Simon Amstell: A seriously funny man

Simon Amstell has made a comedy career out of angst. But, thanks to a Peruvian shaman and a Parisian clown, he's now as happy as he's ever been, he tells Alice Jones

Alice Jones@alicevjones
Monday 31 December 2012 01:00

There are lots of words that spring to mind when you think of Simon Amstell. Funny, of course. Acerbic. Awkward. A bit tense. Happy? Not so much.

And yet here he is, sipping on hot water and lemon in his local café in Belsize Park, curly hair still damp from the shower, dressed neatly in a rose-coloured jumper and almost, almost, radiating wellbeing.

"I'm in a much more peaceful place. I don't feel broken anymore", he says. Broken how? "Oh, I used to have these endless appointments – osteopath, therapist, acupuncturist, yoga, meditation…. I'm still meditating and doing yoga, but I'm doing it because there's enjoyment in doing it, in maintaining this strength."

Can this really be Simon Amstell? The television presenter who made a name for being hilariously snarky to popstars on Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks? The comedian who began his last show with the warning, "This is my actual life, not a fun night out," and wrote Grandma's House, in his words, "a sitcom about depression, disconnectedness and isolation"? To listen to his stand-up, this is a man who has made misery his life's work; who hated school parties so much he couldn't wait to turn 17 in order to "get a driving a licence and drive away from the fun" and who nailed the loneliness of success, as summed up by the two sinks in his en-suite, with the zinger, "I now brush my teeth in the right one, and in the left one, I mainly cry."

And now he's happy? "Yeah. There's a feeling now that everything is really fine. Right now, it's two people talking to each other in a room. What's the problem? There's no bear in the room. I used to think that there was a panic, that I had to control everything. Now there's a feeling that everything will just flow along quite nicely. Maybe, it will all be alright."

Maybe, but this is still Simon Amstell. There isn't a bear in the room, but there is a good deal of neurosis. Interviewing him is an odd experience, not least because he provides a pained commentary on it, as it happens. "Sorry. I've answered your question all wrong", he says, two minutes in. "Have I said anything interesting yet? Oh god!" he panics, 15 minutes later. And so it continues – "Hang on. Where was I going? Oh GOD, I'm such a bad interviewee..." – at 10-minute intervals thereafter.

He is excellently amusing, if exhausting, company. He also laughs a lot – a high-pitched rising wave of "ha's", which get more panicky if he is talking about himself. "Maybe I'm just very self- involved. Ha ha ha HA!" – that sort of thing. He doesn't like sentences that end with an exclamation mark or a full stop, he says, and so he analyses his rambling answers to death, occasionally pinning them down to the table with splayed fingers. The only time he pulls up short is if you ask him something he considers too banally personal. Like, what's the best thing he has bought since he became famous? "I suppose I've got a flat. And a kitchen. I can buy cereal and soya milk. I don't know! What do people get? A horse? I haven't bought a horse. I'm not really into things."

Or, does he have a boyfriend? "I guess I can say I'm in a relationship. Although… I don't normally say these things. I don't think I can say any more otherwise I'll feel like I'm a celebrity." But you are a celebrity, I'm interviewing you. "I don't want to be a celebrity!" he wails, as if I've just pinched him really hard.

The fact is, at 33, with 15 years in showbiz behind him, Amstell knows that there is very little to say about him that he hasn't already said about himself. Ever since he quit Buzzcocks at the height of its success in 2009, he has made himself the subject of his work – flaying his failings in his stand-up, digging at his dysfunctional family relationships in his sitcom. And he's never been happier. "This will perhaps sound arrogant but it comes after a lot of thinking about it – there's nobody better at being Simon Amstell than me. I'm really good at that."

His most recent live show, Numb, is his most intimate yet. It screens tonight on BBC4, "for lonely people, who are not going out", which is, he thinks, his main demographic. He recorded it at the BBC, rather than releasing it as a stocking filler, because "there's something a bit disgusting about DVDs now. Everyone's made one."

The show is brilliant – one long, painful laugh about embarrassing parties, confusing massages and watching porn with his cat. The audience isn't sure whether to laugh or to give him a hug. "Or to phone someone." Break-ups, depression, his damaged relationship with his father (his parents divorced when he was 14) – nothing, and no one, it seems, is off limits. "There's some quote about a writer having a shard of ice in their heart. You're constantly observing," he says. "My friends tell each other everything that is going on. I think that openness means that… That I can exploit that? What does it mean? It's always about me being an idiot and struggling with other human beings in the world. It's not coming from a place of hate, it's coming from a place of, ultimately, deep love… Ha ha ha HA!"

