For the longest time, I couldn’t really enjoy stand-up comedy, but I kept this opinion to myself because it sounded snobby. As a comedy fan, I loved TV, movies, live improv (I spent three years in New York City essentially living at UCB), sketch, podcasts…literally any other form of the medium. Not stand-up. Not even the cool stand-up I was supposed to like, by performers like Demetri Martin or Eugene Mirman or whoever. In many cases, I loved different types of art created by stand-ups, like FX’s Louie. That show seemed brilliant, but Louis C.K.’s stand-up did nothing for me. The best way I can explain it is that watching stand-up felt the same as watching a TV show with a laugh track. I understood why these performers were good, and I understood why the material should be funny, but the format felt antiquated and superficial in a way that put me off.
I still feel this way, mostly. I am all for brilliant people trying to make me laugh, but for whatever reason, I require a degree of misdirection. Someone standing up in front of me saying, “here’s a joke,” or loosely disguising a joke beneath a true story that is probably fake, doesn’t press my buttons. And I am definitely too old to change in any meaningful way now; whatever rut I’m in is permanent.
I can’t remember who recommended James Acaster to me, but for whatever reason I went against my normal instinct and watched the first episode of Repertoire on Netflix. It’s a special from 2018 with four separate “episodes,” each about 50 minutes long, all of them tied loosely together by recurring themes and, while viewable on their own, richer if watched in sequence. (I should also note here that Acaster has released a new special since, which I am purposefully not watching until I write this piece.) From the start, I was captured, to the point that I began to seek him out on YouTube between episodes and learned that he’s a star of the British “panel show” circuit—an impossibly quick and naturally hilarious comic who is also a best-selling author and podcast host. In short, a very talented human I had never previously heard of because he’s not American or Ricky Gervais.
What distinguishes Repertoire, and why I feel the need to write about it three years past its release for others like me who haven’t seen it, is that it’s one of those performances that manages to combine stand-up comedy with theater in a way that distances itself from the boring artifice (my opinion) of “normal” stand-up. It’s a new kind of artifice, but it’s one that seeks to say something a little deeper, with less of a blunt edge, about the life we’re living. It can be difficult to describe how this works in practice without spoiling things, so let me spoil just a little: The show begins with Acaster—dressed in a dark green jacket with a dark green backdrop, an exercise in color matching that continues with various autumnal shades through all four episodes—dropping to his knees and beginning his show. A good six minutes of material follow before he explains what’s happening. You see, Torville and Dean, the figure skaters, once discovered a loophole whereby they could skate to the full song of Bolero, despite time restrictions, by starting the routine on their knees since the official time didn’t start until they stood. Acaster loves loopholes, so he uses this one, telling the audience that any mistakes he makes, any heckling, doesn’t truly count until he stands, and the show begins with a story about childhood.
The show goes on, Acaster still on his knees, and at the 15-minute mark, he rises in fury, in the middle of a story about purchasing bananas, and takes a dead pause in the middle of his rant to start the clock on his watch. It’s a subtle moment, but so funny if you’ve been paying attention, and these little rewards are sprinkled throughout in ways that elevate the performance above even the very good material.
To read what I’ve written so far, I’m afraid that I’m making it sound like a series of gimmicks, or tricks. It’s more—the cleverness, the way of returning to themes and closing circles you forgot were still open, speaks to a kind of intense craftsmanship on Acaster’s part that rewards the viewer on various levels. It’s also a perfect complement to the current of sadness running through the show. This, too, distinguishes his particular style of stand-up. He’s not confessional in the usual sense, where he’s describing the woes of his life, but through elliptical means he addresses his divorce, his melancholy, and the general heartbreak of life.
Here’s the part that’s hard to explain: It’s somehow more impactful because of the disguise. Bo Burnham accomplished something similar on his recent special Inside, and while the two are stylistically different, the common thread is their ability to hit you with an emotional sledgehammer while you thought, wrongly, that they were keeping a distance.
And here again, we have the thing that differentiates what Acaster does from my conception of stand-up. He never loses sight of the need to make you laugh—and he does make you laugh, often—but there’s something deeper at play here for the simple fact that he’s found a way to convey his sadness in a strange way and in a strange medium. It’s profound, it’s impactful, and it’s nothing like the stereotypes in my head. Maybe it’s as simple as this: In any genre, no matter what the average artist looks like, a genius will find a way to blow your mind.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .