"You Can't Be Lazy In Stand-Up:": An Interview with Simon Amstell
The British comedian gets candid about himself, his own healing experiences, and the magic of hallucinogens.
“What am I talking about?” is not something an interviewer wants to hear from their subject, but when the interviewee is someone as clever as British comedian Simon Amstell, you can rest assured that he will reach a very knowing conclusion in the end. A phone interview with Amstell portrayed him as filled with the same awkward charm that has made his stand-up shows Do Nothing and Numb -- which Amstell is performing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York this November -- and role on his sitcom Grandma’s House so endearing.
Apart from a run of appearances in New York, these Numb shows are Amstell’s first United States comedy club exposure (in Los Angeles, he’s hitting famed venue Largo). 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 pop culture quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Here Amstell refined a persona that is both cheeky and witty, as 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.
In his stand-up and in interviews, however, Amstell’s cheekiness is softened by a great deal of vulnerability. The stories presented throughout Numb, running the gamut from issues with his father, to saying the wrong things at parties, to a vision quest are personally without being confessional; the cringes which punctuate these tales speak directly to us. Thankfully, my interview with Amstell broke any surface awkwardness enough to reveal someone passionate about their craft. When I told Amstell that seeing Do Nothing for the first time -- in New York’s tiny UCB Theatre in 2009 -- was a huge comfort to my own socially awkward and lovelorn self, he seemed genuinely happy about it. Being a longtime fan, I was happy to listen to Amstell digress through everything from ayahuasca to famous crushes.
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How long did it take you to create both Do Nothing and Numb
Good question that nobody's ever asked before. Well, neither of them really were written in that I tend not to sit in front of a computer and write. What I tend to do is go in front of an audience for about an hour, and it's an audience who have paid very little and understand that I'm there to not be that funny; rather to explore or to be allowed to fail. And the things that come out of those hours are the things that become the material. So I'll record those shows or I'll not record them, I'll have a sort of pad and a pen and I'll write down everything that seemed to be funny or interesting, and then the show gets developed from there. So, time-wise, I think Numb was probably about a year doing that sort of thing but on and off, because halfway through, we stopped to finish writing and film this sitcom we made, Grandma's House. So, it was probably over about a year as there was a break for the sitcom. I think Do Nothing took...I can't really remember. I'm sorry I can't remember. Oh god, Maria, what will we do?!
We'll just have to soldier on.
Yeah. I mean, I gave you some sort of answer? You may just need to change the question (laughs). Then we'll really have something!
(laughs) Was one harder to write than the other?
Do Nothing was a bit more tricky because I was just sort of figuring out that process of writing on stage and then by the time it came to creating a new show, I knew that's how I would do it. And so, I think the idea that it's hard or easy ends up just being in my head, anyway. Really, you know, in theory it's the easiest thing, it's just sort of standing up in front of people and telling stories and making a note of where they seem to laugh. And that's quite fun, you know, that's quite a fun thing to do.
Do you hope to eventually take your shows to other cities and towns throughout the US?
I suppose I do. At the moment the only thing that is scheduled is going to New York again for a week, and then going to L.A. and San Francisco, from November 9th onwards. I suppose if those people like me, then I'll go out to other cities in America if they agree. There isn't a formal plan, really, rather than keeping going (laughs). "Rather than keeping going." Sounds like I'm dying or something!
With Numb, what do you hope your audience comes away with?
The show is about wanting to connect with people. So if it's anything, it's that there's been a feeling of connection to something in the room, that something has happened in that room with the people in it. All I'm really doing is trying to figure out my life on stage for about an hour. So all I'm really hoping is that I feel better at the end of it. But what seems to happen through talking about this journey of…whatever it is -- loneliness, anxiety, mild forms of depression -- and then finding some healing through various things, is that people end up relating, because they're really sort of basic human issues I'm talking about, that primal problem. I suppose I talk about how I'm there purely selfishly. Like I'm just there because I enjoy doing it, I feel it's helpful, it's joyful. I really love doing stand-up comedy. So [those are] the reasons that I'm there. But the people in the room who are laughing and then taking something from the show--it hopefully stays with them -- is a thing that I really appreciate. I'm into that happening. It's not the reason that I'm there. I'd be... being fraudulent if I said I was there to help anyone! (laughs).
