I'm reading
Simon Amstell is a Comedian
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Simon Amstell is a Comedian
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Simon Amstell is a Comedian
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
1 October 2012

Simon Amstell is a Comedian

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photography by Atsushi Nishijima

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.

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #33 of Dumbo Feather

Myke Bartlett: I’ve heard you had a great time in the US. Has it felt like starting again, going over there?

Simon Amstell: Yeah. The people at the shows had no expectations. You know, I changed schools at secondary school. I arrived a year after everybody else, and it turns out that being the new boy gets you a lot of attention. And makes you seem more attractive than you maybe actually are. I got that again [laughs].

You like that.

I like that. You’re completely new to these people. They’ve got no idea that I’ve been doing it for however long I’ve been doing it now. I just seem like a fresh interesting voice, rather than being tired and old.

I guess, in the UK particularly, people have quite fixed perceptions of who Simon Amstell is, from Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Do you find that people have been challenged by your stand up? They’ve come expecting rude quips about celebrities and have been presented with a different Simon Amstell?

There is an element of that, I think. People do tend to bang on about that Buzzcocks program. If those people haven’t seen me do stand up before, then there’s certainly confusion in the audience. But in New York, from the beginning, people just accepted me. What I really liked about being there is you are an outsider, just because you are British, not because you’re a peculiar human being. People go, ‘Oh, he’s doing this kind of stand up, or he’s this kind of person,’ then go, ‘That must because he’s British and we accept that,’ rather than, ‘Why is he saying this odd stuff? Why isn’t he a standup comedian like the other comedians in England? Why isn’t he doing one-liners?’ Or ‘Why isn’t he doing, I don’t know, something funnier, like the other, proper comedians?’

So you felt more comfortable being an outsider.

Yeah, because it’s not personal. They’re not saying I should be anything other than what I’m presenting to them.

My bigger fear, rather than not fitting in, is just fitting in, being one of the people. I’ve made my own bed there really. I’m not good at being just another guy saying the things that guys are supposed to say.

It’s odd isn’t it? Even commentators you wouldn’t expect suddenly became all sporty and patriotic for a fortnight.

Isn’t it weird? Everyone must know these things have been said. If I hear myself about to say something that has already been said, I think, Oh no, I should probably come up with something more interesting, otherwise people will be bored. But people are happy to wander around all saying the same thing.

There’s a comfort in being able to reach for someone else’s opinion, isn’t there?

It’s like, we’ve all agreed the opinion on this topic. There’s no sort of… Oh, I won’t bang on about my annoying opinions. I could endlessly bang on about things I can’t cope with…

This goes back to being an outsider, I guess. Do you think there was a point where you decided to be an outsider, or was that just the role you seemed to fall into?

There must be some part of me that unconsciously decided to take on some kind of outside position. I think, later, I realised it was an important part of being a comedian not to be part of the general noise, the general consensus on things. I suppose it was both consciously and unconsciously deliberate. It’s not like I’m being deliberately contrary. It’s an authentic feeling that I can’t quite cope with the mainstream idea of how things are perceived.

What’s the point otherwise in being onstage? What’s the point in saying anything unless you’re coming at it from a new and interesting perspective? I struggle a bit to enjoy the comedy of the mundane, the gratuitously relatable comedians who will tell us the things we already know. You know, it’s very popular, because there’s a real comfort to it. It’s like, ‘Yes, we do have toasters! We absolutely do, spot on.’ I suppose I’m more interested in talking to the people who don’t have toasters [laughs].

You do seem quite distanced from the mainstream British comedy scene. Does that present a problem?

It presents a problem when you’re trying to tell people you exist. Ideally, my fantasy is that I could become some kind of genius recluse. People would just hear I was doing a show and would find their way towards it. But the reality is, if you’re going to do a tour, then you have to tell people that you are doing it and you have to find yourself becoming part of the mainstream noise. That’s a bit of a struggle. I think a lot of it is ego, really. If you’re a guy who just performs in small venues and you develop a small following and they come and see you and you never have to get involved in everything else, that’s quite a safe bubble for your ego. No-one can ever really get at you. Being in New York, because I was completely unknown, it felt appropriate to go and tell people who I was. It felt appropriate to do many more interviews than I would ordinarily do. Some of them were really fun and some of them were a bit of a struggle.

