Simon Amstell on Finding Fault with the World in His New Standup Show 'To Be Free'

Simon Amstell - To Be Free - Color 3 - Photo Credit Kurtiss LloydLucky for us, British comic Simon Amstell is becoming a mainstay of the US standup scene. He toured the States in 2012 with his show Numb, a soul-baring hour focused on his own insecurities and over-active neuroses. He's since popped up twice on The Late Show with David Letterman, and more recently on The Tonight Show and Conan. In April, he returns to our shores with his new show, To Be Free. I got the chance to catch up with him recently about moving beyond depression, the stress of late night spots, and enjoying his work in the US.

We talked a few years ago when you had just started your residency of Numb in New York. How was the rest of your time in the States?

It was good. It was two months of being at the same place, doing the show every night. The audience built every night and by the end, they were all squeezed in and sitting on the stairs, and it was all very exciting.

Have you found that doing standup in the US has influenced your style?

Um, noo? [Laughs] Not specifically that. There's a freedom to being new. Just not being in England has meant that I'm more comfortable doing this sort of thing, whereas in the country that I live most of the time, I feel a bit awkward doing interviews because they feel a bit gratuitous and like the same ground gets covered quite a lot, whereas in a new place I feel like it seems appropriate to be introducing myself people who don't know who I am yet. My career has been a mixture of standup comedy, television hosting, television writing, and acting, whereas here I feel like I'm sort of here as a standup comedian more than anything else at the moment, and it means that I end up talking about the material more. There's a freedom of just being new in place, no matter what that place is. And luckily, you speak English here, so it's handy. READ MORE


A Sneak Peek of 'The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore'

IMG_1112The last few years have proven that late night television can be an unpredictable, sometimes unforgiving genre, but Larry Wilmore doesn’t seem troubled about jumping into the pool of cable hosts. At a preview this morning for The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central’s newest host had the same professorial tone as his appearances as the Senior Black Correspondent on The Daily Show, describing the show as a “showcase for voices” and a chance to have a dialogue. "We’ll weigh in on what’s going on and then we get to mix it around a little bit and have some fun,” he said.

There are plenty of auspicious signs for the new show. It’s housed in the Hell’s Kitchen studio that was once home to The Daily Show and later The Colbert Report, and it’s sandwiched comfortably on the schedule between Stewart’s flagship political show and youth-oriented breakout hit @midnight. The show’s set, assembled in the month since Colbert’s was dismantled, has a clean and modern, almost MSNBC-esque feel, including six backward clocks keeping time in locations including “Pompeii” and “East St. Louis.” And it’s produced by former Daily Show producer Rory Albanese and former Late Night with Jimmy Fallon producer Amy Ozols, and led by head writer Robin Thede, whose writing experience includes The Queen Latifah Show and Real Husbands of Hollywood. Like its predecessor in that 11:30 spot, it’s also executive produced by Jon Stewart. READ MORE


The 9 Best Standup Specials and Albums of 2014

gaffigan-obsessed2014 was a banner year for comedy of all stripes, including an incredible collection of standup specials and albums. While the year may have had fewer boldly unique specials than 2013, it compensated with an overwhelming number of solidly funny, well-produced hours from comics of all levels, with a particularly strong crop of debut albums – for each special on this list, there are three other great hours worth checking out. Nonetheless, here are our best albums and specials of the year (in no particular order): READ MORE


Jim Gaffigan Explores His True Passion in 'Food: A Love Story'

foodalovestoryJim Gaffigan kicks off his new book, Food: A Love Story, by explaining his pedigree for writing about food. It's fair to say that anyone who's seen his standup will need no convincing that he's the man for the job. In fact, his food-love is so well known that he casually mentions the “lunatics on Twitter” who send him photos of crispy bacon, and concedes that many of his standup set lists could double for grocery lists.

Food, like his first best-selling effort, 2013’s Dad Is Fat, is a collection of light-hearted, conversational essays, some of it culled from his standup. It picks up exactly where that book left off — we’re back in the New York City two-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife and five kids. The family plays a role in this book as well, and pictures of his adorable brood eating all variety of foodstuffs are sprinkled throughout the pages.

