From writing and directing films to converting to veganism, and from finding love to taking spiritual medicine in a shamanic ritual, Simon Amstell has been on quite a journey since his Never Mind The Buzzcocks days.
Following the broadcast of his critically acclaimed directorial debut on BBC Three, a new tour sees him return to stand-up with a fresh outlook inspired by his own personal and professional transformation.
Ahead of its arrival in the Midlands in October, we asked him to shed a little light on the huge question that its title poses - What is this?
“I think this is a question that inevitably comes up at some point if what you do for a living is stand up on stage talking about yourself,” he says. “At some point, you say, ‘What is this? What am I doing? What are any of us doing? Why are we alive?’ But I don’t think it’s an answerable question. In the end, I suppose the best you can say is, perhaps it doesn’t matter.”
Known for his candid, almost confessional style of comedy, Amstell is open about how his stand-up career began in part as a way of seeking validation - a kind of defence against his own anxieties. But with new work opportunities opening up to him, and his life now moving in a more positive direction, is stand-up something he’ll continue to find time for?
“It’s a question I asked myself, because I definitely came to a place where I felt like I didn’t need to have so much attention from people any more. But what I realised was that I quite enjoyed being funny and making people laugh, so now it comes from a place of real curiosity and joy. While I thought as a child that fame would make me safe, I discovered that it’s actually connecting with people that makes me feel okay in the world. And I suppose all I’ve really wanted all along is the kind of intimacy that I was using stand-up as a way of avoiding.”
This newfound intimacy is something he’s still settling into - on some level there’s a kind of baffled wonder to his question, ‘What is this?’ But fans should rest assured that, while the impetus behind his new show might be different, his distinctive wry humour is still very much the same.
“All the stand-up I’ve done so far has been deeply personal in that I go up on stage and say terribly embarrassing things that I’m worried about saying out loud. If anything, this show goes even deeper, perhaps because I’m a bit older and it isn’t just constant anxiety. I’m having to deal with things like happiness now...
“Being in a relationship is a complicated affair. Where previous shows have dealt more with being lonely, I think there’s a lot about intimacy here and being able to be in the moment with another human being without worrying.”
The path to contentment hasn’t only been by way of investing in another human being, however. In the depths of despair, Amstell acted on a recommendation to travel to Peru to take ayahuasca, an ancient psychoactive brew that many people - Amstell among them - swear has changed their lives.
“I was so desperate for something to make me feel better - or just to make me feel something - that the only moment when I felt a bit worried was when the shaman entered the room and I thought, ‘Oh no, what have I done? These men are wearing matching outfits and I’m about to drink a vision-inducing plant medicine that I haven’t researched enough! But apart from that, I felt very well looked after, both by the shaman and by the medicine herself.”
Anyone who’s seen his recent docu-drama, Carnage, will already be aware of his other major lifestyle change of late. While he owns that veganism perhaps isn’t the most obvious subject for a sci-fi comedy, reviews have, perhaps surprisingly, been almost universally positive.
“We did everything we could to make it as funny as possible so that people wouldn’t feel annoyed, because on the surface, what you eat is quite a personal thing. But what we discovered while making it was that we’d all just been indoctrinated by nonsense characters like Captain Birdseye and Ronald McDonald - not only into thinking that this is what we should be eating, but also that it’s fun. Like, if you want to be happy, here is a Happy Meal. I felt very angry watching old adverts from my childhood, like I’d been tricked.”
Set in 2067, the film imagines a future where the killing of animals has been outlawed and young people look with horror on an older generation coming to terms with its meat-eating past. So does he really think that’s where we’ll be in 50 years, or is the film over-optimistic?
“I don’t know. I think now all the information’s out there on the internet, it’s just going to get more and more awkward, so at some point there has to be a shift. But there’s a quote I quite like from James Baldwin - ‘I have to be optimistic because I’m alive.’”
In between testing out material for his show, Amstell’s also been working on a second film (details of which remain tightly under wraps) as well as writing his first book, Help, which will combine past stand-up routines with general musings on “how to be a person in the world”. So once it’s published, is he worried that old Buzzcocks guests will be popping up to read bits of it out to him? Fittingly, the genuine laugh this prompts feels pretty validating.
“Oh that’s funny! Yeah, that’s fine. I welcome it!”
Simon Amstell plays Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Sat 7 October and Birmingham Town Hall, Sun 15 October as part of Birmingham Comedy Festival.
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