Simon Amstell: To Fully Heal
At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Simon Amstell could be seen doing previews of his fifth UK stand-up tour, What Is This? These were ‘work in progress’ shows, allowing him to be quite free, he says, and try out different ideas. “People seemed to laugh,” he tells me. “Most people stayed in the room while the show was going on – I think it went alright.” The result of the previews, I’m told, is a show that is “about 15 per cent funnier – maybe 14, actually”.
Is he a different stand-up now to, say, five years ago? “I would hope so, because otherwise I’m still the same idiot. The aim is to become a new kind of idiot each time, so that you’re not repeating jokes.” He used to work “from a place of need,” he says, “like I needed something from the audience. There was a wound that needed healing and I thought that an audience laughing at everything I said would heal that wound.” He claims this was looking for love in the wrong place, stating he now does stand-up “mainly for the joy of doing it”.
He goes on, “I’m not the same sort of –”
He hesitates here, admitting he can’t think of the right word this early in the morning. Starting again, “I’m not [onstage] like somebody wanting something from the audience,” he explains. “I think I’m there in a more generous spirit now.”
It’s hard to forget the Simon Amstell who presented Never Mind the Buzzcocks, he who had an abundance of quips about other people but didn’t really bare his own soul – perhaps the pop quiz wasn’t really the right forum for that. What Is This? is a show of self-revelation, though, says the comic, using “deeply personal and embarrassing” to describe the material. If he isn’t a little anxious about saying something out loud, he says, “then it doesn’t feel quite risky enough. I want the audience to be surprised that I’ve said the thing I’ve said. I want that connection.
“I think the point of stand-up comedians is that they are saying the things that otherwise can’t be said. People find it difficult to talk about the things that they find embarrassing or shameful about themselves, and I think that’s what I’m up to: I’m exposing myself in order to make myself and the people in the room feel less alone.”
The book he’s just written, Help, is Amstell divulging more. It is a transcript of his stand-up, alongside “further thoughts and feelings” about things he’s addressed onstage. He feels “lighter” for writing it, “I got all these stories out of me; they’re not in my head anymore where they can upset or confuse me.”
He doesn’t worry about revealing too much. On the contrary, he worries about not disclosing enough. “Telling the truth is incredibly healing. And if you’re not going to expose everything of yourself then you’re not going to heal all of yourself. That’s the worry for me: that I won’t fully heal.”
Amstell, a vegan, recently wrote and directed the mockumentary Carnage. Set in 2067, where eating meat has been illegal for 20 years and the population finds it astonishing that the human race ever did it, the film recollects the days in which we were carnivores. Just trying to force people to think a certain way doesn’t work out very well, the film’s creator says. “So the priority was to make them laugh. Then after that they could make up their own mind.”
I wonder if the film has had the impact he wanted. “While I was in Edinburgh people kept coming up to me and telling me they’d switched to soya milk,” he says. “That seemed to happen quite a bit. It hasn’t had the full impact that I would like it to, because I still see people eating dead animals in front of me, and I can’t quite believe it’s still happening.” He finds it “very strange” that a lot of people still eat meat. “The premise of the documentary is that, in however many years, we’ll look back and think it’s unbelievable that we allowed this holocaust to occur. I don’t think it’s a nonsense, that idea.”
However, he no longer feels the need to harp on about the subject, “because the documentary is there now. I’ve made my point, I don’t feel like I need to explain myself anymore, I feel like I’ve said what I need to say about that.”
After learning of yet another project (an upcoming feature film he’s directing called Benjamin), I ask if he likes his career. “I really like it. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. I’ve always been, to some degree, quite in control of what I’ve been up to, which is quite incredible because I started when I was very young. I had an idea of how I wanted to be, and producers and people in charge of things seemed to sort of respect that. I think what’s different now is that I’m not trying to get anywhere.” In earlier days, he continues, he’d be on one show, thinking about where he wanted to get to next. “Now I feel very content exactly where I am, and my only ambition is to carry on doing what I’m up to at the moment for as long as I can – until death.”
On that bittersweet note, he laughs shortly and merrily. “Is that a good answer?”
That’s great, I say. It’s a very appropriate finish.
Simon Amstell: What Is This?
Birmingham Town Hall | 15 October
Bristol Colston Hall | 10 November
Reading Concert Hall | 18 November
Shepherd’s Bush Empire | 28-29 November
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