You ended up on a US daytime talk show, The View, didn’t you?

I didn’t know that would happen.

I’m finding it quite hard to picture you on that show.

I was working with a really good bunch of people and we had a great meeting one morning about where I could make a start, breaking into America. It felt really empowering. And then that evening, they said, The View want you. Never did I think, I must get on The View. It wasn’t a natural fit. The whole thing about stand up—and Jerry Seinfeld has spoken about this—is that it’s a journey of self-discovery. You really find your voice, you really find out who you are, in the doing of this stand up comedy. And then, you end up on this show with a certain format that doesn’t quite lend itself to your voice. I felt like I was sort of… what’s the word?

Contorting?

I was sort of contorting myself into the format of the program. And it’s a bit desperate, you know, it’s a desperate act. We’d done a lot of cool, low-key press. It was building very slowly. And then they said, ‘The View is a national program. Nothing bad can come from this.’ But I really had to contort myself into what was required. It was a desperate act to go on a big show—it felt like me saying, ‘Please like me America, I’m really funny, you must love me!’ Which is an odd thing to be doing, really.

But there’s an element of neediness inherent in stand up, isn’t there? In needing people to laugh at you?

I did an interview with someone in Australia actually and he noticed, quite aggressively, my neediness.

Really?

Yeah, it was quite an upsetting thing to read. But yeah, there is a real neediness to it. Which has lessened over the years. I think it’s now coming from another place, which is just a joy of performing. I go onstage remembering that I really love doing it. It’s not, ‘Oh God, I hope they like me.’ This is my hour where I get to be completely myself. It’s an hour of complete freedom. But appearing on something like The View, there’s a neediness to that because that’s not an hour, that’s five minutes of terror.

I’ve heard you say that it was a moment of terror, as a child, that first got you into comedy. Do you think that’s what comedy meant to you: a defence?

If you can make people laugh, that is a power. You’re then in charge of the room and no one can get to you. I started to do stand up when I was fourteen, which was the same time that my parents divorced. There must be some correlation between those two things. I don’t know what was going on exactly, but I think I was unconsciously creating a distraction. Not just for me, but for my mum, who I didn’t want to be upset anymore. She really got into it with me. She would practice the jokes with me, or write them for me. It was a real distraction and it felt like an exciting… it felt like, I don’t know. I haven’t quite figured out what I felt. Anyway, I joined a Saturday morning drama club. There was dancing, there was acting, and then they decided I should do stand up comedy. So I said yes.

It’s interesting that you describe the stage as where you feel most like yourself, because some people have a perception that comedians are somehow inauthentic. There’s a sense that they make jokes to cover the truth. But with your comedy it seems to be quite the reverse: it’s in your comedy where the truth comes out.

It certainly isn’t the case with every comedian because people laugh at the most inauthentic, peculiar things. But I find when I’m trying out new material—which is me going in front of people who have paid not very much money to see me possibly fail in front of them—if I say something which has the rhythm of funniness to it, but isn’t true, they really don’t laugh. They just sense the inauthenticity in my voice.

So the only things that become part of the show are the most truthful, the most personal things.

A lot of it seems to be about you constantly interrogating yourself and everything that’s happening to you. Is that the constant conversation in your head?

It used to be. I think what it is… Even now I can’t decide how to begin this sentence—is this a good way to begin a sentence? I think at some point I learned that, for example, a person is not a good person or a bad person. People are fallible and we’re all different. So, if I have an evening where I meet a new person and I don’t connect with them, I don’t go away thinking, What an awful guy, I think, What is it about me that couldn’t connect with that human being? You know, he used to be a baby, he was a joyful toddler, running around. He’s not a bad person, so what is it about me? We’re all just trying our best. I’m constantly seeking full emotional connections with other human beings. If that doesn’t happen in a moment, then I’ll over-think it in quite an unhealthy way. I was talking recently to a friend about a mutual acquaintance I couldn’t get on with. And they said, ‘Oh yeah, she’s quite humourless.’ And I thought, Oh right! It was such a simple way to think. I’d tried so hard to be compassionate that I’d forgotten people do have individual personality traits. [Laughs] ‘She’s quite humourless, and maybe a bit hateful.’ Oh, right!

