James Acaster’s Recognise Is Cleverness Done Right

The First of Four Specials in Repertoire Recalls the Classic Era of British Alternative Comedy

Comedy Reviews James Acaster
Share Tweet Submit Pin
James Acaster&#8217;s <i>Recognise</i> Is Cleverness Done Right

Netflix’s strategy of releasing a new comedy special as frequently as it checks its phone has pros and cons, as everything does. Something that really works in the favor of both the audience and comedians is that there’s only a handful of big name, stadium-filling comedians out there, and only a few of them are American. Netflix has become a great opportunity for less established comedians who maybe wouldn’t find a home for their specials otherwise. I’m not saying the lineup is perfect and doesn’t skew heavily in certain directions. But you can only do so many specials that start with strobe lights and shit before you have to seek out someone a tad more intimate, and a tad more interesting and maybe a tad less famous—at least in the states.

The other thing that happens when you program, say, two Dave Chappelle specials to drop at the same time is that you’re constantly having to one-up yourself to keep that big event aura going. So I’ll admit to being a little reticent upon learning that all four of James Acaster’s specials would be debuting at once under the title Repertoire. Having watched the first installment, Recognise, I’m so glad I have three more of these to go.

Acaster is a young man, and so, obviously, brings a young man’s energy. He’s got that Bo Burnham hair thing going on, as well as the ability to silence his opening music with a stab of his hand. He starts the show on his knees to both deliberately throw us off and set up a Chekhov’s Gun with a looong barrel—one that travels all the way through a long, insane opening story about free bananas.

But he also has the casual confidence and slightly buzzed, motormouth tendencies of clear influences Dylan Moran and Stewart Lee, which extends to a certain loose-fitting, corduroy-heavy wardrobe—straight out of a less aggro era of British alternative comedy. Recognise rolls along as many specials from that era did, and it’s a wonderful, tipsy, bubbly ride with no clear moment-to-moment form but a remarkably cohesive worldview by the time he wraps it up. It’s pretty amazing how formally assured it eventually reveals itself to be, given that Acaster seems constantly bored by our expectations of where we think the show might go.

So he switches it up on us without trying to impress us, peppering the specials with phrases like “in stupid London where I stupid live” or referring to being an undercover cop as the “purest form of coppin’ there is. Pure coppin.’” Acaster can pivot from telling jokes about Pythagoras to a fantastically stupid segment involving him playing his own comedy podcast, which, instead of acting as a digression, ends up tying the entire special together.

But ultimately what’s most impressive about Recognise is that most clever comedians can come off as clever-y comedians. A critical distinction. The latter is annoying, and the former adopts a real, deep sadness in his eyes as he says: “I knew it was gonna be a bad day. My electric toothbrush died in my mouth that morning.”

Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.