James Acaster: 'I spent a year where I didn't look after my mental health well ... it took the break-up with my ex to make me realise I had to take care of myself'
TV funnyman and Celebrity Bake Off star James Acaster tells Hannah Stephenson how his worst year caused suicidal thoughts, but helped him to be a better stand-up
On the surface, it might seem that brilliantly gawky comedian James Acaster hasn't got all that much to smile about. He's had suicidal thoughts, suffered a year-long breakdown after splitting up with his girlfriend and falling out with his agent and even his counsellor seemed to turn into a starstruck stalker.
All this and more is revealed in the 34-year-old Kettering-born funnyman's latest book, Perfect Sound Whatever, in which the five-times Edinburgh award nominee charts his particularly bad year in 2017.
To distract himself from his anxieties, he set himself the major task of researching the albums, music, singers and songwriters of 2016, which he now describes as "the greatest year for music of all time".
He bought 366 albums, all released in 2016, and in the book mixes his own personal psychological descent with the stories of the albums and the mental state of the singers and songwriters, some providing an uncanny mirror to his own.
It was his split with his then-girlfriend (whom he calls "Becky With The Good Hair" in the book) at the beginning of 2017 and difficulties with his agent that led to him seeking counselling.
However, months into therapy, his counsellor's responses during sessions became obsessed with fame and celebrity, he recalls. "I wanted to talk about my relationships, but she always brought it back round to celebrity," he writes. Eventually, he texted her that he wanted to end the sessions.
"It'd been a rough year, a year I'd told her about in great detail, and I wasn't ready for my counsellor to transform into my stalker," he wryly observes.
This ability to turn his crises into comedic triumphs - who can forget his "wet" flapjacks in Celebrity Bake Off, when he told a grinning Paul Hollywood, "Started baking it, had a breakdown ... Bon appetit!" - has fuelled his popularity, with frequent appearances on Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You?
His terrible year spawned much of the material for his current stand-up show, Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999, which is a big change in direction for Acaster, who used to be better known for his fictional observational comedy (eg playing an undercover cop, posing as a stand-up comedian), rather than exposing his own personal angst.
"It covers the same year, but tells different stories to the book," he explains. "It's the first time I've done a personal show - and that might not be the case forever. But the first time I did it, it felt good to say it out loud and not feel embarrassed, or ashamed, of anything.
"Taking myself out of my comfort zone for the first time has made me a better comic, trying to make things that are quite dark, funny."
He brought up the suicidal thoughts at his first counselling session, he recalls.
"The break-up that year was the trigger for everything and, after that, I entered a period of deep depression and during that time I had quite dark thoughts. I haven't gone into it in too much detail in the book. I didn't want to give too much detail about myself.
"Essentially, I spent a year not looking after my mental health at all. I hadn't looked after myself at all for years and it took something that's quite normal in everyday life, like a break-up, to really bring to a head all this stuff that I'd held on to, and that had built up over time.
"I realised I needed to get on top of things. A lot of the time it's not a big thing that triggers that for people. It's just small stuff over time, of not looking after yourself.
"It takes something like that to make you think, 'I should have been going to therapy for ages'. I should have been looking after myself, exercising, whatever it is, and I just don't think we're that good at it in this country.
"Also, that year, I didn't really have any time off. I was constantly working and that caused me a lot of stress."
While he's unsure why his counsellor's attitude towards him changed over time, he fears she may have become starstruck. "My advice to anyone who is going for counselling is: do your research beforehand. Get some recommendations from people and go to someone who's going to have your best interests at heart."
Despite his experience, he says therapy helped him through that difficult time. "Counselling really helped. Even though it didn't end great with us, it was really helpful and I'm currently trying to sort out going to see another person. This time I'll make sure I find the right one."
Today, he says he looks after his mental health better. "It's about being more honest with myself and acknowledging when I'm stressed or anxious. I never used to do that. Now, if I'm stressed, I'll be aware of it and take some time off, rest for a bit, exercise and do something fun, like listening to music."
In the book, he says he'd kept his guard up too much when it came to relationships. "I'd been in a series of relationships which hadn't worked, and I hadn't given myself enough of a gap between relationships, and still had my guard up, which wasn't a very helpful thing."
Today, he remains tight-lipped about his private life, when asked if he is dating again, but says he is giving himself more time to recover from break-ups. "You take a year to get over it and a year to like yourself again - and I definitely like myself again," is all he will say.
He's just had a month off from his tour, which started in March and resumes in September, but is going to give himself more breaks from performing live, he says.
He's filming another series of panel show Hypothetical with his comedy pal Josh Widdicombe, which should be out early next year, is continuing to write for different platforms, hosting his hugely popular food podcast, Off Menu with fellow comedian Ed Gamble, and hopes that more books are on the cards.
Meanwhile, his music obsession has continued - he's amassed more than 550 albums since 2016, which he keeps at his home in London.
"Buying the music of that year has reconnected me with music. It's nice to be on top of something that's current and positive."
- Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster is published by Headline, priced £20. If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 084 5790 9090, or Lifeline 080 8808 800