When The Great Celebrity Bake Off returns to TV next week, James Acaster’s fans won’t be watching for the pastry. Instead, they’ll be looking for signs that the 34-year-old is teetering on the precipice of a nervous breakdown.
Acaster’s new two-hour show is a bold reinvention. Previously, the Mock the Week regular’s forte was innocuous trivia and inconsequential silliness. But here he lays himself bare, opening up about being manipulated by his therapist and battling suicidal thoughts. He even resorts to “effing and jeffing”. And it all kicks off with a brilliant anecdote about a stint in the Bake Off tent.
The TV producers made him promise not to talk about it, but this new, bad-ass Acaster won’t play by their rules – or so he tells us from behind a ludicrous pair of mirrored shades, strutting across the stage like someone who learnt to swagger from a textbook. (Acaster has the gawky, supercilious bearing of an affronted heron – it’s a comic asset he uses brilliantly.)
Having failed to bake flapjacks after 40 hours without sleep, Acaster ended up on the phone to Samaritans. Of course, in order to seem believable, he had to lie – complaining about a rough time with Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding would sound like a wind-up call.
Like several of the show’s set-pieces, it’s almost the opposite of observational comedy, which relies on relatable, universal experiences. After years spent pointing out the bizarre in the everyday – or indulging in flights of fantasy – he’s now admitting that his everyday life is bizarre and fantastical. For instance, most people won’t have been ditched by their agent for screwing up a Netflix deal, as he was.
One true story in what he calls the “much bleaker” (but still sharp and unsentimental) second half involves being dumped by his girlfriend for a world-famous – and famously un-sexy – celebrity. “I’m the only person this has ever happened to,” he mopes, before begging the audience not to name this anti-pinup online (to spare his ex’s blushes, and to avoid spoiling the show’s best surprise).
Elsewhere, he tackles Brexit from the highly specific perspective of his native Kettering, explaining how he was sucked into his Leave-voting town’s feud with fallen film star Lindsay Lohan (yes, really). By avoiding confessional material until now, Acaster was stockpiling comic gold, and now it’s paying rich dividends.
This show is still evolving; an earlier version had a whole chunk set in 1999, which explained at least part of its odd title, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, but that routine is absent here. The chopping and changing might be to blame for its somewhat muddled chronology – various girlfriends come and go, as we skip back and forth between years.
But when Acaster finally explains why he’s chosen this particular moment to unburden himself, it comes as a gloriously satisfying twist laced with schadenfreude, a reminder that revenge – unlike lasagne – is always best served cold.
Until Sat and touring until Dec 6. Tickets: jamesacaster.com