ABOVE: SIMON AMSTELL BACKSTAGE AT THEATER 80. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO.
In his native Britain, comedian Simon Amstell is famous for his irreverent, cheeky style. A former television presenter, Amstell began his television career at age 18, “introducing the Rugrats,” in his words, on Nickelodeon, and subsequently hosted a music program, Popworld, and an adult current-events talk show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He’s the sort of personality who might (and in fact did) ask Björk when she last uttered the phrase “get me some bananas, you idiot” in Icelandic, or Britney Spears “on a scale of one to 10, how good-looking are you?” (a seven). But, you do not need to know Amstell’s career history in order to appreciate his comedy show, Numb, which he is currently performing at Theater 80 in New York. It is probably better if you don’t—nothing about Amstell’s reputation will prepare you for just how perceptive Numb is, the very relatable way in which Amstell approaches weighty themes such as social isolation, romantic breakups, family breakups, and just how silly hipsters can be.
EMMA BROWN: You mentioned “breaking America.” Is that what you are trying to do with this New York tour?
SIMON AMSTELL: Well, sort of, but it’s sort of a silly thing to want to do. We’re all going to die, it seems silly to have any sort of….
AMSTELL: Ambition at all. [laughs] But I suppose while I’m here. I like the idea of being new in a different place and you people speak English, so there’s no reason why [not].
BROWN: When did you start framing everything in terms of “we’re all going to die”?
AMSTELL: I think it was because I was such a peculiar child, everything was focused on this peculiar ambition [I had]—to end up on television. When I ended up on television and realized that it wasn’t the answer to everything—it does not cure loneliness, for example—I wondered what that journey had been for, and you realize that it hasn’t been for anything, there is no end. We have this thing in our culture where we have to give people awards, there are rites of passage—even days of the week—we’ve made all of these things up just so we can cope. “Well, that was Tuesday, and I got that done, and then it’s the weekend, which is good because I can do this.” The idea of a life plan, “I’m here now, where do I need to go to…” There’s always “And then what?” And eventually the end of that “and then what?” is death. I’ve just learned that I can’t have such a narrow focus as I did as a child, because there is no end point, and eventually you feel empty if you’re not also nourishing other things: joy, love, relationships. [laughs]
BROWN: A lot of your comedy is very personal, and I can imagine people getting a bit uncomfortable if you were to tell the same stories in casual conversation: “This is a bit of an overshare and I’m not sure what to do with it.”
AMSTELL: I am not keen on the idea of an oversharer. I don’t like that as a problem. I have more of a problem with an undershare. If I’m talking to somebody and I ask them how their love life is and they say “fine,” that’s a problem for me. I want to know things about people, I feel like we’re all here on this planet, and intimacy is important. I can’t bear small talk, it’s awful. I want to get beyond that thing of discussing how the weather is a bit better today than it was yesterday, and how this is a nice restaurant. I want to get to what are the problems, what’s really going on. Are you in love? Are you in a lot of pain? What’s really going on in your life? I’m interested in that area, whether it’s on stage or in real life.
BROWN: You should be a therapist.
AMSTELL: Well, two therapists came to the show last night, so we’re kind of friends now. I have a slight fantasy about being a psychotherapist, in that I feel really interested in people and their issues. But I think I need to train—there are things that I’ve picked up from therapy, I know there are things to say like, “When was the last time you felt like this?” or “Where are you in the family? Do you have siblings? Tell me about your parents.” And then there’s a point where I just go, “I have no idea, you should see someone about that.” [laughs] It’s really frustrating, because I want to be the guy who goes, “Oh it’s this! This is the thing.” It’s annoying.
BROWN: Do people come up to you after the show and say, “That really spoke to me?”
AMSTELL: You could say that there’s a bit of that. That does happen. I never expect it at those beginning stages, when I’m coming up with what’s going to be the show. I’m not interested in being gratuitously relatable and broadening out what I do in order to reach more people. When I’m going into specific details of the trauma, I think it’s the details that connect with people. I’m accidentally relatable—I didn’t mean to be, and I didn’t think I would be. It [feels] like what I’m saying on stage is quite shameful and possibly perverted; so for other people to be laughing and go, “Oh, yes, we understand that. We are like that too,” is very lovely.
BROWN: How autobiographical is your show? Are you playing a character?
AMSTELL: I’m not playing a character. What I’m doing though is taking the worst, most shameful, peculiar, or troubling aspects of my personality. So there are elements of me that are not there. The happy version of me is not really in the show, because there’s nothing funny about being happy. So it’s more like I’m poaching on the funniest parts of me rather than actually creating some other character.
BROWN: Are there things that worked better when you performed the show in England than in the US?
AMSTELL: Not England or America, I think it’s major city or sleepy village. If there’s anything to be said in a broad way about different audiences it’s that I live in a major city, and those themes of isolation, protectiveness, loneliness tend to resonate with other people in major cities. In a sleepier village, where people are married with their children, me standing up and saying, “This marriage idea is a funny old convention that we invented”—various things that are deconstructions of the norms of a culture—if people have already made decisions like that, they’re more inclined to say “Please, stop talking about our marriages, ’cause we’re here now.” [laughs] So that’s the only difference. And also, every night is different. Like last night, which you saw, was completely different from the night before, and they were both in New York in the same venue with the same show.
BROWN: How fluid is the show? Do you change from night to night, or is it pretty scripted?
