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Sarcasm and sadness with Simon Amstell

The task of conveying Simon Amstell’s tone is not an easy one for the interview-writer, especially if the reader has not seen him perform. Almost as soon as we meet, he is drawing attention to the awkwardness of the interview setup, referring to both himself and me as “self-aware weirdos”. His style of humour combines self-deprecation and sadness with a wry smile and tight delivery. It seems that these moments of melancholy are the ones which he deems most comedic.

“In stand-up, I’m only talking about the worst things that have happened or the most upsetting things about myself. So walking around Oxford today I was feeling very peaceful and content with life – that is not going to make a very interesting story for my stand-up show. So that won’t be written down in my notepad. It’s not that I’m exaggerating a part of myself but I am editing. I’m selecting the funny parts of myself; those are the worst bits of myself.”

This method of writing can result in some hefty subject matter. Amstell’s shows deal with depression, heartbreak, and loneliness, all of which he treats with an engaging honesty.

“It’s not as good as actual therapy, but it is very helpful,” he says when I ask whether it feels good to talk through these things in front of a roomful of strangers. “Once I’ve turned something traumatic that happened into a story, I realise that actually it was all just the perception of an idiot. And so I feel healed by making up these stories.”

Making stories isn’t the only thing Amstell can do. He’s a veritable polymath of the comedy world, having created, written and starred in his own semi-autobiographical sitcom Grandma’s House, toured the UK (and more recently the US) with his stand-up shows, and presented BBC2’s staple music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He’s the kind of entertainer who seems to be constantly moving on to the next project, seeking out new things to try. I have to ask what he plans to do next.

“I might direct a film. I’ve been directing some little bits and pieces this year, so I’m hoping that this year becomes the year that I direct a film. But if it doesn’t… don’t print this. It will be very embarrassing for me.”

I can’t promise him anything, but can at least hope that in setting out that ambition in an interview he’ll have something to spur him on. He certainly seems to have the backing of the industry in his endeavours; Grandma’s House received good reviews and was nominated for a British Comedy Award. Sam Spiro, who plays the waspish Auntie Liz, also took home the British Comedy Award for Best Female Comedy Breakthrough Artist. Amstell is quick to sing the praises of Spiro, along with the rest of his co-stars.

“I was very lucky I suppose in that I got a really good cast together for Grandma’s House. There’s Rebecca Front, who I love from some of the stuff she’s done with Alan Partridge and Armando Ianucci. Also Sam Spiro, who’s very funny. And Linda Bassett, who I learnt a lot about acting from.”

As well as learning from those he’s worked with, Amstell grew up on a diet of comedic artists, whose influences still help to shape his work today. He cites French & Saunders, Ruby Wax, Eddie Izzard and Woody Allen among others.

“I like anyone if they’re being quite boldly truthful about something, or if they’re taking some sort of risk. Like Larry David. I really like anyone who’s some kind of outsider and hasn’t reduced themselves in order to be liked.”

That certainly seems to be an apt description of Amstell himself, who has never been known to water down his personality; he’s famously caused the odd celebrity to walk off a show. His stand-up persona is different from the Simon Amstell who presented Buzzcocks and Pop World, but his real constancy is in his honesty. He manages to stay true to this, despite the disorientating nature of touring.

“The problem is that cities often look the same. It’s always the same grey place with the same upsetting shops. But once I’m on stage, I feel like it doesn’t matter where we are. It’s my room for that hour.”

He likes Oxford though. Touring has inevitably led him to the city several times, but his first visit was as a prospective student.

“My state school did a coach trip, to tell us peasants that we could come to Oxford. There was no barrier. But there was a barrier for me because I didn’t get three As,” he says with a laugh. He doesn’t seem bitter at all, but Oxford certainly appeared to be an ideal place to him. “I remember coming here and thinking ‘I’m going to get those three As. I really like it here.’  And I saw two boys kissing on a lawn and I thought ‘my goodness, I could really find some joy and peace in this place’. But then I didn’t get the right A-levels. So I had to carry on being sad.”

These kinds of statements make Amstell all the more difficult to fathom. He sounds sarcastic but the words themselves are pretty tragic. In some ways it’s this ambiguity that makes him so appealing. Audiences like his offbeat honesty.

“I’m very profound,” he says near the end of our interview, doing an impression of sincerity. I can’t help but agree with him.

 

Image credit: Carol Rosegg

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