You said you perform in hopes of feeling better at the end. Do you find it really cathartic when you do these routines and talk about these past issues?
What happens is you take something that was traumatic or painful in your life and the act of turning it into a story means it doesn't hurt anymore. My feeling is that the pain comes initially from the stories we make up about our lives. So, somebody walking out of a room, once we've turned that into a story it can become, "this person betrayed and abandoned me," for example. But once you have dissected what has actually happened and deconstructed your life and the other people in it, you're left with this story, and the things that tend to be funny in that story are your false perceptions, the stuff you sort of made up about yourself or the other person. So, you may have not even known they were funny once you go in front of an audience and tell these stories and you hear laughter. There's often a moment where you realize that the thing that you just said wasn't the appropriate reaction. Your reaction to an event -- people laugh at your reaction to things that happened, then you get an idea that maybe that reaction was in some way inappropriate or wrong. Then some sort of self-awareness comes of that, you figure out who you are a bit more. You let go of some of the aspects of your personality that have not been helpful. The whole thing is very healing.
In Numb, you talk about going to Peru and being involved in an ayahuasca [a brew made from a psychoactive vine] ceremony. I was wondering if you could talk more about that and if there was any particular event that led you to go that far to "heal" yourself.
I got to a point in my life where there were so many appointments for some form of healing, whether it be a psychotherapist on the Monday, an osteopath on the Tuesday, acupuncture on the Wednesday, and I looked at my diary and I just thought, "I must think there's something really wrong with me if I need this much help." And then I kept hearing about ayahuasca and I kept hearing the word. When I got there they spoke about how it is something that calls to you, and it isn't for everyone, it's quite a traumatic, horrific experience. It's not like a fun thing to do. For me it was psychotherapeutic healing. I wasn't even sure if I would be able to talk about it in stand-up, because it felt too profound an experience to be able to turn into comedy. I didn't want it to be like the comedy of this crazy guy who goes on a trip with a bunch of weirdos. I didn't want to cheapen it. If I was going to talk about it, I wanted to talk about it in the way I experienced it, which was this deep, healing event in my life, so that was quite tricky. It took a long time to figure out how to do that.
It’s very difficult to talk about in general terms, it's a very personal thing. I think everybody responds to it from their own point of consciousness and all I know is that everyone in the group that I was in got exactly what they needed, and in very different ways. There was a feeling like, I remember after the first or second ceremony, I felt like, "We need to tell more people about this! Everyone must know about this!" and then by the last ceremony, I felt, "this is not a thing to really talk about too much." I think you have to talk about it in a very sort of careful way and sort of emphasize that it's not fun and… you know, there's throwing up involved, there's a whole load of crying… it's traumatic. But by the end you get over fear, you get over yourself a bit. You get over ego. It's something you have to keep alive as well; it's not the end of your journey doing it.
Would you do any similar sort of ceremonial practice in the future?
Well, that question came up, because a couple of people there were there for their second time, third time doing it and I sort of wondered whether it would be necessary to come again. And I remember I said in the last ceremony -- because it acted like this conversation between yourself and nature -- I ended up saying, "Tell me everything I need to know now, I will not return!" (laughs). I dunno, if I feel the urge again, I guess I would go, but not for awhile. I mean it's quite an undertaking. It's not a holiday!
Are you hoping to follow up Numb with another stand-up show or are you hoping to try something different?
I haven't yet had the opportunity to try out anything new for awhile, but I'm quite eager to do that. I think stand-up is something that will just always be happening, with breaks, probably. I might make a film or something and there will be a break, but I think it will be just something that's always there. Eddie Izzard sort of bangs on about stand-up comedy being the base which everything else comes from. I think it keeps you good, you know? That need to make an audience laugh live, you then apply that to the things you write. You can't be lazy in stand-up, because otherwise there are these awful flabby moments. If there's a silence in stand-up for too long then you aren't doing the job properly. So I think I'll keep doing it, but I'm not sure what the next show will be about. I never really know 'til it's almost finished.
