Myke Bartlett on Simon Amstell
Simon Amstell is more at home asking questions that answering them. As the star of British TV shows Popworld and Never Mind The Buzzcocks, he became famous for a cheeky—some would say downright rude—brand of interviewing that saw celebrities quake as he pricked their egos. Some walked out mid-show. Others, such as Britney Spears, simply burst into tears.
These days, Amstell saves the tough questions for himself. Since quitting Buzzcocks at the height of its popularity, he has made an art out of taking himself apart. His autobiographical sitcom Grandma’s House—in which Amstell plays a version of himself—sees him picking at his troubled relationship with his family. His stand up is even more revealing. His shows are very funny, yes, but they’re also thoughtful, raw, occasionally profound and uncomfortably intimate. He puzzles over his relationship with his family, his taste in boyfriends, and his pornography preferences.
Sometimes he asks grand questions, only to find tiny answers. He asks his osteopath if his parents’ divorce might be the root of his posture problems, only to be told that, actually, he just has unusually short tendons. He asks his father the secret to happiness and is told, “I stopped eating wheat.”
At times, Amstell comes across as a man riffling through his own bins, looking for something important and trying to guess what sort of person might have produced all this muck. It’s almost as if, having cast off the hand-biting persona that made him famous, he isn’t sure exactly what remains.
Certainly, Amstell seems aware of his reputation as a trouble-maker. When we arrange to meet backstage at his Melbourne show, he assures me he’ll be delightful. And he is. It also becomes clear that his incessant questioning isn’t an act. He ruthlessly dissects the evening’s show. What worked? What didn’t? Where jokes fell flat, was it his fault, or that of the audience?
When we sit down for a proper chat, some months later, he asks about as many questions as I do. Was that a good answer? A good sentence? How can he phrase something in a way that’s never been said before? By then, he’s back in his London flat, having just completed a seven-week stint at a New York comedy club. It’s clear his American adventure has energised him. Indeed, the word ‘joy’ appears so frequently in his speech that it seems to never quite leave his tongue. I start to wonder if he hasn’t finally found some answers to all those questions he’s spent years asking.