When interviewing James Acaster, sooner or later the conversation inevitably turns to awards. And so it transpires that every day at the Fringe, he and his six comedian flatmates are consecutively watching one of the previous 28 Oscar winners for best picture.
“I came up with the idea,” he enthuses. “It’s a theme we can all get behind. Obviously, Schindler’s List might be a tough one. If I’ve had a bad show the night before, I might not be in the mood. Braveheart could be annoying. 12 Years A Slave, on the third to last day, we’re all going to be really tired… I suspect I’ll be the only person to do all of them.”
Such perverse dedication seems apposite for the unassuming 31-year-old, nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award in each of the past four years but still to win for his shows about his intricate disguises of existential crises in his life. Subtextually planted into improbable stories told by an aloof idiot, their obsessive focus on trivia betrays his trouble resolving some pretty fundamental issues.
Both 2014’s Recognise, in which he processed a relationship breakup through the pretence of being an undercover cop, and last year’s Represent, in which he channelled his loss of Christian faith through the conceit of serving on a jury, have reflected his difficulties in consolidating his identity.
“Those shows involved me talking about things that were quite personal,” he reflects. “Just behind my [on stage] persona, in a stupid way, while still choosing the words well enough that I could get it across. If there’s one sentence that genuinely sums up how I feel, then that’s enough. Everything around it can be silly.”
On one issue he’s clear though. The judges’ nods have been a “nice thing”. But he’s irked when people assume that he’s distraught that he hasn’t won, as if validation from on high is the reason he performs.
When he was a drummer in bands, Acaster was always outspoken in his belief that each of them would go on to become the greatest, most original act to grace the planet, despite the fact that none ever came close to winning anything or troubling the charts. “It’s odd,” he recalls. “I would never say that sort of thing now. For one, there’s so many different people doing different things [in comedy] that you can’t compare them. But I definitely want to be as good and original as I can. So you put that on yourself. But because such a massive part of stand-up is trying and failing first, I’m not putting as much pressure on. Just going out and doing it is enough.”
His experience as a musician gave him the initial confidence to get up on stage. “But that was the only thing I had going into stand-up really,” he says. Only when he relinquished the idea that he was “cool” did his comedy really click.
Growing up in Kettering, Northamptonshire, he’d been a “sensitive boy who would go for long walks in fields and talk about life and feelings”, appreciating that he and his best friend over-thought things. “I didn’t realise straightaway in comedy that was something I could use to my advantage,” he says. “I thought comedians were the funny guy in the common room, not understanding that the flaws in my personality were actually the funny things about me.” Around the same time as this epiphany, he began developing his distinctive Man at M&S look.
“Gigs where I wore a jumper, for some reason, went noticeably better,” he says. “I got obsessed with appearance. Everyone was wearing jeans, so I started wearing slacks. I’d walk on and people would laugh before I got to the mic because I looked stupid.”
Indeed, such was his commitment to his persona that it was only in 2014, “when I first started wondering who I was, when I found myself wandering down the street going, ‘I hate this, I hate how I look’, that I decided I’d have the uniform for my show and not my life too. It was crazy dressing like that. Though it was partly a money thing too. I couldn’t afford to buy clothes I wasn’t gigging in.”
Acaster now seems fully in control of a fulfilling career, with an ongoing series of web films, Sweet Home Ketteringa, and a BBC2 sitcom, We The Jury, inspired by his 2015 Fringe show. He’s also just recorded an album of some of his old bands’ folkier songs as grunge tunes, with the original singers performing alongside himself and comedian-musicians Rob Deering and Will Collier.
His new show, Reset, is born from a nagging insecurity that the former school assistant for autistic children could be doing something worthier with his life. It’s delivered, opaquely enough, with yet another law and order-based theme, through his supposed entry into the witness protection programme.
Whenever Acaster recalls his frustration as a musician, “when you’d wait around for everyone to arrive at your house to practice and no-one has got any ideas”, he reminds himself that with just a quick phone call, he can be testing out new stand-up ideas that very night. And he’s still enchanted by the creative process.
“Every year at the Fringe, there’ll be a few moments where I’m stood behind the curtain and I’ll think this is the biggest arts festival in the world and I’m doing a show that no-one else has had any input into. I’ve written all of this and there’s an audience here who have paid to see me. This is ridiculous. And it’s glorious.”
• James Acaster: Reset, Pleasance Courtyard, until 28 August. Today 7:30pm