[6 October 2012]
Simon Amstell’s comedy is personal. That’s not to say it’s necessarily confessional, but still, his stories are frequently punctuated by seeming asides and winces that speak directly to us, like he’s letting us in on a secret, but maybe shouldn’t be. To many listeners, this may not sound like the basis for an enjoyable evening of comedy, but Do Nothing, a recording of Amstell’s routine airing on BBC America on 6 October, has more laugh-out-loud moments than the average TV sitcom.
The British comedian has had little exposure in the United States, save for an appearance on The View (which he promoted during a visit to Julie Klausner’s How Was Your Week podcast by saying, “I don’t know if anyone should watch it other than the people it’s intended for”). In the United Kingdom, Amstell is well known as a comedian and television presenter. He’s also served as an interviewer on PopWorld and host of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, where he refined a persona that is both cheeky and witty. He often said out loud what needed to be said to the sometimes C-list guests: on one memorable episode, Samuel Preston of British indie band the Ordinary Boys walked off mid-show.
Amstell wisely stepped down as host before the whole rude shtick became too tired. And his subsequent stand-up routines and television show (the underrated Grandma’s House) reveal an altogether different facet. In Do Nothing, Amstell’s cheekiness is replaced with a kind of vulnerability. Filmed in Dublin, Ireland on 22 May 2010, the show indicates increased poise in his performance, though he still exhibits entertaining insecurities. He opens by announcing, “I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that,” then discusses his flat’s two sinks: he uses one for cleaning, the other for crying.
But he’s not self-pitying. Rather, Amstell is self-reflective in a roundabout way, asserting that it is only “in the moment” that he finds joy and is “at one with the universe.” He’s not as New Agey as this sounds. He’s more existential; toward the routine’s end, Amstell sums up what might be called his philosophy, “We might as well choose love because death is coming.”
He speaks directly and indirectly to this idea throughout Do Nothing and in highly universal ways. Perhaps not to Amstell’s extreme, but we have all had ill-fated crushes similar to the one described in Do Nothing, involving Amstell’s obsession with a thin, vulnerable actor whom he once so romanticized he thought he could be with no other person. After Amstell confesses he saw him as a much “better version” of himself, he resolves, “I just need to find somebody who wants himself but much, much worse.” The anecdote develops, from Amstell seeing him after a performance in a play, missing an opportunity, then surrendering to regret and obsessive internet research before happening upon his object of desire again in a thrift shop.
After scoring an email address and writing an email approved by six friends, Amstell sends out his suggestion for a date, but never receives a response. After he offers this fizzled conclusion to a romance that never was, Amstell tells the audience, “Not only did he ruin my life for five years… he’s ruined this.” A little overdramatic, but his sense of rejection is both familiar and lasting, at least for Amstell.
But even as he describes such bouts with worry or heartache, Amstell remains acutely self-aware. This last is helpful in his reliably keen dismantling of social norms, indicated in the missed love story and other bits as well. He takes on playing “hard to get,” by pointing out that if we see a potato in the supermarket, we don’t resort to coyness in hopes of getting it to hop into our shopping basket and he considers prejudice with a memory of a family episode. When his brother’s girlfriend is barred from a gathering because she, like Amstell’s own family, is not Jewish, Amstell cops to creating drama by asking about the issue, but that his question doesn’t prompt much self-reflection, because, he admits, his family “has a strong belief in racism.”
As he skewers religions, Amstell also assures the audience he’s not an atheist because, he says, “I think I’m God a bit.” He points out that “It’s arrogant to change someone else’s perspective just so the world can be better for you.” As someone who could be labeled a number of things—- agnostic, gay, Jewish—Amstell’s rejection of such classifications is refreshing, if not precisely radical.
His philosophical digressions are similarly bracing. Taking as his point of departure Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, he begins to ponder the idea that we could be characters in someone else’s dream. And he in ours, of course. Amstell’s pop philosophy is more nuanced than much contemporary comedy, British or otherwise. Although other performers might talk of past traumas, Amstell goes the next step, into a potentially dark future. At one point he announces that “Death is coming” should be his catchphrase. His deft delivery helps to make it funnier than it sounds.