The book starts with a geography lesson, as he moves around the country discussing the various gastronomical specialties around the United States: from­ seafood in the northeast (he’s not a fan) to barbecue and Tex-Mex in the south (he’s a big fan). He also embraces, as New Yorkers do, the snobbery that comes with the deliciousness of even our most basic meals. “I love my children,” he writes, “but I can’t articulate the depth of feelings I have for a toasted everything bagel with cream cheese.” He then moves leisurely through other culinary delights, as if he’s rummaging through your cabinets and commenting on the things he finds. READ MORE


Plumbing Politics and the Crazy State of the World for Comedy with Andy Zaltzman

SONY DSCAndy Zaltzman is best known in the States as half of the excellent satirical podcast The Bugle, which he co-hosts with long-time collaborator John Oliver. A lover of all things satire, he's hosted his "Political Animal" show for years, and his new show, "Satirist for Hire", adds a twist to the format. For each show, audience members request topics for him to satirize with his sharp, pun-loving wit; topics range from war and government policy to sports and fashion trends. I caught up with him at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to talk about audience suggestions and why The Bugle will last forever.

You’ve been coming up to the Fringe for 15 years. What’s the appeal of Edinburgh for you?

I guess the appeal is that it's a great forum for doing comedy, and for sort of learning the craft when you're starting out. Most comedians from Britain and a lot of comedians from around the world have come here and done their first proper runs here, their first hours, and gradually built up from there. It's very stimulating being in a place with a lot of your peers and watching a lot of comedy and just exchanging ideas, like any festival of arts. It's a really just exciting place to do standup. But quite why I'm still coming after 15 years, I'm not entirely sure.

It is exhausting.

Yes, and I did 10 years out of 11, and then had the last few off, but it was always the sort of highlight of the standup year for me, to come and develop a new hour of standup and learn new things and try out a lot of stuff that you couldn't necessarily do on the club circuit. So gradually build up your repertoire that way. READ MORE


How to Succeed at Edinburgh Fringe with Alex Edelman

Alex Edelman has had an excellent August. The American comic headed to the Edinburgh Fringe with his debut show, Millennial, and on Saturday, he walked away with the coveted Best Newcomer Award at the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Past winners include stars like The Mighty Boosh, Tim Minchin, and Sarah Millican, and it means the eye of the British comedy industry has turned to the 25-year-old New Yorker. I caught up with him after his win in Edinburgh to talk about previewing his show in London, his American style, and being transatlantic.

So why did you decide to come to Edinburgh this year?

I had sort of been invited by accident in 2012. I got cast in a play here, and so I was sort of revealed to this world of thousands of comedy shows. In New York, there's lot of stage time but it's hard to get on, and here, I was getting on seven or eight times a day for 15 minutes and making some money from it, and so why wouldn't you come to this thing? And so I came back last year and ran one of those shows, where you can get 15 minutes, and I did 25 minutes at the end of it, and around the end of the run, I started to realize that I had the makings of a show. And this producer for the BBC spotted me last year, and they put me on one of their showcases, and after that I had a bunch of offers for management, and so I signed with someone who I really liked and who was gonna bring me back the next year, and pay for the run, because the run can be quite expensive. They were tremendous producers, and the show was in good shape, and so the Pleasance was on board, and I guess everyone sort of lined up — venue, PR, producer, performer — and so it seemed sort of like the perfect storm of being able to do an hour of standup every day.

And I ran that compilation show again, and so I've been able to do a couple of shows a day at least. I haven't had a single day where I've done less than five shows, and they're different kinds of comedic muscles that you can't really flex at home. Like, there's “Set List”, which is something that I love doing here, and there's different kinds of improv games than you'd find at even the most wild of indie improv nights, like there's a show called “Voices in Your Head”, where someone directs your improv from the back. All these different octaves of the comedy piano seem like irresistible to me, and so I really wanted to come back. And also, there are a lot of comedians here, and it's sort of a chance to test your mettle. So that's why. READ MORE


Daniel Sloss and the Art of Telling Critics to Piss Off

daniel-slossAt only 23, Daniel Sloss has become one of the biggest draws at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Scottish comic played to packed houses during his fun in a 400-seat lecture hall in Edinburgh, and he's about to take his show "Really?!" on tour throughout the UK. He's also got his eye on the US, having appeared three times on Conan in the last year. I caught up with him in Edinburgh to talk about being famous in his hometown, not letting reviewers into his show, and his first attempt at pilot season in the US.

I feel like a lot of Americans don’t quite understand Edinburgh. What’s the appeal of the Fringe to you?

People go, "But isn't it just you guys getting drunk?" You go, "Yeah. Like, why is that not cool?" Yeah, but also, the reason I do it so much is how much you improve as a comic, consistently. I think doing a show here for a month is the equivalent of doing two years on the circuit, because you don't have anyone before you, you don't have anyone after you. It's just you doing an hour and you learn so much about just everything. I'll do it every year just for the C.K. reason — a new hour every year. When C.K. came out and said, "I'm gonna write a new hour every year because Carlin did," I think every comedian just kind of went, "Oh, well I guess we all have to do that now, because if any of us want to be that good, that's clearly how it's done."

