Amstell won’t leave you feeling Numb

Sofa so good: Simon Amstell

Sofa so good: Simon Amstell

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TV host and award-winning presenter and comedian Simon Amstell is returning to stand-up in Sheffield this spring. David Dunn chats to him

IT’S all well and good making one of telly’s most acclaimed modern day sitcoms.

No, really it is.

But mop-haired funny fellow Simon Amstell seems to be missing the direct response of a real life, in-the-room, laughing crowd of people.

So the former Never Mind The Buzzcocks presenter – who has struck telly gold again as the creator of two series of the deeply personal and painfully funny BBC2 sitcom Grandma’s House – is back on the road for the first time in three years.

And for anyone who has seen him before it will come as no surprise that Numb will be a soul-baring show.

It evolved from a long series of small pre-tour gigs in which the Essex lad who could seemingly wise-crack his way out of any corner tried out new material. 

“What tends to happen is I go on stage with a few ideas, some scraps of paper, and just see what comes out of me,” he reveals. “It’s a bit scary I suppose and often not that much fun for the audience. But what is great doing it this way is there is this almost unconscious discovery of new things about yourself as a direct result of the audience reaction and the show develops from that.”

While Amstell makes the process of devising a live show sound daunting, even a little uncomfortable for all concerned, he assures us it is a labour of love.

“I really do love doing stand-up,” he confirms. “It’s the most amazing feeling when it’s going well. You’re free, you’re flying. This ‘thing’ is happening beyond your control. Something is powering you, something that isn’t you.

“I suppose the idea for performers is to take their audience to a place where they’re also outside of themselves.”

Yet it is only in recent years the mainstream public was alerted to this side of a personality that came to our attention as a youth presenter on Channel 4’s Popworld before he crossed channels to host BBC2’s pop panel show, for which he won a BAFTA and a Royal Television Society Award for Best Comedy Entertainment Personality.

Fact is, Simon actually started doing stand-up aged 14. Three years later he was crowned the youngest-ever finalist in the BBC New Comedy Award.

Since then he has evolved into one of the most distinctive stand-ups around courtesy of a combination of original and often thought-provoking material where philosophy can collide with anxiety as this intensely vulnerable and honest mind attempts to ‘heal’ himself in public.

Simon is hitting the road for a 29-date tour this time around – it lands him back at Sheffield City Hall on May 12 – just as the new series of Grandma’s House begins airing.

Numb, meanwhile, follows his critically acclaimed 2009 touring show Do Nothing.

“The theme seemed to be disconnection and detachment and the inability to feel things fully in the moment,” he says of the new tour.

“It’s about being incapable of expressing yourself emotionally and the fact that that leads to disconnectedness and depression.”

Yikes.

“Any artist has to stand outside himself and distrust the normal and refuse to accept that anything is the way it should be. This isn’t ideal when it comes to living with other human beings on this planet.”

‘Sorry I can’t find the funny in toasters. If I could I would’

ONE of Simon Amstell’s winning traits is his ability to seem vulnerable but in the next breath reduce whoever he’s up against to uncomfortable shuffling with no chance of adequate riposte.

The latter is what arguably made him such a brilliant host on Buzzcocks while the former quality feeds his sitcom content.

For all the feelings of alienation he may cite, however, audiences really relate to Simon’s material, an outpouring many would no doubt declare as brave in its emotional exposure.

“I think it’s actually quite healing eventually,” he says. “When you reveal something personal and perhaps shameful, people acknowledge it’s part of the human condition and they don’t feel so alone. They don’t feel stuck with a horrific secret.

“Occasionally, I have tried to do stuff about other things, but it doesn’t really work for me. If it’s not coming from ‘here’s how I felt in this particular moment’, then it doesn’t resonate. When I say I feel a certain way, no one can argue with that. It’s a very authentic response to the world.”

Not surprising, perhaps, that Simon should vent some of his untidy thoughts via the wildly dysfunctional Essex family in the sitcom he co-writes with Dan Swimer. Grandma’s House – the show, in which Simon plays a skewed version of himself – won a British Comedy Award and landed silverware for actress Samantha Spiro, one of the stars in the Crucible’s revival of Sondheim’s Company.

“It always ends up that I’m the fool in any story. If I’m criticising people or making a judgement, it’s always clear by the end that it was definitely my problem,” he explains, admitting that he does tend to dwell on the dark side.

“Without suffering there would be no need for comedy.  Misery on its own doesn’t work. But misery combined with the perception that that misery is ridiculous is very funny, right?

“I suppose other comedians can talk about toasters, and that works quite well for them. Unfortunately I don’t really know why a toaster is funny. Sorry, I can’t find the funny in toasters. If I could, I would.”

Instead, what seems to fuel Simon’s comedy muscle is an insatiable curiosity. “Yes, there is always this element of discovery. I’m not very good at making absolute statements. I think I am better at trying to figure stuff out.”

 “It can be quite emotionally draining, though,” he says of taking such an exercise on the road. “What tends to happen, after about 20 dates, is I have to remind myself just before I go on-stage ‘Remember, you like this. This is exactly where you want to be. This is definitely fun’”.

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