarating that can be.

When I’m actually onstage, at least I really enjoy it. I tried to film a show in 2015 and I was so in my own head, not enjoying the show, so it was a good practice. I didn’t release it and held out until this one and I was much more relaxed.

Q: How many times have you played Latitude?

I’ve lost count. I think last year was my first off since I started doing it in 2010 so it’ll be nice to go back. I’m in the cabaret tent this year doing an hour instead of being on the comedy stage, I think you do a shorter set there. I requested it, I wanted to do a proper show in a little tent because I always see people doing it and think “oh that looks like fun”.

Q: You’re doing material from your show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999?

Yeah, it’s talking about 1999 the best year of my life and 2017 the worst year of my life and the things that happened to me in both. It’s a much more personal show than before, usually I go for a big ruse like I claim I’m an undercover cop or that I’ve done jury service. It’s been really fun but with the release of these Netflix specials I felt like they put a nice full stop on that chapter and it’d be nice to try something different. It’s fun to be a bit autobiographical.

For example, one of the best things in 1999 was the solo eclipse and one of the worst things in 2017 was s******g myself in a steakhouse or my girlfriend leaving me.

Q: Were you apprehensive about sharing so much of yourself on stage?

That’s what the work in progress is for. I’m just trying everything, seeing how it feels, how it fits but it was a nice. There was a nice transition where I’d done these four shows and filmed them and then I had a book tour straight afterwards and the book [a Sunday Times best-seller] was all true stories, called Classic Scrapes. I did that in the autumn and it was my first time really since doing an open spot where I told true stories on stage.

It wasn’t overly personal, but it was a huge departure from my stand-up shows and I got a bit of a taste for it so thought “well, just go in the direction of what you enjoy and do more true stories” because I’d used all my short, funny little anecdotes. I was thinking a lot about the events of 2017 so it was a nice combination. That book tour was a really nice transition from doing funny made-up routines.

Q: What do you do at Latitude in-between performances?

One of the fun things is to watch other comedians. Normally we watch bands because we see each other quite a lot on the circuit. Sometimes you get to see a comic you don’t get to see very often, so I don’t get to see them, so its nice to go and watch someone like Terry Alderton... seeing them in a festival environment really brings it to life. Latitude has got such a nice set up to it, a good variety of stages. I definitely try to get out a lot more rather than just hanging around backstage at the comedy stage.

Q: You mentioned transitioning from ruses to true tales. You transitioned from music into comedy?

I was in bands because I had a lot of time on my hands. I was looking to do new kind of things to fill the time. One of the things I tried was stand-up and I really enjoyed it. Bands were the main thing I wanted to do, I’d only do a stand-up gig once every four months. I did that for about two years and when my band split up because I didn’t go to university or anything, I left school at 17 and didn’t have any proper qualifications, I had nothing to fall back on.

I was a drummer so I couldn’t really go solo and I don’t really know what to do so I kind of decided I’ll just start doing stand-up again. It was just a place holder, “I’ll do this, then I’ll figure out what I really want to do” but it turned out to be the perfect thing.

I think stand-up’s the perfect thing for anybody who’s creative but gets frustrated having to rely on other people in any way. If you’re an actor you’re waiting by the phone for auditions and stuff, you can’t just go out and get yourself in a play, do it that evening and go home. If you’re a musician, most of the time you’re playing with other musicians or even if you’re a solo artist you’re trying to get labels interested. Nowadays it’s a bit better, they can record themselves and put it online but even then its not the same as it is for comics where you can go out, get yourself a different gig every night and just hone it.

I loved how I could write a routine that day and be performing it that evening and then figuring out what was wrong with it and changing it for the next night, then writing a new routine again. I didn’t have to do the same thing every night if I didn’t want to, there’s no rules.

To start off it wasn’t like “this is a career”, it was just like “oh, this is a really satisfying way of being creative”. After about maybe a year-and-a-half I was like “actually, I want to do this forever”. I felt like I’d enough of a grasp on it at that point. It wasn’t a smooth transition but it’s such a rich ground for anyone who’s creative.

It worked out better than I ever thought it would. I thought I would do this for a while and then I’d have to face reality and do something else. I’m astounded to be able to do so many things that I enjoy and I’m proud of. I feel very lucky.

Catch James Acaster on July 14 at Latitude’s Cabaret Theatre and July 15 in the Music and Film Arena.