Interview: Simon Amstell

“I came to the conclusion that we’re here for no reason at all, that there’s no point to any of this and then we die. The only logical thing I could think of to therefore do was to feel as much joy and connectedness as is possible. I’m trying to just listen to whatever the hell my body wants me to do, and in this instance it was stand-up comedy about freedom, about joy, about this thing of being alive and spontaneous rather than repressed and blocked and planning too much.”

As the quote with which I’ve begun may suggest, Simon Amstell likes to ramble. I mean this in the best possible way — as he answers each of the questions I put to him, his sentences meander and turn back on themselves as he thinks aloud. It is clear that he is pondering far too much to worry about coherence or predictability, and it’s also clear that he’s a man who’s beginning to find a way to escape the arrested development which can set in among those who find fame young. In thinking about big philosophical questions like freedom and making them funny, he might have just found himself a niche.

Initially, Amstell asks if I want him to be interesting or funny. After chatting with the curly-haired presenter-cum-writer-cum-comedian, I’d say that it’d be hard for him not to succeed at being both, although it must be said that the former Never Mind The Buzzcocks mainstay often makes tales of anxiety transmit themselves viscerally — and a little painfully — down a phone. As we chat, his musings range from a story about spotting a monk on an aeroplane to a delightful little vignette about meeting a human rights lawyer at Latitude festival. This man has far more to him than just a past on T4.

“Even Johnny Depp will at some point become an old bald man who used to be famous.”

His extensive showbiz resumé is hard to process given that the Peter Pan-esque comedian still sounds and appears like an awkward teenager discovering sex for the first time, but over our time on the phone I gain the impression that Amstell has now embraced a personal philosophy that sounds like the sophisticated sister of ‘YOLO’, and is seemingly dedicated to just doing.

Popular myth has it that Amstell once made Britney Spears cry during his time as the impossibly young host of T4’s early noughties smash hit Popworld. Whilst it seems that this is untrue, when I ask present-day Simon Amstell about his attitude to fame, I sense that the young man whom he describes as having “a part of me that was ashamed by my own desire for fame” turned those insecurities outward, forming what became a trademark acerbic interviewing style.

I ask him to elaborate and he begins to delve into the neuroses that characterized the early part of his career. He tells me, “It’s an embarrassing and awful thing to admit that you crave attention from as many strangers as possible — to admit that what you want is for everyone to love you. I think there’s a deep well of insecurity and self-hate there.” This brutal self-examination spiralled from a question about his attitude to fame and as his answer continues, the comedian’s thoughts become philosophical, using Johnny Depp to exemplify the lack of fulfilment found in fame alone. “Even Johnny Depp will at some point become an old bald man who used to be famous; at some point he’ll have to either become really old and bitter because he’ll be thinking ‘Where did all the money and the women go?’, or he’ll go, ‘Oh well, I’ve still got all these hats.’” Amstell continues, “You know, there’s no peace to that part of fame — there’s no peace to gaining it because then you have to retain it!”

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The conversation turns towards the past, and in particular the way in which each of the biggest jobs Simon Amstell has ever had (on Popworld, NMTB, and with his own sitcom, Grandma’s House) has ended perhaps prematurely. “I’ve quit each time; each thing I’ve done I’ve stopped doing slightly earlier than I guess people expected me to stop and it’s partly because I felt that I’d done the job, but also because there were moments, in particular with NMTB, where I just thought ‘that’s enough’ — that’s enough attention.” He then thinks again and offers another clarifications, explaining, “I thought people didn’t understand, that what I was providing and what they thought they were enjoying weren’t quite the same thing.”

Amstell’s latest show is titled To Be Free, and feeling that his thoughts, and much of his past stand-up have exhibited a philosophical strain of thought, I ask whether he sees philosophy as something he does deliberately in his comedy. His response is typically wry and self-deprecating, “That’s obviously not what I am, I’m not a philosopher or else I’d be a philosopher, I guess what I am is basically a clown. I’m like an idiot who is really curious and really desperate to figure out what the hell I’m doing.”

