British comic Simon Amstell is known for taking the piss out of guests as a former host of Popworld and Never Mind The Buzzcocks (he even made Britney Spears cry). Now he’s at the other end of the interviewing process, as Anthony Carew puts Amstell through his very own “big ones”.
Simon Amstell is needy. So very, very needy. That comes as no surprise; the 32-year-old is currently employed as that neediest of all occupations: the stand-up comedian. But beyond the times he goes on stage, indulges in a veritable therapy session, and expects only to be showered with love, laughter, and validation of his very existence, there's having a promotional conversation with Amstell.
“Was that okay?” Amstell asks, at the end of one answer. Another time, he says, “was that not a good answer?”, seemingly desperate for confirmation of his abilities to provide the answers in a Q&A format. Another time, Amstell seems flummoxed that, after delivering a punchline at the end of an answer, that I don't audibly laugh; that the line rings out only with silence.
“Maybe I'm too needy,” Amstell admits. “In fact, I know I am. But maybe after an answer, every now and then, you could say 'that was a good answer, thanks'; 'that was great'; 'good for you'.”
It seems strange that Amstell is such a clingy interviewee given that he made his name by being a nasty interviewer. As the host of British chart show Popworld, Amstell made high-comic theatre out of a richly-ironic style of interviewing: in which he mocked the concept of interviews and the subject of those interviews themselves. A whole host of horrendous English landfill-indie bands – those abhorrent entities like The Fratellis and The Kooks – were made to, in short, look like fools; Amstell having been influenced by Barry Humphries, no less, in his youth; matching the hostile awkwardness of Norman Gunston with the sugar-coated, passive-aggressive smiles of Dame Edna Everage. Only, recast with the twitchy awkwardness of a neurotic Jew.
“I much prefer being the interviewer,” Amstell says, squirming slightly. “When I was interviewing people, a lot of the joke was that these people who we were interviewing thought that what they had to say was important, that their answers had gravitas. To be one of those people whose answers should be in print, whose words should be noted down and listened to, it's a concern. And maybe I'm starting to be like one of those ridiculous people that I made fun of in the past.”
That ridiculousness comes hand-in-hand with Amstell's celebrity status in his homeland; at his becoming a big fish in Great Britain's small entertainment pond. That came not from Popworld, nor his stand-up, nor, even, his beyond-meta sitcom Grandma's House, in which, Larry David-style, he plays a version of himself within a comic world that resembles a perverted version his own. It came, instead, from his role as television host of Never Mind The Buzzcocks, one of those musical-themed panel-shows in which minor celebrities and guest musicians swap duelling rock'n'roll trivia. Like with Popworld, Amstell's main role on the show was to be a shit-stirrer; but with his natural awkwardness swapped in for a fiery, provocative theatricality.
Amstell lasted four series as show host before quitting in 2009 to concentrate on his stand-up, and, more honestly, that he'd tired of the formula; where guests were waiting for Amstell to say something awkward and offensive to them. Some of his quips raised enough hackles that they create 'controversy' in English mainstream media; though, Amstell says, “it's never intentional.”
Initially, Amstell declines that he's controversial, in any way. “The words that usually come before my name are 'personal' and 'revealing',” he says. “I'm not a 'controversial' kind of comedian.”
That wasn't quite the case, in 2010, when Amstell was appearing in a car-crash interview on glossy BBC morning television. When the gormless hosts were hurrying Amstell's interview to get to a conversation with horrendous crooner Russell Watson – who had transparently used a brain cancer scare in a desperate attempt to shill records – Amstell barked: “oh, yes, Russell and his tumour!”
“It wasn't actually a tumour joke,” Amstell defends, of the warped public perception, “it was a joke about how morning television turns even the most profound thing into this pleasant banality.”
