Talking to Simon Amstell About Coming to America, Introspective Comedy and Not Liking Twitter
British comedian Simon Amstell’s career is deeply rooted in his own anxiety and awkwardness. His pensive, neurotic nature was explored in his 2010 stand-up special Do Nothing, where he opened with the line, “I’m quite lonely, let’s start with that.” He recently finished starring in the second season of the BBC sitcom he co-created, Grandma’s House, in which he played a pensive, neurotic comedian named Simon Amstell who is searching for greater meaning in his life.
He’s brought his new show Numb to New York for a five-week residency at Theatre 80. I caught up with him recently to discuss shameful honesty, being the new guy, and breaking America.
Why did you decide to bring your show to New York?
Well, I’ve been here before, but in a less proper way. This is the first time I’ve done a residency in New York. I spoke to Eddie Izzard, who said this is what you have to do. [Laughs] He said go to New York and sit in New York until people notice that you’re there. And so I decided I would follow his lead. It was Eddie Izzard’s advice really, and it sounded like a fun thing to do, to be in New York for six weeks.
And are you liking it so far?
Yeah I really like it here a lot. I keep thinking I should say something funny at the beginning of the show about where I am, but I just like it here. [Laughs] There’s nothing very funny to say.
I saw the show last night. I felt like you start Numb in a similar place to your last show, Do Nothing, by talking about loneliness and solitude, and then by the end you’re talking about connectedness. Was that an intentional journey?
No, nothing’s ever intentional. It just becomes what it is eventually. I just go on stage, originally in front of 50 people who paid £5, and it’s a very comfortable place where I can just talk about whatever I want for the hour. And I guess eventually I end up structuring it with my brain, but nothing is intentional. I don’t intend to write a show called Numb that’s about disconnectedness and isolation and loneliness. It’s just what seems to keep happening.
There are a few political references in this show, where you talk about the pope and women’s rights. Is that something you’re interested in doing more of?
Yeah, that just sort of came out of me as well. I don’t see it as political, really. It’s just more about the world being a bit odd. It’s just difficult not to observe the absurdity of the present time that we are in. But I don’t think I want to be a political comedian, particularly. I wouldn’t want to get into the general debate. There are constantly pre-existing debates that are occurring. I wouldn’t want to jump into that pool of nonsense. I would rather just sort of express whatever occurs to me at the time.
You say that nothing is deliberate, but you talk in the show about finding yourself taking notes at a party and writing about a breakup immediately after it happens.
Yeah, but I’d rather not be doing either of those things. I’d rather be at the party, enjoying it, and I’d rather be in the breakup, experiencing the pain. But there’s something in me that needs to document what’s going on, or is there observing rather than being. And that’s what makes me able to do this thing and be here in New York, so it’s also rather wonderful. But it’s, you know, there’s a price to pay. [Laughs]
I felt like you talked about sex more in this show, even though I get the impression that you don’t really like talking about it.
There was quite a lot of sex in the last show, as well. I always end up talking about sex more than I would like to. I don’t like it.
But you do it quite a lot.
I do it quite a lot, and there’s a discomfort even as I’m talking about it on stage. As I’m talking about pornography in the show, I’m disgusted with my own thoughts. And I think that’s what makes it funny. I’m not just there, in a very brash way, detailing these sexual adventures. It’s the discomfort around it, it’s this awkwardness that I think makes it funny for me.
And I always am concerned that it’s too easy, because it’s a subject that we’re still, even now, a bit funny around, and so I don’t want it to be easy to shock. I don’t want to be shocking the audience with ease. I suppose I want it to be original and interesting and thoughtful, so I’m always a bit concerned that I’ve oversexed the show. [Laughs]
When you started doing this very introspective style of comedy, was it a conscious decision to put forward this neurotic side of yourself?
You just go with what works for you. I think a lot of the process of finding your voice in stand-up, finding your clown, is a long process of self-discovery, and the audience tell you what is funny about you. And if you’re brave enough to go out on stage and just express yourself quite openly, they tell you what the parts of you that are funny are, and so you listen to their laughter, and that’s what you go with. So it turned out that I’m funny to these people when I’m being, like painfully, shamefully honest and expressing a combination of pain and curiosity.
And because you’re so honest on stage, do you ever find it weird that people, audience members, know so many personal things about you?
Yeah, it is a bit odd. But what you get if people know you as a funny person is that you get to be in a situation purely as yourself. Because we’re all odd, we’re all individuals, but we all tend to fit it in with what is expected of us as people in this culture. So if you are already making a living from the peculiar aspects of your personality, and people know you from that, then you get to be yourself. So it’s sort of more comfortable in a way.
OK, that makes sense.
There you go. I’m glad that makes sense, because I wasn’t sure it was going to, when I started the sentence. [Laughs]
You’ve been in New York for a few weeks, doing spots around town. How have the crowds reacted to you, people here not knowing you as well as they do in the UK?
I really like it, because it means there’s no expectations of anything from me, whereas in the UK, there’s a sort of feeling of what it may be, which has become more accurate over time. I’ve done a few TV shows, and I’ve been sort of different people in each TV show, because that’s just how we are as human beings. No one is one person. You are a different person in any different situation. And so people sometimes come to a stand-up show expecting this version of me from a TV show that wasn’t…anyway, it’s really nice, because they take me in that moment, based on what’s going on in that room. So I really like it, there’s no baggage. I could have just said there’s no baggage. Oh God. [Laughs]
That’s okay, I like long answers. So have you changed any of your material since you’ve been here?