AMSTELL: It’s not scripted, because I don’t really write the show, it’s a process. How it works is: at the beginning stages, I go in front of about 50 people who have paid very little money, and I am allowed to fail in that space. I’ll just talk and talk for an hour, an hour and half, until funny things come out of my mouth—often things that I don’t think will be funny, often things that I just thought were sentences, turn out to be funny, because they’re the sentences of an idiot. There’s level of self-awareness that develops, and I write down things that were funny, usually when I’m on stage, and that becomes the show. Once there’s enough funny things, a theme will develop; I’ll notice that I’m talking about a certain type of thing quite a lot and I then I think, I guess that’s what the show is about, and it becomes structured. It’s fluid in that I can respond to anything happening in the room or anything happening to me in that room; last night I felt quite hot, so that became a thing that had to be dealt with [laughs]. But it is a show that has a beginning and an end. I know where I’m going, but I’m quite happy to deviate.
BROWN: And how much does the audience talk to you during the show?
AMSTELL: Not very much.
BROWN: You never have people being stand up and say, “No. You’re wrong”?
AMSTELL: No, you get that from the lack of laughter. The laughter means, “That sounds like something we understand,” and the lack of laughter means, “We’re not quite there with you, sorry.”
BROWN: Do you ever skip parts of the show because you aren’t “feeling” them on a particular night?
AMSTELL: Not parts, because if the sections weren’t significant to the show as a whole, then they wouldn’t be there. But certain lines may get skipped if I’m feeling in the room that we need to get to the next part a bit quicker. If there’s been a slight dip for some reason, and I feel like, let’s skip those two lines and get to this one.
BROWN: A lot of the show focuses on painful subjects—break-ups, strained family relationships, general isolation—do you ever write when you are happy?
AMSTELL: Yeah, but [my writing] is normally about something either horribly sad or about something completely new, or about something that has happened.
BROWN: Did you have a diary as a child?
AMSTELL: For about three years.
BROWN: Do you still have them?
AMSTELL: Yeah, they’re somewhere. They’re all very embarrassing. I was a really weird child. From 13, I was fixated on the idea of being a person on television, and everything in those diaries tends to be about being in the school show, ending up on the school radio station.
BROWN: I know that you used to host a television show called Popworld where you, among other things, interviewed lots of musicians and celebrities. Is it weird being on this side of an interview?
AMSTELL: Yes. Because I’m also a control freak; it’s my personality. I’d rather be asking you questions about your life, but then how would the people on the Interview magazine website know who I was? So I guess it has to continue in this fashion.
BROWN: There is something of a rampant rumor that you made Britney Spears cry during an interview on Popworld; did you?
AMSTELL: [laughs] Not really, no. That Wikipedia page has got to be changed at some point. I did five years of wonderful, joyous, beautiful work for that show.
BROWN: I hear that you recently started Twitter. How’s that working out for you?
AMSTELL: Well, at first I was very anxious about it, because I didn’t really know what was expected of me. I now feel fairly relaxed, in that’s it a way of telling people things that you are doing, without any attempt to be entertaining. To me, even funny people who are tweeting, it just gives a glib impression. You know that it’s been constructed, that it’s not a thing that’s just happened in that moment. So whatever you read, the best you get is, “Eh.”
BROWN: Who makes you laugh?
AMSTELL: My mum makes me laugh a lot.
BROWN: At her or with her?
AMSTELL: With her. She has a self-awareness, she knows she’s funny. The key is not seeming like you know what you are doing, so she’s also very clever at hiding it. I saw Janeane Garofalo perform over here and she made me laugh.
BROWN: Have you had a really bad stand-up experience?
AMSTELL: Yes. I’d been booked to do a charity event; it was an award show for companies who had done stuff to make their product more accessible to disabled people. I’d been booked to do some stand-up comedy after the awards had finished. I come on stage—they said my name, but I don’t think they said “comedian”—and it’s a bit of an older crowd and they don’t know who I am, which is fine, but I then start doing my stand-up, I was holding a microphone, so I thought it would be clear that what I was doing was stand-up comedy. I said some funny things—clearly funny, definitely funny-in-the-past things, and they weren’t laughing, so I started to get a bit tense. I realize that if I’m feeling tense, they must be feeling tense, but they don’t look worried—a bit confused, but they’re not heckling me, they’re not angry. So I said to them, “People normally laugh at this stuff, but don’t worry, I’m going to keep talking for another 10 minutes because that was what I was booked for, and then we can all carry on with our lives.” Then a note comes from the back of the room, from one of the organizers, “I think it may be too late for stand-up, perhaps bring on the band.” I read this to myself and I think, “I’ll read this note out, it will be a self-deprecating thing to do, it will get a big laugh and I’ll be able walk off.” I read the note. No laugh. I walk off to silence, no applause. I go back to a hotel room and I think about what happened for three hours. [laughs]
What I realized afterwards was that I hadn’t been billed or introduced as a comedian, and when you’re a comedian, you say really harsh, odd things because people understand what’s going on, there’s a context. They weren’t laughing because they thought I was doing a speech about disability and that’s not what I was doing. I’ve stopped doing things that aren’t clear comedy gigs—to do something that’s not “comedy night,” it’s a difficult thing. People have to be given permission to laugh. You need to know it’s comedy; otherwise you might just think I’m a man talking out loud... [laughs]