You can’t be responsible for how everyone reacts.

Exactly. That was a good moment. But, at the same time, something’s happened to her that’s turned her into a humourless, potentially hateful human being. At her core, she’s perfect, she’s beautiful. But, through insecurity, she’s currently showing some personality traits that make it a bit hard to have a conversation with her.

That effort to see the best in people will surprise some people, I imagine, given you first became famous for being rude. Does it trouble you that rudeness is still seen as your brand?

It’s lessening now. I used to hear people say, ‘Oh, good one, you really gave it to them.’ But what we were trying to do on those shows—and I think it’s a really valuable thing that you can do with comedy—is attack a person’s ego. You know, I’m desperately trying to overcome my own ego and get to some other place of joy. To me, the more enlightened people we did this with understood that we were picking apart their ego, which is actually a very healthy, helpful thing.

You were doing them a service?

When I started doing Popworld, we would sit down and think about what was wrong with this pop star or band. I worked with a girl called Miquita Oliver who was really intuitive about picking up the specifics about what was wrong with a person. It was always about the specifics, it was never sort of: ‘Oh, this person is old or fat.’ To me, that’s why it wasn’t mean; it wasn’t gratuitously aggressive. It would pinpoint the moments where they’d done something like take the money, doing adverts or something, rather than staying true to the beautiful souls that they are… I guess.

So what you’re talking about is using rudeness as a form of honesty…

It’s extremely rare to have an interviewer pick apart the person a little bit, rather than accepting them completely. We’re all fallible human beings, so that’s an interesting place to be.

It’s really unhealthy for a culture to put celebrities on a pedestal. It turns everyone else into these low self-esteem peasants.

It was funny, during the Olympic opening ceremony some really joyful moment was happening and they cut to the royal box and the Queen was clearly bored—picking at her fingernails. And the commentator said, ‘And the Queen, watching on, enjoying the day.’ That’s what you’re supposed to say, because she’s the Queen. But she’s clearly bored. We’re all looking at the same screen and the commentary is claiming she’s having a good time. So that’s what we’re up against, Myke.

It’s an industry of inauthenticity. I think the first time I ever watched you on Buzzcocks, there was a sense of, I can’t believe he just said that, but also a sense of, Why has nobody else said that? It’s as if you can’t really be honest with these… imaginary people.

Imaginary people, I like that.

But, of course, becoming a celebrity was important to you, wasn’t it? As a young lad.

I was desperate to be famous. I just thought it would solve everything. Partly, it looked like a lot of fun, but I remember thinking, if you were on television, there would be fan mail and you would never be lonely, because there would always be mail to read. And that turned out to not be the case.

You don’t get fan mail?

In my whole career I’ve received maybe twenty letters. I think maybe I became famous at the point when people stopped writing letters. Or, people just don’t have an interest in writing to me. And I’ve been deeply, horribly, horrifically lonely in my life, so that just didn’t work at all. As soon as that became apparent, I became so disillusioned with it all, which is why I have to remind myself that I enjoy it. Because it’s all come from insecurity; it’s come from a moment of fear in childhood. It’s come from all this negativity which turned out, eventually, to be positive. When we were filming Grandma’s House, we were talking about this kind of thing. We discussed that impulse to get in front of people and perform. Linda Bassett, Grandma, was very wise and said it starts from insecurity and then you find that you just love it. You love doing it and you couldn’t do anything else. And then there’s some peace there.

It’s where you want to be.

Right, it’s exactly where I want to be.

You said fame seemed an antidote to loneliness, but that wasn’t the only draw of television for you, was it? It was also a chance to escape to an altogether better world.

