When you ask most comedians about their biggest ambitions, hopes of creating their own sitcoms, writing critically acclaimed novels or making it big in Hollywood often top the list.
But for most of last year, James Acaster’s dream was to have a year off, decompress and take a breather.
‘I’ve been touring and gigging for 12 years and I haven’t really been good at giving myself breaks during that time,’ explains the award-winning stand-up, podcast host, author and TV panel show star.
‘I just hadn’t had a holiday. Sometimes socialising or going to meetings can be weirdly anxiety-inducing, so not being around loads of people, not travelling a lot and not standing up in front of a room full of strangers every night can actually be quite nice.
‘Obviously, I would get rid of the pandemic in a heartbeat, but I haven’t missed constantly being in cars, planes and trains.’
Though he had always planned to stop doing live comedy for a year, James has objectively been extremely productive (more of that later), and a lot of that has involved food: cooking it, eating it, thinking about it and, of course, talking about it.
The gifted storyteller, who became a meme after his flapjack disaster on The Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off last year – ‘I started making it. Had a breakdown. Bon appetit’ – has, among many other things, been busy with Off Menu, the podcast he presents with fellow comic Ed Gamble.
The hugely popular podcast is all about the two comics asking interesting and funny people to discuss their favourite starter, main course, side dish, dessert and drink.
Guests have included everyone from Louis Theroux and Sara Pascoe to Katherine Ryan and MP Jess Phillips. James and Ed are about to do a live version for Unmute: The Online Podcast Festival, and their guest will be comedian David O’Doherty.
‘We’ve known David for a very long time, and even though I know him so well I don’t really know much about his eating habits or what food he really loves,’ says James.
‘Although with David you don’t know if he’s necessarily going to tell the truth – he might mess around with us.’
Like many of us, James has spent more time in the kitchen than usual this year, though the contrast is greater in his case because, before the break, he rarely even had much in his fridge due to him so often being away.
‘A combination of the podcast and lockdown has definitely made me cook more and want to get better at that,’ he says.
‘When anyone is talking on the podcast about a simple dish they make all the time I will often give it a go and try it at home.’
As well as tinkering about in the kitchen, James has been busy with several other intriguing projects. He’s written a treatment for a TV series, he tells us. ‘I’ve been thinking about that for a long time so it was nice to be able to devote all day, every day to that.’
He has also been working on two feature-length film scripts and his music podcast, James Acaster’s Perfect Sounds, in which he tries to convince comedians that 2016 was the best year of all time for music.
And he’s been making music of his own. In February he finally moved his old drum kit from his parents’ place to a studio in London and recorded some improvisations.
Then he asked his favourite jazz drummer Seb Rochford (from Polar Bear) ‘to play really good drums over my really rusty drums’ and sent the result from one noted musician to another, such as Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich and Spanish musician Joana Gomila, to add layers of their own sounds.
Once he has everything back he’ll mix it all together and make an album, he says.
As if that wasn’t enough, fans can also look forward to a new series of Hypothetical, the Dave panel show he presents with Josh Widdicombe.
Then there’s his most recent live stand-up show, which has already been recorded and is set to be aired on TV by Christmas.
But what next, now he’s had proper time to recharge, and assuming the world gets back to normal?
‘I would like to do more acting; that is something I’ve always enjoyed, but it has to be something that I am really passionate about,’ says James. ‘If there was a film or a TV series I really loved and I got to be in that would be wonderful.
‘I can’t believe I’ve been able to do all the things I’ve already done.
‘I’ve achieved more than I thought I ever would. With stand-up I kind of thought I’d be very, very lucky if I got to make a living out of doing gigs.’
James’ favourite moments from making the podcast
‘Claudia Winkleman was on recently and she chose roast chicken as her main. Coincidentally, I was going to roast a chicken that afternoon for my nephew’s birthday.
‘Claudia gave me her tips on how to get the crispiest skin and the best chicken, and it was a hit.’
‘[The Inbetweeners star] Joe Thomas’s story about burying a rack of lamb with his friend’s dad made me laugh the most.
‘It’s a long story and I won’t spoil the ending but him telling it is the most weird and tragic thing I’ve heard. I couldn’t stop laughing.’
Most exciting moment
‘Interviewing Teri Hatcher was a childhood dream. She’s even more obsessed with food than me and Ed.
‘She knew so much about restaurants, about what she’s eating and how it’s made.
‘I never missed an episode of The New Adventures Of Superman, it’s a really big deal to have Lois Lane telling you, while you’re in LA, the best places to go and eat.’
James and Ed Gamble will live-stream the Off Menu podcast with guest David O’Doherty at 4pm on Saturday at Unmute: The Online Podcast Festival,
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