The interview was so impossibly awkward that pundits – those who weren't morally and mortally offended by someone daring to make light of celebrity cancer! – earmarked it for a future inclusion in Grandma's House, in which real life scenes from Amstell's regular-performances are hatcheted into the narrative of the show. “We actually use that interview in the second season of which is about to go out here,” Amstell says. “We use that interview and some of the reaction to it in the show. I found it all quite funny, I suppose. I think of it all as being quite silly, really.”
Yet the 'quite funny' moment seemed to crystallise a growing sentiment in England, where the casual viewer started to turn on Amstell – to, indeed, 'hate' on – for the exact same nasty edge for which he was once loved. In fact, scanning the human-toilet-bowl of internet comment threads reveals a disturbingly disproportionate number of typists wishing violence – or, even, to enact violence – upon Amstell. The phrase “punchable face” has never been used so carefreely.
Yet, for his recent stand-up show – titled Numb – Amstell is making an assault on the perceptions of him as smirking, smart-alec, taking the mickey out of moronic celebrities with a smile on his punchable face. His latest set is filled with confession, intimacy, overshare, and soul-bearing; with the recurring punchline being not some product of UK stage school shillin' a pre-fab pop single, but Amstell himself.
“It's all so self-deprecating. I'm always the idiot. It's always about my own anxiety, my own awkwardness; the other people in my stories, they're always delightful. I'm attacking myself more than anyone else when I'm on stage,” Amstell says.
The show is highlighted by the strong sense of candour. Where Grandma's House takes the figures of Amstell's family and turns them into exaggerated versions thereof, on stage there's no such artifice, no such sleights-of-hand. “It's me talking about my life, but with a different energy,” Amstell says. “Me talking to you right now is different to me talking to a number of people in a room. They're all very personal stories, they're coming from real emotions. I'm not making anything up. I'm not creating a persona… I just don't know how else to do it, really, other than talking about myself.”
From there, Amstell talks about talking about himself for a living; effectively deconstructs the strange artifice of standing on stage and sharing in the mutual expectation that people must laugh. There was the time where, befuddled by a woman's bad body language, he asked her to “uncross her arms and open her legs”; faux pas mildly averted by the fact that he's, y'know, gay.
There was the warm-up gigging – effectively working through the material for his imminent tour – in which “there were moments where [he] said something that people were supposed to laugh at and they most certainly were not.” He talks soliciting opinions, in those developmental stages, and quizzing audiences about why they'd laughed at unexpected moments: “they'll tell me that what I regarded as a perfectly standard sentence to come out of a human-being was actually the sentence of an idiot,” Amstell offers.
And, invariably, Amstell talks about talking about himself. About laying his foibles, his family life, his sexuality, his neuroses, his failures into a show that, to some audience members, may play like glorified therapy. “I'm trying to be as open and honest as possible,” Amstell says. “I'm more concerned with saying something that hasn't been the complete truth, from my perspective. I'm worried that I've been dishonest with people, not too honest.
“It just happens that that's what I end up doing,” Amstell continues. “Am I uncomfortable about people knowing stuff about me? Not as long as they're laughing. When you reveal something about yourself on stage and it isn't followed by a laugh, then you can feel a bit awkward. Because you feel like you've just said something that's really come from your soul, that would have some real value in that room. Then if it falls flat, it's just this weird thing that you've said, and people are wondering why you would say such a thing out loud. That can be awkward. But when people laugh at the revealing thing, it's a very warm feeling. It's a very validating and connecting feeling.”
Ahhh, validation. That's the tonic. And with that, this needy, needy conversation comes to a close. Like a blind-date – two teetotalling, unendingly-awkward interviewers (who've both made interviewees cry, PS) thrown t'gether to make promotional small-talk in some sort of editorial set-up – it finally resolves itself at a friendly-if-still-awkward end.
“Was that okay for you?” Amstell asks. “Did you get what you wanted?” he asks, too. “Were my answers alright?” as well. And, finally, the big one: “are you going to come to the show?” And, with that, the needy stand-up hangs up, and confirms his travel plans for Australia. First time visitor. Big ticket Comedy Festival show. Go along and laugh, please; think of it as charity. Like feeding the needy.