Right. Growing up in Essex, it seemed that things like racism were fairly acceptable. So to see people on television getting booed for coming out with racist sentences, that felt like, Oh, TV, that’s a place where things make sense, where there is justice, where there is fairness, acceptance, compassion. Do I still feel like that? I don’t know, a little bit.

I wondered if, having escaped, whether you now have more time to focus on yourself. You became a famous person, a performer, but now you’re spending time just trying to become yourself.

Oh, that’s interesting, yes. The whole focus, from about fourteen onwards, was to get on television. I shut out a lot of other stuff. But, with stand up, all I do now is think about myself. I guess I’ve combined that with performing. Performing is now talking about my life and trying to figure out through performing how that life can be better, how I can find my way to enlightenment.

It seems to me that Grandma’s House and your recent stand up work seems to be getting ever closer to you… The focus is increasingly personal, to the point of being uncomfortable.

Good! I love that it makes people uncomfortable.

With Grandma’s House, do you think that’s consciously a way of working through issues—with your family, perhaps?

Grandma’s House is a work of fiction in terms of the things that happen in it, but the emotions are very real, emotions that needed to be dealt with. In the writing of that sitcom and in the acting I’ve come to such a level of self-awareness. I understand why my relationship with my mother is the way it is. I understand my mother’s relationship with other members of the family. To make something that feels real, truthful, you really have to explore the psychology of every character, otherwise things will feel forced. So I really understand who they all are now. Grandma’s House was fiction, but now I’m sat there with my family in real life and I can see the patterns. It’s like The Matrix, where you can see all the ones and the zeros. I can see it, so it doesn’t touch me anymore. I’m not anxious to change anyone. When we were writing that sitcom, I realised that one of my character’s major flaws is he’s always trying to fix other people. Now I’ve observed that about myself, I’ve let that go. It’s a very peaceful place now, being with my family. Everyone should write a sitcom about their family [laughs].

So as you put these uncomfortable things into fiction, you can kind of remove them from your life.

I would hope so, because it has to be an evolution, right? I used to think, Oh, I’d better stay sad, otherwise I won’t be able to be funny. But actually, if you stay sad in the same way that you were the year before, you end up writing the same show again. I would find myself on stage, improvising in front of people and the same thing would come out of me, a slightly different joke but it’s the same point. And I’d think, not only do I need new material, not only can I not repeat myself artistically, but I also can’t keep repeating myself in my life. I can’t keep making the same mistakes.

I can’t keep dating the same person over and over again. It’s really clear when you do stand up, because you go, Oh, I’ve written the same thing again, so you go, Right, I’ve got to sort that out.

And then there are new jokes. But, you know, there’s always suffering, there’s always something

But it forces you to find new suffering all the time?

Yeah, I’ve got to find the new suffering. The old suffering’s just been committed to DVD.

Grandma’s House has improved the way you see your family, but how have they reacted?

Differently. My mum is really happy, that I’m on television. I could have done anything really. As long as I’m on television, even if it involves the deconstruction of her entire personality and life, that’s fine. And, you know, it was slightly awkward for some of the others but I think that has passed. It’s a peculiar thing to have done. It was only when we came to the final sound dub that I sat there and watched one of the episodes and I was like, Shit, this can’t go on television. That’s me! That’s so clearly me! Why did we write this? This can’t happen. But those were the best bits, they were the bits people talk about. It’s because I’ve revealed part of myself that is flawed. Even in this interview now, I’d rather present myself as the most entertaining, intelligent, brilliant human being that I could be — even there I was just trying to think of better words for you and your article — but the truth is that I’m an idiot, there are any number of things that are wrong with me that we don’t feel generally comfortable exposing. So fiction is a very safe place to expose all your flaws, but it’s usually safer because you give that character another name. But I’m Simon. I’m Simon who’s just quit his job on television, playing someone who’s just quit his job on television. So that was why it was a bit alarming.

Is it just the feeling joy that’s important to you though? I get a sense that it’s important to you that it—whatever it is—is meaningful too.

It just needs to feel real.