I propose that this is a paradox. Amstell disagrees. He tells me, “No, I think that it’s a good place for curiosity to come from. If I was a complete idiot, then yes, I suppose I’d have no curiosity though.”

I wonder whether this curiosity is something that comes from the travel intrinsic to touring. Alas, nothing so prosaic. Amstell traces this to a long ago trip to Thailand, “I went to Thailand when I was like 22 or something and it totally altered who I was as a person — I started reading about Buddhism and became veggie, I actually started meditating — those things are all kinda from a feeling I felt in Thailand and seeing a monk on a plane.”

When we speak, Amstell has just finished a run at the Edinburgh festival which was designed to, for want of a better description, act as a trial run for his forthcoming tour. He explains, “With this show the idea was to go in front of people in Edinburgh and turn the show into something resembling a real show. I mean it was something before Edinburgh but became something longer and funnier which is what it was supposed to do.”

“Anything else is just some other authority telling me that this is the way something is.”

As we continue to talk about his creative process, Simon Amstell’s typically informal, ramshackle style comes to the fore. “I tend to not actually write material. I go in front of 100 people who pay about five pounds each and I tell them it isn’t a show and I end up talking about whatever is coming out of my head at the time. I mean I have some notes and that, but it’s just expressing whatever my ridiculous head wants to express at the time, and then I look at the stories that have been funny and the things which have connected those stories to come up with a show.”

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Feeling that, in his ideas of self-censorship and freedom, Amstell has quietly incorporated a political undertone into his new show, I put it to him that he seems to be incredibly cynical about the way the world works in an explicitly political sense. He disagrees, “It’s all coming from a very personal place though. I’m not really interested in politics, or that engaged in the debate, it all just feels so limiting — the debates on TV are so far off from what the actual truth is.

“I just sort of use myself as, y’know, what’s the word, I suppose everything goes through the prism of my own trauma or joy or pain, the prism of how I’m feeling because I suppose that the only thing I can really trust or know, how I feel. Anything else is just some other authority telling me that this is the way something is.

“For example, I had a bit about pornography in my last show, but it wasn’t about pornography; it was about how I had ended up watching the shameful, weird, and ethically dubious pornography that I’d ended up being interested in. And I’m more interested in exposing myself and showing how weird I am or who I was in that moment and what that means rather than what is right and wrong in terms of legislation for the country.”

From legally and ethically dubious pornography, the natural progression is to talk about the episode of Skins for which Amstell received a writing credit. The fact that my interviewee had a part in writing series one favourite ‘Maxxie and Anwar’ — the one where the two titular characters struggle with the former’s homosexuality — had always seemed something of an oddity. I bring the subject up wondering whether Amstell’s own life played a role in the creation of such an episode, but instead he explains about the limitations of working within someone else’s project.

“I think the creators wanted to have a US style writing room with a lot of young people around a table and I was a young person at the time so I guess they thought I’d be a good person to have in there, and then I ended up co-writing an episode. Afterwards I remember thinking that the next thing I do I need to be in total control because interesting as doing Skins was, doing something that well, wasn’t my voice — that was somebody else’s vision and somebody else’s show — was quite difficult.

As the interview draws to a close, he charmingly wishes me, “Good luck with the edit of this, and good luck with the rest of your life.” Simon Amstell still feels like a vaguely contradictory person; he’s a man who is, by his own admission, “fairly famous”, yet he is a man who has outgrown his desire for fame. He remains a popular comedian and an engaging stage presence, but his act revolves around his neuroses (and the way he recalls them, they are traumatising right up until the moment that thousands of people know about them.)

The only real conclusion one can find is to say that come his tour — which hits Oxford in the new year ­— there will be a genuine and thought-provoking presence on stage, someone who will make an audience cringe, laugh, and feel an awful lot of — perhaps misplaced given the man’s success — sympathy for. And maybe, after that, he’ll escape to the Thai wilderness again.