Simon (Amstell) Says... Now in the US
At just 34 years old, British actor and comedian Simon Amstell is already something of a comic veteran, after igniting his stand-up career in his early teens. His initial success on stage, which he attributes to his conspicuous 'oddness,' culminated in a notable television career in the United Kingdom, with a hosting stint on the wildly popular music game show, "Never Mind the Buzzcocks" -- a gig which allowed him to mercilessly tease a multitude of celebrity guests. Amstell also received heaps of critical praise for the show "Grandma's House," which he not only created and produced for the BBC, but also starred in for two seasons.
Despite receiving positive reviews, Amstell insists that his hit TV show won't be making a comeback anytime soon, namely on account of the fact that he has "written out all of his pain." Instead, Amstell is returning to his stand-up roots, with a series of shows entitled "Numb." He will be bringing the gig back to the States this month after a successful run late last year, with a number of dates in New York City, as well as one in Boston.
His show will touch on everything from the Queen, to relationships, to being a Brit in the States. He promises that the experience will be a 'delightful' and hilarious affair, despite the fact that he'll be exploring a number of darker themes -- loneliness, depression, failure, to name just a few. As Amstell insists, his comedy derives from a shared recognition of the feelings and issues that make us human, and consequently, he is confident that his set will transcend any cultural barriers. Edge chatted with Amstell ahead of his performance of "Numb" in Boston this Saturday night, April 19th, at the Wilbur Theatre
Liked his oddness
EDGE: So how did you break into comedy?
Simon Amstell: I was a wildly curious 13 year-old boy who decided to do stand-up comedy at the annual drama club variety show, and somehow they let me do that. I suppose the few laughs that I received were maybe based on just how odd I was and, it felt very good, so I decided to keep doing it. And then I kept doing it for a while, and there were a few competitions, and I won a couple of ’youngest comedian’ competition things, and then I retired from stand-up at 18, because I got a job on cable TV. I then returned to stand-up full time again at 21, and at the same time I did various things on television.
EDGE: You were on ’Never Mind the Buzzcocks,’ which was hugely popular in the UK and has a small cult following here in the US. Can you talk more about that experience?
Simon Amstell: Well I guess I really enjoyed the freedom that came with hosting the show, but the rest of the week was actually quite stressful -- trying to get the guests together and trying to figure out things to do with them, and so three years was more than enough time for me on that show.
About ’Grandma’s House’
EDGE: You had some interesting guests, both friendly, and at times, very difficult, how did you handle that?
Simon Amstell: Erm... well that’s the thing about that show, and every other show I’ve done really, is that everything becomes a positive in some way, even with the more difficult guests, because it becomes about poking fun of them and trying to get them out of their awkwardness, and if they’re lunatics... well that’s also brilliant (Laughs)
EDGE: You created and starred in your own TV show, ’Grandma’s House.’ It was incredibly witty and received a lot of critical praise -- will we be seeing more of that?
Simon Amstell: Well I felt like I’d written all the pain out of me. It was mainly based on my pain, and after two seasons, I felt like the job was kind of done really. I suppose I understood who I was in relation to my family, and I understood what was wrong with me. I felt like I kind of got it -- It was quite an extensive therapy session (Laughs). I also just thought, we could’ve done a third one; but then it would have just been funny, in too broad a way for my tastes. I like that it’s born out of pain ... and if the pain isn’t there anymore, it just feels a bit gratuitous.
EDGE: You’re out, but you have remained somewhat quiet about it. Do you think your sexual identity has had any sort of impact on your career -- has it held you back or enhanced it perhaps?
Simon Amstell: Erm...erm... you’ll just have to write ’long pause’ (Laughs)... erm... I suppose my general feeling about that, is that I’m not really interested in it, as opposed to the more specific things that are relevant to me. So, with me, part of what I capture in my stand-up and what I write about is delving into the depths of my specific pain, and although of course my sexuality comes into that ... (Pause) ...’Grandma’s House,’ for example, is really a show about a character with depression, and he doesn’t know what to do with his life next. And I think that comes from being in therapy for a number of years, and my last stand up show was called ’Nuts,’ and it was about a guy who can’t feel anything... and so the specifics of who I am and what I’m feeling is perhaps more interesting for me, more than being defined exclusively by one label. I guess it is just incidental, I think that’s the answer! (Laughs)
Being in America
EDGE: You’re coming to Boston? Can you give us an idea of what you’re talking about and touching on?
Simon Amstell: Let me get my notepad! (Laughs) So it’s all quite new! All new things! There is a bit about me being in America, and what I’m doing here, and my general discomfort with my own ambitions, and there’s a lot about freedom, and trying to free yourself of the societal expectations that are placed on you. And there is a bit about the Queen, and also being in a relationship....erm, I’m not very good at selling myself! (Laughs) It’ll be very funny, you will have a delightful time!! (Laughs)
EDGE: Generally speaking, the humor is arguably different in the UK -- a little drier perhaps? -- Are you nervous about how your show will be received here?
Simon Amstell: This is a question that I get asked fairly often -- people ask if Americans will get it, and if they will understand... but clearly there is evidence that they do, because they invented some of the best comedy in the world, and so I’m not so sure about this idea that it’s radically different. Granted, I haven’t been all around America, but everywhere I’ve been so far it has gone quite well. And that’s because I’m talking about quite human things, like being sad or being lonely -- things that human beings feel. I think the only people who wouldn’t get me are the people who can’t bear to accept that there is anything wrong in the world (Laughs).
But I don’t think that’s based on any imaginary lines that are drawn across the globe. I think that’s just the people who aren’t prepared to think about their own depression or their own loneliness or shame or failure. I think my show really appeals to people who are interested in how their brains are functioning, and I think there are people who are like that everywhere...actually I’m worried now, because it sounds like my stand up won’t be very funny (Laughs)...but I promise it will be!
EDGE: What’s next for you -- will you be doing anything else here? And do you have any big projects lined up?
Simon Amstell: I have some stuff lined up, but I feel like it’s best not to talk about it until it’s filmed and on the television, or on the stage (Laughs) But in terms of being here ...well I’ve got a meeting about it next week (laughs), but yeah at the moment it’s only a couple of weeks in New York and then a little trip to Boston, but yeah in the meeting next week they’ll tell me where in America I’ll be going. I’ll probably be returning in June or July or something and I’ll do some more stuff then.
Simon Amstell appears at the Wilbur Theatre, Boston, 246 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. Visit the Wilbur Theatre website for more information.
For more on Simon Amstell, visit his website