Ambition, competition, in the end, nobody wins. We all just die. All that really matters, all there really is, is the moment. Feeling joy or something authentic in the moment. If you’re not feeling it, being in whatever job you’re in, you must quit. We’re here now. This is it. Find something that works.

We’ve already talked about how personal your stand up is, but the other thing that really struck me was how idealistic much of it is. So much comedy is based around nastiness, but there’s very little of it in your shows. At times, it’s quite inspiring.

That’s good. Go on…

There is that constant interrogation, that relentless, self-analysis, where you worry how you—a wiser you—will look back on a moment from the future. But I could sense that the flipside of that was a belief that the future will be better. That we’ll all be able to look back and feel embarrassed about the things we’re doing now.

I think it makes sense, in terms of evolution. I feel, I can get better, I can let go of prior anxieties, fixations and addictions… We can all let go of false perceptions and negative attitudes. People used to think racism was okay, now it seems a bit old fashioned. That’s why I’m not very interested in that kind of nastiness. I think we’re understanding now that karma is a very real thing; you feel worse if you’re putting out all this negativity. When people say it comes back to you, I think, it’s just that it doesn’t feel good.

So I guess you’re kind of taking the journey you’ve been on, starting from a position of fear and heading towards this more joyful place, and hoping that you might push that out into the world?

I don’t think I’ll push it out, I think it’s just happening. Things like meditation are becoming mainstream now. It’s not just a kooky thing that celebrities do. Meditation is getting out of the head, letting go of the ego.

We’re all thinking too much, we’ve thought ourselves into a terrible mess.

There comes a point when you suddenly realise that the thinking isn’t working. Somebody told me writing was a good thing, you write with your heart and you edit with your head. That kind of works for life too. You live with your heart and then, if something needs figuring out, then bring the head in.

You think you’ve been stuck at the editing stage?

Yes, constantly editing life rather than living it.

I really wanted to speak about your experiences in Peru, which you spoke about during your Melbourne show. That seems to be the culmination of your journey to feel rather than think. What led you there?

I was at a dinner with an old school friend and for an hour he told us the most incredible story of his experience in the Peruvian rainforest drinking ayahuasca with a Shaman. When my friend spoke about it, he looked like he was about nine years old. His face was so full of joy and I thought, Well, I’d like some of that then. I wasn’t sure if it was something I could talk about publicly, something that could be stand up comedy. It’s a personal and totally peculiar thing. I’ve been in psychotherapy for a few years and some good work was done. But there were certain things that weren’t resolved and they were things that came up in these ceremonies while drinking the medicine. There were strong, vivid visions of myself as a baby and, without getting too specific, I had a sense of things that were going on around me that had caused this anxiety, this fear.

You got to the core of it.

It absolutely got to the core of how my identity was constructed. It was a great relief. It acted for me like a psychotherapeutic conversation. It might sound like a crazy drug trip, but I’ve done magic mushrooms and that’s like a really fun thing to do, but this was not fun. It was traumatic and unpleasant.

What was the end result of this, for you?

I felt like I wasn’t broken anymore. I felt like there wasn’t something wrong with me that needed to be healed. I found a strength I didn’t have before. I’d got so used to this anxious shy character. I was constantly going to all these appointments to fix things—an osteopath for my bad posture, yoga, a therapist. But I’m not in therapy any more. I still do yoga, but I’m not doing it for my posture. I’m doing it because I enjoy it.

Are you worried though, about being healed? Because there’s that notion that an artist needs to be broken in some respect.

I’ve got a good memory [laughs] it would be insane to stop yourself, even for artistic reasons, from getting better. It’s not the end of the journey; I’m not fully healed. It’s a continuous journey. The thing that I found, this joy, I still dip in and out of that. But when I do feel sad now, I know it’s not because I’m a broken human being, it’s because this is one of the emotions that human beings feel…

I feel like I haven’t been very funny in this interview.

There were laughs. I just think we got into the deep and interesting stuff towards the end.

You’ll have to tell your readers that. ‘He’s very funny on stage, but, we decided to go for interesting…’

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photography by Atsushi Nishijima

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.