I wish there were more Americans who came over and took advantage of the festival.

I was talking to [Anthony] Jeselnik last week, we were at the Vodafone Comedy Festival in Dublin — I'm a big, big fan of his — and he was saying how he wanted to do it, but his agents were like, "It's not worth the money. You don't really make much." For a lot of comics, it's flushing six grand down the drain, but if you want to be the best that you can be, you kind of have to. I'm lucky enough that I'm Scottish so people come out and see me. It's the support-their-own sort of thing. And my agent's amazing, and my flyers and marketing team, so I have quite an easy run of the festival, which I'm very grateful for. READ MORE


American Alex Edelman Wins Best Newcomer Award at Edinburgh Fringe

Alex25-year-old New York comedian Alex Edelman won the Edinburgh Fringe's Best Newcomer prize on Saturday for his show, Millennial. The prize is awarded to the best full-length debut show on the Fringe. The last American to win was Arj Barker back in 1997; other winners include The Mighty Boosh, Tim Minchin, and Sarah Millican. The overall Best Comedy Show award went to last year's best newcomer, John Kearns, for his absurdist show Shtick, and the Panel Prize, awarded to the show deemed to best capture the "spirit of the Fringe," was awarded to the interactive children's show Funz and Gamez, a show written by comedian Phil Ellis to appeal equally to parents and kids. Below, check out a clip of Alex from this year's Fringe:  READ MORE


Janeane Garofalo on Her Influence, Bombing, and Having No Web Presence

In comedy, Janeane Garofalo is a living legend. One of the breakout stars of the alt comedy of the 1990s, she went on to an eclectic entertainment career, appearing in movies like Reality Bites and The Truth About Cats & Dogs and TV shows from The Larry Sanders Show to 24, while also becoming one of the most prominent liberal voices with a stint on radio station Air America. But she's remained devoted stand-up and New York's alt scene, which is why she was perfect inclusion for A Night at Whiplash. I got the chance to talk to her about UCB, working out material on stage, and why she's doubtful about making any more specials.

It was so interesting to see you at the Whiplash tapings last year – I'm sure that everyone else on that show was influenced at least somewhat by your style of comedy. Do you see it? I think many people know that you were very influential in the way people started doing comedy.

I actually don't think so. You're giving me far too much credit. That's very kind that you say that, and I have heard that before, but I can't imagine how or why, since I can bomb as easily as I can do well. It's never changed over the years, it's hit or miss with me. And also, I think it's a style that chooses you rather than you choosing it. I see more people influenced by, in certain ways, Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, Brian Regan. If there are people influenced by me, I don't see it when I see them. And I don't mean that as criticism, I'm giving them all the credit in the world of being who they are. Maybe if anything, people felt that it was okay to bring a notebook and try new stuff more often and not be afraid of tanking, which you will if you do it that [laughs] a lot, but I prefer to do it that way. It keeps it interesting. But I don't know. I would have to ask you, you're more objective than me, do you see it?

I think so. Like you say, whether it's bringing a notebook on stage or just people being more free to take something in a direction they weren't expecting to – my impression is that, if you traced the root of where that came from, a lot of people give you the credit for making that popular.

Yeah, I don't know why. I mean, that's really nice. It's nice to be known for something. I feel like there was a number of comedians around the time I started who were interested in doing standup that way. This type of thing was going on. And I think I was just in the right place at the right time to be noticed for it at that time. It was just pure timing, but there were other people doing it and doing it much better than me. I think I just got lucky for a brief amount of time in the 90s. READ MORE


The Inside Story of Whiplash, One of New York's Best and Most Influential Standup Shows

"Whiplash is like a magical kingdom where laughs run free and jelly beans are the main form of currency," says comedian Aparna Nancherla, of UCB's late night standup show. For half a decade, Whiplash has consistently proven itself as an exciting and eclectic show that stands out even in the city's buzzing comedy scene, a favorite of megastar names like Louis C.K. and Chris Rock as well as a reliable well-spring for the next big stars — the likes of Pete Holmes and Kumail Nanjiani were once regulars. It's the reason that Splitsider turned to Whiplash for our first concert film, where host Leo Allen welcomed Jared Logan, Sheng Weng, Eugene Mirman, Carmen Lynch, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Michael Che, and Sean Patton. So how did it come to be that one of the best standup shows in New York City takes place beneath a grocery store for free at 11 p.m. every Monday night?

