Simon Amstell has a brand new stand-up show. After the award-winning comedy, Grandma’s House, he’s back solo, on stage and sharing awkwardness, angst and everything else. Latest 7 finds out more.
For the past couple of years, Simon Amstell has been shut away in a TV studio making two series of his deeply personal BBC2 sitcom, the painfully funny, critically-acclaimed Grandma’s House. Now he is back in stand-up mode. Numb, Amstell’s first national tour in three years, hits the road this spring. Not that the Essex-born comedian wants to make too much fuss about it. Unlike most motor-mouth comedians, he is notoriously reluctant to be interviewed. Despite his reticence, Amstell is however, a rare example of a comedian who is as funny and engaging offstage as he is on it.
Numb, another very personal show from this most soul-baring of comics, has evolved from a long series of small pre-tour gigs, in which Simon has been trying out new material. “What tends to happen is I go on stage with a few ideas, some scraps of paper, and just see what comes out of me. It’s a bit scary I suppose and often not that much fun for the audience. But what is great about doing it this way is there is this almost unconscious discovery of new things about yourself as a direct result of the audience’s reaction and the show develops from that.”
Amstell who was for three years the presenter of the BBC2 pop comedy show Never Mind The Buzzcocks, for which he won a BAFTA and a Royal Television Society Award for Best Comedy Entertainment Personality continues: “I really do love doing stand-up. It’s the most amazing feeling when it’s going well, you’re free, you’re flying. This ‘thing’ is happening beyond your control. Something is powering you, something that isn’t you.”
The comedian, who also hosted Channel 4’s Popworld for six years, adds: “I suppose the idea for performers is to take their audience to a place where they’re also outside of themselves.”
But having just finishing filming and editing the new series of Grandma’s House, which starts in the spring, is he ready to take on a gruelling 29-date tour? “It can be quite emotionally draining. And what tends to happen, after about 20 dates, is that I have to remind myself just before I go onstage: ‘Remember, you like this. This is exactly where you want to be. This is definitely fun’.
Amstell may be currently better known for his TV work, but he actually started doing stand-up when he was only 14. At 17, he was the youngest ever finalist in the BBC New Comedy Award. Since then he has evolved into one of the most brilliant and distinctive stand-ups around. He offers a unique combination of incredibly original, thought-provoking material and outright laughter.
So what can we expect from the tour, which will also feature special guest Daniel Simonsen? As always, the show will be an attempt by the intensely vulnerable and honest Amstell to heal himself in public.
The comedian, who is touring for the first time since his critically acclaimed 2009 show, Do Nothing, explains why he decided to call his new show Numb. “The theme seemed to be disconnection and detachment and the inability to feel things fully. It’s about not being able to feel things in the moment and being incapable of expressing yourself emotionally and the fact that that leads to disconnectedness and depression. And it’s very funny!” he adds with an embarrassed hoot of laughter.
The show is very much comedy, rather than therapy, though. In fact Simon adds that being a comedian isn’t necessarily very therapeutic. “Any artist has to stand outside himself and distrust the normal and refuse to accept that anything is the way it should be… This isn’t ideal when it comes to living with other human beings on this planet.”
For all Amstell’s feelings of alienation, however, audiences really relate to his material. Does he feels brave exposing his feelings to this degree? “Not really,” he replies. “I think it’s actually also quite healing eventually. When you reveal something personal and perhaps shameful, people acknowledge that it’s part of the human condition and they don’t feel so alone. They don’t feel stuck with an horrific secret.”
It’s a very personal form of comedy. “Occasionally, I have tried to do stuff about other things,” Amstell insists, “but it doesn’t really work for me. If it’s not coming from ‘here’s how I felt in this particular moment’, then it doesn’t resonate. When I say I feel a certain way, no-one can argue with that. It’s a very authentic response to the world.”
Grandma’s House, his sitcom about a wildly dysfunctional Essex family, which Amstell stars in and has co-written with Dan Swimer, has been widely praised. The show, in which Amstell plays a skewed version of himself, deservedly won a British Comedy Award.
In the past, some critics have suggested that Amstell’s comedy can veer towards the cruel, but as a stand-up, his vulnerability and openness creates the opposite impression. And crucially he ensures he is always the butt of his own jokes. “It always ends up that I’m the fool in any story. If I’m criticising people or making a judgement, it’s always clearly by the end that it was definitely my problem.”
Amstell would be the first to admit that he can dwell on the dark side, but he maintains that helps his comedy. “Without suffering, there would be no need for comedy. Misery on its own doesn’t work. But misery combined with the perception that that misery is ridiculous is very funny, right?
“I suppose other comedians can talk about toasters, and that works quite well for them. Unfortunately I don’t really know why a toaster is funny. Sorry, I can’t find the funny in toasters. If I could, I would.”
What seems to fuel Amstell’s exceptional comedy is an insatiable curiosity. He agrees, “Yes, there is always this element of discovery. I’m not very good at making absolute statements. I think I am better at trying to figure stuff out.”
Simon Amstell – Numb, Concert Hall, Brighton Dome, Saturday 2 June, £21 + booking fee, 01273 709709