James Acaster: Talking about my personal crises has made me a better comic

TV funnyman James Acaster reveals how his worst year led him to suicidal thoughts and a breakdown, but gave him scope to be a better comedian. Hannah Stephenson reports.

Comedian James Acaster has released a new book. Photo: Pal Hansen/PA
Comedian James Acaster has released a new book. Photo: Pal Hansen/PA

On the surface, it might seem that brilliantly gawky comedian James Acaster hasn’t got all that much to smile about.

He’s had suicidal thoughts and suffered a year-long breakdown after splitting up with his girlfriend and falling out with his agent.

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All this and more is revealed in the 34-year-old Kettering-born funnyman’s latest book, Perfect Sound Whatever, in which the five-times Edinburgh award nominee charts his particularly bad year in 2017.

As well as releasing his book, the comedian is touring - and coming to Yorkshire. Photo: Headline/PA

Acaster’s ability to turn his crises into comedic triumphs - who can forget his ‘wet’ flapjacks in Celebrity Bake Off when he told a grinning Paul Hollywood, “Started baking it, had a breakdown... Bon appetit!” - has fuelled his popularity, with frequent appearances on Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You?

And that terrible year has spawned much of the material for his current stand-up show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, which has Yorkshire dates in Leeds, Harrogate, Sheffield and York this autumn.

“It covers the same year but tells different stories to the book,” he explains. “It’s the first time I’ve done a personal show - and that might not be the case forever.

Acaster says he opens up about personal experiences in his touring show. Photo: Ian West/PA.

“But the first time I did it, it felt good to say it out loud and not feel embarrassed or ashamed of anything. Taking myself out of my comfort zone for the first time has made me a better comic, trying to make things that are quite dark, funny.”

Acaster sought counselling after a split with his then girlfriend at the beginning of 2017 and difficulties with his agent. He raised his suicidal thoughts at his first therapy session, he recalls.

“The break-up that year was the trigger for everything, and after that I entered a period of deep depression, and during that time I had quite dark thoughts. I haven’t gone into it in too much detail in the book. I didn’t want to give too much detail about myself.

“Essentially, I spent a year not looking after my mental health at all. I hadn’t looked after myself at all for years, and it took something that’s quite normal in everyday life, like a break-up, to really bring to a head all this stuff that I’d held on to, and that had built up over time.

“I realised I needed to get on top of things. A lot of the time it’s not a big thing that triggers that for people. It’s just small stuff over time, of not looking after yourself.

“It takes something like that to make you think, ‘I should have been going to therapy for ages’. I should have been looking after myself, exercising, whatever it is, and I just don’t think we’re that good at it in this country.”

Today, he says he looks after his mental health better. “It’s about being more honest with myself and acknowledging when I’m stressed or anxious. I never used to do that. Now, if I’m stressed, I’ll be aware of it and take some time off, rest for a bit, exercise and do something fun, like listening to music.”

To distract himself from his anxieties, Acaster, who has just had a month off from his tour, which started in March and resumes in September, set himself the major task of researching the albums, music, singers and songwriters of 2016 and has amassed more than 550 albums since then, which he keeps at his home in London.

In his new book, he mixes his own personal psychological descent with the stories of the albums and the mental state of the singers and songwriters, some providing an uncanny mirror to his own.

“Buying the music of that year has reconnected me with music. It’s nice to be on top of something that’s current and positive.”

Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster is published by Headline, priced £20, and available now.