Comedy: Simon Amstell: ‘I was reborn again, but this time in Norfolk’

Aphra Evans, August 19, 2017

“Hello Simon,” I say, with a fangirl shake in my voice. “I’m the work experience girl at Bristol24/7 and you’re through to my parents’ landline.”

“This will probably be my favourite interview,” replies the voice on the end of the phone.

Simon Amstell doesn’t do much press, save for a strictly annual interview slot with The Guardian. When it comes to interviews, he seems to prefer being in the driver’s seat, like he was as the ballsy presenter of Buzzcocks.

“I don’t really feel like I ever was a presenter,” Amstell exclaims suddenly. “I was always, just like, pretending to be one. If you look at the way I would say, ‘hello and welcome to the show’, I wasn’t saying that in a way that was welcoming, normal or sincere. I was saying it in a way that mocks the idea of it. You’re only talking to a camera, you’re not seeing anyone. The whole thing was a nonsense!”

He lets out a burst of high-pitched laughter. “I don’t know what I’m saying. Just delete. It’s for the best.”

Amstell is now directing films, so instead of talking to cameras and pretending people are there, he can make other people do so. But that’s not to say there aren’t other perks to the career change. “There’s a lot of joy in hearing other people say lines that you’ve written in a way that’s much funnier than if you’d said them yourself,” he says. Plus, he adds, as a director, you can hide behind the monitor. “You don’t have to shave, you don’t have to make sure your hair is lovely…”

It certainly sounds like there’s a lot more on his plate this year than making his hair lovely – lovely though it is. For one, his first film, Carnage, recently appeared on BBC iPlayer. It’s a mockumentary set in 2067 where everyone is a vegan and the meat industry of today is looked back on as depraved and genocidal.

In the film, a key turning point in veganism’s world domination is the invention of a device which translates the thoughts of cows and goats into Joanna Lumley’s voice. Was she a natural choice for the role, I ask. “Lumley was in the script from quite an early stage, and there was a point where I thought, ‘this probably isn’t going to happen’,” he remembers. “Then she agreed to say the line, ‘why do you keep making me ejaculate?’, and I thought, ‘OK, this film is actually happening’.”

Carnage portrays both vegans and “carnists” in a deeply unflattering light: the former as bland, joyless hipsters, the latter as clueless, frenzied eaters. But Amstell claims he has not received hate mail from either field since the release of the film. “The aim was to make it so funny that people wouldn’t be upset by the information we were giving them,” he says. “I think that must have worked out.”

Another of the film’s great successes is the way it frames clips from cookery programmes to look as perverted as they clearly do from Amstell’s perspective. A memorable one is Nigella cooing lovingly to a chicken as she breaks its back and grins at the camera. “That clip of Nigella went out on BBC2 or BBC1. And she’s just doing some cooking. But she looks like a total maniac,” he laughs.

Amstell is possibly the only director working in vegan comedy, but he may be deserting the sub-genre as soon as he arguably created it. He’s also clearly unsure of whether he wants to accept the accolade of founder of vegan comedy. “I can’t imagine anyone thinking to themselves, ‘I really want to make a vegan comedy.’ If someone else can take on the mantle, that’s really good news. I don’t think I need to make another one for at least five years,” he says.

Instead, Amstell will begin shooting his second film, a narrative feature called Benjamin, about intimacy and despair. “I can’t really say much about that, because I’m about to make it. Who knows what it will be? I’ll be able to talk about it in a year, to The Guardian,” he says with another burst of laughter.

Pic: Carol Rosegg

He also has a book coming out, Help, which combines material from his last four stand-up shows, plus new writing which delves deeper into topics he has touched on before.

“I was explaining on stage a few years ago that I drank ayahuasca, the healing plant medicine, in Peru. I said, ‘I was reborn, but we don’t have time to talk about that, but I was reborn’.”

The book is an opportunity to go on about his experience for 20 pages, something that would be impossible on stage. “There was a lot of complicated, interesting stuff that was too long or sad or strange for stand up. It’s hard to make seeing yourself in the womb relatable.” We talk for a while about how much he vomited before the hallucinations hit, and how he has not since returned to Peru – although he did visit a sweat lodge where he was “reborn again, but this time in Norfolk.”

Such revelations are testament to how heavily Amstell’s comedy draws on his inner life, and when I mention this, he agrees: “To me the most interesting thing is a person on stage revealing who they are. That’s what I’m interested in. I want to see the parts of them that I wouldn’t get to see in a polite, formal conversation. I want to see all their insecurities and the pain that they’ve gone through.

“If I’m useful in any way, it’s by doing that. When I say the thing that I feel worried about on stage, and people laugh, I feel less alone.” I can hear him smirking again as he says, “And if people listening feel better about their own depraved existences, that’s good.”

This is what can be expected from Amstell’s next touring show What Is This?, which comes to the Colston Hall on November 10.

“It’s the question that underpins everything,” he says, his voice rising hysterically. “What is this? What is going on? What are we doing here? What are we?”

“It’s about navigating a relationship. It’s about intimacy and taking an illegal drug which made that easier. It’s about popping into a sex party briefly. It’s about my dad and how I’ve come to some peace with my relationship with him.”

It is startling how easily he moves between the flippant and the deeply personal, on stage and on the phone to a stranger. “When I used to feel all broken and depressed, I thought, ‘well, at least I’m interesting. At least I’ve got some sort of journey to go on to be healed.’ But if I’m feeling OK now, maybe I’m just some normal guy. So the show’s also about the panic of just being some normal guy.”

It seems that in this tour, Amstell’s stand up material will still revolve around familiar themes – sex, love, intimacy, family, mental health – but since his last comedy appearances, a profound change has taken place within him.

“I used to be an open wound, hoping that the audience’s laughter would heal me. I was using stand-up as a coping mechanism. But now I feel right in myself. I’m more playful and joyful. It’s a thing I enjoy doing.

“It’s less tortured for me and the audience now. Everyone wins!”

Indeed, Simon. Indeed.

Simon Amstell brings his new show What Is This? to Colston Hall on November 10. Early booking advised. For more info, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/simon-amstell-what-is-this

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