James Acaster begins his newest comic special, “Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999,” by mocking his audience. He complains about a well-intentioned fan and her mother coming to see him after a show, and swears off (literally) his old clean style, in an effort to scare off a fanbase increasingly filled with Christians. He declares he’s uncomfortable with them, and wants to attract a new, edgier audience. This is peak Acaster, in an uncomfortable and fraught relationship with his audience. From there, he moves to mocking Ricky Gervais’ transphobia and relating his horrible experiences on “The Great Celebrity Bake Off.”
I was lucky enough to see “Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999” through a livestream event in December 2020. It is in many ways a startling and excellent stand-up special. But compared with Acaster’s previous four specials, collected in the Netflix series “Repertoire,” I was disappointed.
What originally made me love Acaster as a comic, and his specials in “Repertoire,” was his use of fictional overarching narratives — working as a traffic man, serving on a jury or being an undercover cop — to talk indirectly about issues in his own life. These narratives gave his shows a punch and a cohesion that set it apart from other stand-up specials. Memorably, in the third episode of “Repertoire,” called “Reset,” Acaster uses the witness protection program as a way to talk about wanting to get a new start in life. All the segments in “Reset” either develop the “literal” story of the show — why he’s ended up in witness protection — or riff off of his desire for a new start. He talks about his kitchen mirror, his hatred of Britain and his desire to build a well in Kenya. These segments build on one another, often thematically, and sometimes literally; he often re-incorporates jokes and sprinkles in callbacks throughout his performance. This leads to a show that has the scripted pleasures of a movie or novel, with the conversational humor of a stand-up comic.
Acaster doesn’t totally abandon this style in “Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999,” but he takes a more traditional approach. He no longer uses the cover of an overarching fictional narrative. Instead, he tells real stories from his own life. While some might appreciate the intimacy, I found it disappointing that his bits wouldn’t have to locate themselves in a larger narrative. They are still related, but Acaster skates more casually from bit to bit in this new special, capturing the frenetic, personal tone of many traditional comics.
However, he is still aware of the story that his shows are telling. The first half of the new show is wandering, but it covers the best year of his life, 1999, and some troubling events more recently. In the second half, he covers the worst year of his life, 2017. This is the meat of the show and where some of his funniest bits are. He tells the story of him and his agent’s breakup, but from his agent’s perspective, and relates a failed relationship that ends with Rowan Atkinson (the actor behind Mr. Bean) dating his ex. Ultimately, some of what’s lost in the highly narrative style of “Repertoire” is gained in the strength of the individual bits.
Acaster is still a highly original comic. His style and humor have led me to rewatch “Repertoire” more times than I should have. And “Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999” is a good special. But what made “Repertoire” especially unique and memorable isn’t in Acaster’s new material. He’s funny, but he’s more traditional. However, it’s not exactly fair to expect Acaster to do “Repertoire,” again. Its style isn’t one that can be replicated through an entire career. Even so, it’s a career I’m certain to keep watching. And (probably) rewatching.