What do you mean, you don’t know who Simon Amstell is? Beloved in his native Britain, the comedian/writer/actor is spending this summer taking on New York with a stand-up residency at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place.
Previously a TV presenter, Amstell rose to greater prominence as the irreverent host of quiz show Never Mind The Buzzcocks, where he skewered celebrities including Lily Allen, Robyn, and Josh Groban. Since then, he’s been building his reputation on the stand-up circuit with a show called Do Nothing and has created, written, and starred in the semi-autobiographical sitcom Grandma’s House. Amstell’s brutally honest personal work sees him revealing his anxieties over relationships, his family, and his career. Despite what the man himself might say, his stories are immensely relatable, tapping into universal insecurities with razor-sharp wit and flair.
Amstell’s current show, entitled Numb, finds him still struggling with social malaise, but there’s just as much about searching for spirituality as there is about awkward situations at parties. From breakups to Justin Bieber to mortality, no subject is off limits.
After catching two nights of Numb, I met Amstell for smoothies at Caravan of Dreams in the East Village to discuss coming to America and his new show.
You're spending a lot of time in one place. What's the appeal of doing that instead of touring?
Eddie Izzard told me to. He said that I just needed to sit in New York in one place until people noticed that I was there.
Is New York the dream place for British comedians to make it big?
Not all of them, but it's here and people can speak English, so it seems absurd not to come here and try to be a bit funny. I love being here, and it's lovely being new rather than established, it's quite fun introducing yourself to a new group of people, I quite like that. There's no baggage, it's really good.
You mentioned being drawn to "trendy and humorless" neighborhoods like Williamsburg in your routine. Are you staying there?
No, I'm staying in SoHo. But I like Williamsburg a lot, there's a lot going on in my being drawn to the trendy and humorless. I'm jealous, I'm annoyed, I'm fascinated. I want to be them, I hate them, I love them. There's a lot going on.
Was coming to New York a big deal for you, like a childhood dream?
When I first came here, it was like a film. I didn't know, for instance, that steam really came from the pavements. I didn't know that happened in real life, but it happens here. That was very exciting. And everything is so iconic. I think I must have watched The Muppets Take Manhattan and then came here and was so excited by yellow cabs and the street signs and stuff.
Do you have any plans to perform in other places in the US?
When I come back again, I'll probably do a bit more of New York, L.A., San Francisco, those sorts of places. As long as it all goes well and people like me, that's very important they like me.
Is developing your career in America really important to you?
I suppose it's not really important, because nothing's important, really, we're all going to die. But I feel like I've gotten to the point where I've done a lot of stuff in the U.K. and I think I just like being new. I quite like being able to perform for new people with no baggage or anything. It's very exciting to be in a different city, and to be able to perform for people who are not...To be able to go to another country and perform for those people is quite fun.
So it's very much like what you were talking about in your set about traveling alone and learning who you are?
Yeah, when I go onstage, there's no expectation of what it might be here. It is what it is. And it feels like a lot of the people I like either are from America or have gone to America and been appreciated by Americans as well. I think what I talk about is not specific to a place, it's specific to the human condition. It seems to be translating--not translating, really, I'm talking about the pain of being alive, and we're all alive.
So you didn't think about changing too many things?
Only references, like vest means a different thing, so I had to say tank top. But that seems to be the only reference. Oh, and I mention Shoreditch, and I say the equivalent here is Williamsburg. But apart from that, I'm mainly talking about pain and loss and sex and suffering and all those things.
Do you think there's much of a difference in how you're received between here and at home?
No. And you came to two nights, bizarrely, I don't know why you did that. (laughs) You saw that it was received differently on Wednesday from how it was on Thursday. It's both different every night and the same wherever you go. Every night is different, everywhere is different, but also they're all the same. Does that make sense?
So culture's not even really part of it.
Only because I'm not really like an observational comedian who will come in and say things about a specific culture, I'm more interested in talking about my experience and where I'm from is purely for my own unique point of consciousness. What resonates with people is purely coincidence. I'm not trying to have a broad appeal.
Do Nothing had a lot to do with loneliness and anxiety, and that's still there in your new show, but now there's deeper soul-searching, and perhaps more anger at times.
I used to think that anger was quite a silly emotion to get involved with, because we're all going to die, so we should really be grateful to be alive and in clothes and eating food. To be angry about things seemed deeply absurd. But it turned out I was deeply repressed, and there's that story about being at the airport in Dublin, where all of that anger came out of me that I didn't even know was there. How I tend to write is either noticing a pattern of behavior that seems unhealthy and needs to be looked at or something new happening that I'm curious about, so that was an example of something wildly different happening that I felt was worthy of being discussed onstage.
Do you plan on going on any more trips like the spiritual journey to Peru that you talk about?
Not for a while, I really felt after that trip to Peru that I didn't feel broken anymore. I used to do stuff like yoga and meditation from a point of feeling broken and needing to be fixed. I'm still doing those things, but from a point of maintenance and strength. There's been a bit of a shift.
Does that tie into the “we're all going to die” thing?
No, I just don't feel broken any more. The whole panic about why we are here in the show, what the hell any of us are supposed to be doing with our lives, what's the priority, there are no rules, there are only the conventions of the people who came before us, that panic has kind of lifted now. At some point, it's an interesting journey and an interesting question, why we're here and what we're supposed to be doing. At some point, you just have to decide something. You have to say it's for this, or it's for nothing. There's no reason, the only reason is what I create in this moment. Once you have something to hold onto, it's a healthier existence. So at some point, you just need to grab onto something and feel it fully. You can't just make something up, you have to really feel it in you, it is this, I'm here. I was talking to another comedian, and she said, "It doesn't matter why we're here. It just happened. It happened that we're here, and so we're here." There you go.
I also noticed that this show seems more instructive. It's still introspective, but you're more directly addressing other people.
It isn't intentional, I'm really only there to sort myself out. All I really want to do is connect with people in the room, I don't really feel like I have a message for anyone other than myself. I'm only really telling myself these things, and it is helpful to me to say them out loud, because it solidifies them. The more I bang on about this stuff, the more real it is to me. It's helpful to me to say these things out loud to a group of strangers for an hour. I'm not there to help anyone, I don't feel like I'm going on like, "Yeah, I've got to tell people this stuff this stuff tonight." It's purely selfish. (laughs)
Granted, if they’ve seen your other work, most of the people who are going to see you are already probably sort of like you in certain respects.
Everyone's on their own journey. All you can do, really, is tell your own story. And it's helpful because it's truthful, you've been authentic in that moment rather than preaching something to people. Nobody listens to anything. I was telling this story the other day, the first show, Do Nothing, there was a message of acceptance in that show. I'd sort of learnt acceptance. And I had to relearn the show to do it again, I hadn't done it in a while. I was going through something, and I listened to show again, and I'd forgotten acceptance! That was the key. I'd forgotten my own message. So if I don't listen to my own message, I don't imagine anyone else is going to. So I'm not there with a message, I'm there with a sort of funny hour about the stuff that's happened to me and the journey that I've been on.