No, only references. To you people, a vest is something else, so I have to say tank top. But it’s only references. I mean I’m just dealing with sort of the pain of being alive. We’re all alive.
And it’s a major city, New York, and I think I’m good in cities, because I’m talking about loneliness and not being able to connect with other human beings, and I think maybe people who live in small villages, I think they all talk to each other and have a nice time. Right?
Yeah, that’s what I hear. I have no idea.
Yeah, I don’t really know, I’m imagining. But I always think about how it’s probably easier to find love in a village because there’s only a couple of people you could, you know, you’re just grateful to have one person. But in somewhere like this, it’s very tricky to sort of pick one when there’s all these other people with their hair and their trousers wandering around.
So what are your plans after this residency?
I’m here for another 3 weeks, and then I go to the Edinburgh festival for a week, and then I’ll take a break. And then I imagine I’ll come back again.
Back here? Really?
I think so. It’s not confirmed yet. I’ll probably come back and do a similar thing. I might do a couple of other places, though. I might go and do a similar thing in LA, and there’s talk about San Francisco. Just slowly break this bloody country.
Are you interested in breaking America, Eddie Izzard-style?
Yeah, and it used to be…I mean there is still a lot of ego in my head, I guess. But it really is purely because I like doing it. It’s about expressing who you are. I feel like I’ve already told those people in the UK who I am, for the minute, and I feel like there’s these people here, and it might be nice to tell them. [Laughs]
It’s really nice being new again as well. Like I changed secondary schools, and it was really good being the new boy, because everyone was all excited and found me attractive and sexy. [Laughs] Whereas if you stay in one place for a while, people eventually get used to you and they go, “oh, he’s that guy, he does that sort of thing.”
I just went to Australia for the first time this year and got to perform there and tell those people who I am. I mean, nobody’s asking me who I am, but I feel like it’s nice to go to other places and tell them anyway. And so it’s kind of just thinking about how it’s sort of wonderful to be able to go and perform for all these different…it’s sort of just great, really. I think I haven’t answered that question properly, I feel.
I’m very anxious in interviews. I don’t do many in the UK, and here it seems like you just have to do them, really.
I’ve seen you say that you don’t like doing interviews, but you must be getting used to them.
Well just about. I can always see it, I can always see the words in print as I’m saying them out loud.
And doesn’t that make it easier?
No, it makes me think, well that’s not an ideal word. [Laughs] Surely there could have been a better word that came out of you there. And also, you’re in control of it, of course, it’s your interview. I’m going through your prism.
But I would think, since you interviewed people for so many years [as a presenter on Channel 4’s Popworld], you know how good interviews go.
Yeah, and actually the best interviews I’ve done is where the people were relaxed and able to just be themselves. [Laughs] Oh well.
You’ve been on TV on and off again since you were 19. Do you think you’ll keep doing TV? Do you want to keep doing TV?
Yes, but not for the sake of it. The last thing I did in the UK was the second season of a sitcom, and I don’t think I want to do any more of it. I feel like I’ve written all the pain out of me now. I’ll probably end up writing something new for television or film, and that will be the next thing. And also, I’m really into sort of doing stand-up at the moment, so stand-up may be my thing for a while as well.
You started doing stand-up when you were 14?
Because I was peculiar. [Laughs] I was at a Saturday morning stage school and it was the annual show, and my memory of it is that there was a tap number that followed a ballet number, but it was the same dancers, so they had to change their shoes for the next bit of the show. They needed something in front of the curtain for five minutes, to cover that change, and I said, at 14, that I would do stand-up comedy. And they said, “Yes, that would be wonderful.” For some reason, I don’t know why they didn’t say, “That’s a terrible idea, you’re a child.” They said, “that’s fine,” and then I did that, and I loved it.
What did you talk about?
Just terrible, terrible jokes that I’d seen on television, and a really weird combination of these really old-fashioned jokes from quite traditional comedians, and also this late night Channel 4 stuff from the Montreal Just for Laughs festival, and then a couple of jokes that I made up myself. They were laughing, certainly at me, and I just, I loved it. I really enjoyed it anyway.
What are my feelings on Twitter now? The disposable nature of it doesn’t sit very well with me. And then I realized, I have a mailing list. I am emailing however many people every now and then to tell them what I am doing. And another way of telling them what I am doing is Twitter, so then I guess I could get involved with Twitter. It’s a formal marketing tool, nothing more.
I haven’t found a way to be funny on it. And I follow some funny people, and the best reaction I ever give to a tweet is “eh.” You’re never, sort of, “oh my God, I can’t stop laughing. Oh my God, what a tweet. I’ve got to tell people about this tweet.” So it’s not entertainment. I haven’t found a way to be entertaining on it, but it’s information. If people want information about what I’m doing, then they can join me, follow me, do whatever they want to do with me.
Since you’re been in town for a few weeks, have you seen other comics in New York that you particularly like?
Yes. I saw Janeane Garofalo. I always love her. And she came to see the show the other night. I mean, I watched her on The Larry Sanders Show. It’s a big thrill for Janeane Garofalo to come to my show. And Billy Connolly came the other night, which was so overwhelming I didn’t really know what to do with myself.
Who else did I see? I saw Eugene Mirman do a set that was very funny. I saw Aziz Ansari trying out some new stuff, which was fun. And Kurt Braunohler, see him. Gabe Liedman, I did his show Big Terrific, and he’s very funny. He’s got a whole new bit about how nobody’s perfect, and it was brilliant.
There you go. Anyone else I can think of? That’s it. That’s it. And I’m very funny. [Laughs] That’s the other guy, oh he’s great. That guy. That new guy.