Do you prefer it to acting then? Or do you like the acting just as much, just in a different way?
I really like both. The stand-up is acting. There's a point where you've told the story so many times that in order to tell it well and authentically, you really have to find the emotions that you felt at the time of experiencing the thing or writing it. So, it sort of is acting. I was watching some Bill Hicks recently, and he's seemingly a great actor, he's feeling every moment on that stage, and he's told those jokes a lot by the time it came to the recording of whatever show it was. He might've been telling those jokes for three years, and he's feeling every moment, he's really there in the moment with the people in the room. That's acting there. It's a pretend conversation.
Speaking of Bill Hicks, I feel like you’re operating in the same area of comedy as him and Woody Allen and George Carlin; you're talking about darker material, more serious material. It's a little more philosophical than a lot of comedy. Are there certain comics who have inspired you along those lines? In particular, are there any British comics who Americans may not be as familiar with?
To me, stand-up comedy is a place where you can say whatever you want. So to not use that space to say whatever you want is a missed opportunity, I think. Thanks to people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, it's real freedom to do stand-up comedy. It's just one person with a microphone in a room of people. If you are the sort of comedian who's interested in sort of the mundane, then there's something in that and then it's wonderful to take the opportunity to discuss the mundane, and when people do that well, it's beautiful. And I appreciate that, but I guess I'm really into those places where you can expand the perspectives of an audience beyond the sort of day-to-day mundanity.
When I was a kid, I watched Roseanne and to me that was big because it was a real woman, a real housewife. There was nothing shiny about it; it felt like a real human being talking from her perspective in a really pure, unmuddied way. I think I must have kept that in mind. It felt like that's where you're able to do that, that's where you're able to be real—in comedy. Comedy is a place where you can tell all the truths, where you can tell your truth. And so then, later, as I grew up, I was drawn to people who were focused on finding something real in all of the noise that is there. That's where people like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor [come in[ performance-wise. I'm trying to think of British people…There was a sitcom called The Royle Family. It was such a strange thing to be watching. Have you seen it?
I haven't. I know Grandma's House was compared to it, though.
Yeah. It was a really strange thing to watch because it was a family in a room (laughs). And they didn't seem to be working too hard for the laughs. It felt subtle, it felt like any laughter was happening by accident. I really liked that. The Larry Sanders Show sort of felt like that, like you weren't being fed funny lines, you were finding them yourself. I feel [that] comedy should be found rather than force-fed, rather than sign-posted, I guess. And I've sort of taken that into stand-up as well, with the way things are delivered. I try to sort of let punchlines come. In the way that I don't write it, I just go in front of an audience and see what happens, I want that to sort of be retained for the show when it's pretty much formed. I want it to feel like these sentences are just sort of falling out of me and it's up to you whether it's funny or not.
Is the actor you talk about in Do Nothing, and who is characterized as Ben Theordore in Grandma's House, aware of either?
(laughs) Um, he's not. Well, he's aware of it, but he hasn't watched any of it, which I find so ridiculous. I mean, if somebody has fictionalized me in some way, I'd have to go home and get on the internet immediately to see what their perspective of me was. I just can't believe he's not as self-involved as I am! (laughs) So he's aware of it, but he hasn't seen any of it.
In the writing of that... I only really get better in sort of writing this stuff out of me, and a bit of therapy, and a bit of ayahuasca. That guy is now a human being in my mind, whereas before he was some sort of angel, this pure angel figure who was so beyond any aspect of the human condition. And I recently saw him eating candy. I'd got into my head that he just maybe drank water and maybe just the occasional carrot, probably. Maybe not even that, probably just water. Did he even need that? (laughs) Just some pure, transcendent figure. So eating these chocolates out of a bag, couldn't believe it. He was just a guy!