While UCB’s primary purpose was furthering the reach of sketch and improv, standup has always been an integral part of the theater. “The goal of UCB has always been to have the best of all things comedy,” says UCB co-founder Matt Walsh. “I think especially in New York, we need to have good standup shows, because it is a standup town.”

“It's part of the fundamental fabric of the UCB Theatre to have cheap and free shows,” says former artistic director Anthony King. “So a free weekly standup show has to be a bedrock of the theatre.” Several shows have occupied the 11 p.m. spot, but it was Aziz Ansari’s Crash Test that became a breakout hit; beginning in 2005, Ansari soon brought Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel on board, and the show served as a springboard for their group, Human Giant.

“When those guys got too busy to do Crash Test (and moved to LA), we needed a new show,” says King. “I figured…what naturally follows a Crash? Whiplash.” READ MORE


Inside SXSW's "Inside 'Late Night with Seth Meyers'" Panel

It’s only been on the air for two weeks, but Late Night with Seth Meyers already has a best-of reel and its own dedicated (sometimes intense) fans. A sizzle reel of interviews and clips of the new show kicked of the “Inside Late Night” panel at South by Southwest on Saturday afternoon, and the packed auditorium was filled with long-time fans of the former "Weekend Update" host, including one who told Meyers, “I wish I had your face so I had a girlfriend.” Meyers was joined by Late Night producer (and longtime SNL writer) Mike Shoemaker and moderator Olivia Munn to discuss the new show, which Meyers called a work-in-progress, as well as Fred Armisen, and what he plans to steal from Saturday Night Live.

On having SNL friends on the show:

Seth: We're trying to be careful not to, because we could obviously have an SNL person on every night.

Mike: We're right next door, so they're all around all the time, and the temptation is crazy. You just want to drag them in, but we're trying to temper it a bit.

On Stefon:

Seth: Well, on the desk, I have a Stefon nesting doll that was given to me as a gift. So Stefon is on camera every night, which makes me very happy […] We've been very clear with Lorne that we don't have any intention to poach SNL characters, and if you want to see an SNL character, you still have to find it on SNL… except for Stefon. So, at some point, he will show up on the show.



Talking to 'Daily Show' Correspondent Jessica Williams

In only a couple of years, Jessica Williams has become a vital member of one the most influential comedy shows on television. She joined The Daily Show in 2012 at the age of 22, making her the show's youngest correspondent ever. Since then, she's become an integral part of the Daily Show team, often reporting as the show's "Senior Youth Correspondent." I got the chance to talk to her about leaving college to join the show and the scariest part of her job.

You were so young when you started at The Daily Show. Did you have any background in political comedy or satire?

I didn’t have a lot of background in political comedy or satire. I did my improv team and musical theater in high school and I did Comedy Sportz and Upright Citizens Brigade in college. That was my background, not specifically satire. Before I left college to come work on the show, we had just been learning about what satire was. They had been showing clips from The Daily Show in class.

That’s awesome.

Yeah, it was really to have to go up to my professor and be like, “Hey, so I need to reschedule midterms because I’m going to go audition for The Daily Show, which you were showing in class earlier.”

Was it a big adjustment to start paying that much attention to politics and the news? 

Yeah, absolutely. Because typically, I’m really, really good at downloading information garbage. Things that are really irrelevant, like what did Selena Gomez do today? I’m very good at remembering what that is, but it’s a little bit harder for me to download political information. My brain takes a little while to catch up. So that definitely took a little bit more time, as opposed to what what Rihanna tweeted. I find that very easy to remember. [Laughs.] READ MORE


11 Uniquely Brilliant Standup Specials of 2013

As with most years, 2013 saw an overwhelming amount of excellent standup, far too much to ever catalogue. But the greatest specials of the year were unique and inventive; many played with the very idea of a special itself, while others featured profoundly personal stories spun into brilliant standup. What they share is their distinctness — each of these comics has made a special that captures their own undeniable form of genius. Here are the most distinctive, memorable standup specials of 2013. READ MORE


Neal Brennan Doesn't Care for Pete Holmes's Dave Chappelle Impression

Neal Brennan stopped by The Pete Holmes Show, and Pete took the opportunity to do his best David Chappelle/Aziz Ansari impression for the Chappelle Show co-creator, just because he knows he hates it. The rest of the interviews, the guys discussed the stresses of running a television show, what it takes to make it in Hollywood, and did some gossiping about Jerry O'Connell and Ryan Gosling. READ MORE