Do his subjects understand that? "Sometimes." People he meets often worry that they are going to end up in his act. "But it's always the most boring people. I think, 'You've given me nothing! I don't know what you think I'd do with this...'" It can make parties a bit awkward, though he's better at those too, these days. "I can be in a moment with another person and not panic about hosting the conversation. Or about wrapping it up," he says. "I used to think like a presenter in real life: ok, we've got five minutes, this has to be a great five minutes... Mania."

As he recounts in Numb, he has a trip to a shaman in Peru to thank for his blissful new outlook. Two years of therapy and a clowning course in Paris also played their part. He enrolled at the École Philippe Gaulier – alma mater of Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon McBurney and Doctor Brown – two years ago. Unsurprisingly, channelling his inner child was a challenge for him. He tells me a long story about one class in which he had to pretend to be a lion but couldn't stop thinking that he wasn't really a lion. He lasted 30 seconds before Gaulier banged a drum to make him stop. "And then he asks this girl in the class to 'hit me until I'm interesting'. I'm screaming in pain but the class is laughing. So I think, 'Thank goodness. I'm getting laughs. This is working. I'm vulnerable in this moment.' And then he bangs his drum again and says, 'By the way, Simon, these laughs were not yours. They were for Tessa and the joy she took in hitting you.' All I wanted to do was please this insane man."

He did, eventually, locate his inner clown – "a curious, lost, vulnerable boy" – and it transformed his comedy. "I used to just try and find the pain and work from there but it has to be combined with the joy of performing. Then people feel comfortable to laugh at the pain."

The course also helped with his first foray into acting, in Grandma's House, the Larry David-style sitcom he created with the former Popworld script-writer Dan Swimer about a TV presenter who becomes an actor. His acting, as "Simon", drew mixed reviews (Caitlin Moran deemed it,"The worst yet done for cash on British television.") but after two series, he won viewers round. So now –typical Amstell – there won't be any more. "The whole thing was traumatic," he says. "I felt like it wasn't just a sitcom that was being judged. It was me, my life from the last five years. If it was going to be rejected, it would be a complete rejection of me."

He grew up in Essex, one of four. At school he was the classic shy child who became "the most precocious, annoying little shit" in the spotlight. On YouTube there's a funny little clip of his appearance on GamesMaster in 1993. "I'm actually not going to be a contestant," he tells Dominik Diamond, a steely glint in his giant glasses. "I'm after your job."

"From about the age of 13, being on television was the most important thing in the world to me," he says. "The whole focus. I thought it would solve all problems. Even at 13, I thought, 'I can't ever be lonely if I'm famous.'" As a teenager he would transcribe Eddie Izzard routines "to see how it was done" and did work experience with his hero Chris Evans on TFI Friday, when he was 17. A year later, he landed his first show – on Nickelodeon. Sacked for being too sarcastic, he went straight to Channel 4's Popworld, where he made it his selling point. Having transformed the fan worship of teen music programming into something far ruder and more compelling he did the same for adults on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, dragging the quiz out of its smug, MOR ditch and winning several British Comedy awards in the process. Though he appeared to relish his role as snidey Master of Ceremonies, the experience was, he says, quite painful. "Being in the office all week, trying to find things to say to these people…" He doesn't miss it although he recently heard a ridiculous One Direction lyric which made him yearn for a platform to mock them face-to-face.

As usual, he now has his eye on bigger things. He'd like to make it in America, and spent the summer doing a residency at Theatre 80, a former speakeasy on New York's Lower East Side. He is writing something new which may turn out to be a film and would like to do more acting, possibly in the new film from the directors of Black Pond, in which he played a creepy therapist opposite Chris Langham. And as of next week, he will begin trying out his new stand-up material in a set of low-key London gigs.

But if he's really as happy as he says he is, where does that leave his comedy? "I'm in a slight panic about what I'm going to talk about," he admits. "I used to think that I really had to hang on to my pain otherwise I won't be able to be funny. But actually if I hang on to the same pain that I was feeling a year ago, I'll end up writing the same jokes. I'll become a parody of myself."

So, he's planning to skewer his new-found happiness instead. "It feels like a constant fight between this very peaceful place where everything's fine, and then you die. And this ego person who needs to do certain things, and be in a certain place. That guy is SO annoying. I understand now that that's not really me – it's just this irritant who is getting in the way of my brilliant life." In other words, more Amstell angst to come. "There will always be suffering", he says chirpily. "Life is suffering, so there will always be new suffering! Thank goodness. Phew." Phew, indeed.

'Numb' screens tonight at 9.30pm on BBC4; 'Simon Amstell: Work in Progress', The Invisible Dot, London N1 ( 7-9, 14-16 January

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