Help by Simon Amstell; Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions by Russell Brand – review

Two driven comedians attempt to put their demons to the sword in this pair of entertaining confessional memoirs

The sad clown is a trope as old as drama; think of Shakespeare’s melancholy fools, with their discarded pearls of wisdom, or the likes of Tony Hancock and Robin Williams, spreading laughter on stage or screen while private pain corroded their lives until it became unbearable. In recent years it’s been fashionable in standup comedy to use that pain as material, often with the intention of encouraging audiences to talk about difficult issues with an acknowledgment of the black humour they entail.

Since Simon Amstell started performing long-form standup 10 years ago, he’s made a virtue of holding his angst up to public scrutiny with an honesty that many performers shy away from, so it’s perhaps inevitable that a book should follow. Yet it’s hard to escape the sense that this particular book doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. He nods to this in the introduction, explaining that the original suggestion was to publish transcripts of his major standup shows. “And who for? For people who don’t like hearing standup out loud?”

He’s right to be sceptical; few things are less funny than a standup routine set down on the page, stripped of every crucial pause, cadence, facial expression and nuance of audience interaction, and Amstell’s deadpan style is a vital ingredient of his comedy. “The only way I could think to get out of this situation was to write something new and so horrifically personal that no one could think of it as anything other than an heroic act of self-annihilation.”

The result is a sort-of coming-of-age tale that takes the reader through his unhappy childhood and awkward adolescence up to the present, intercut with excerpts from his four previous live shows to illustrate various points. These sections can feel repetitive, especially since the standup often sounds flat on the page and distant compared with the livelier, more confiding narrative voice of the book. But Amstell is a likable, self-deprecating guide to his own flaws, and has spent enough time in therapy to dissect his own navel-gazing with a nicely dry self-awareness.

Even when ayahuasca seems to solve his problems with alienation and depression, he finds reason to worry: “A wound that needed status to avoid intimacy has been healed. I was healthy, I was in a relationship with someone who had a happy childhood – how would I now find the motivation to earn attention from strangers?’

Even in the epilogue, he’s anxious about whether the book will serve its purpose. “I wonder what I’ve left out, if I’ve gone as deep as I could have with a little more time or distance.” But Help is ultimately a book about the desire to connect; Amstell offers only his own comic, often painful, journey, not as a template but as a kind of therapy: “It feels good to have all these stories out of my head and in a book where they can’t confuse me any more. I got them out of me.”

Russell Brand.
Russell Brand: ‘Glimmers of good sense’. Photograph: Perou

Russell Brand is no stranger to making his mistakes in the public eye, but he emphatically does want to teach others the lessons he has learned. Recovery is unashamedly a “self-help” book based on the 12-step programme used by Alcoholics Anonymous and related groups, rewritten in Brand’s characteristically rococo style to be applied to every kind of addictive behaviour from social media to consumerism, to which we are all hostage to some degree, in Brand’s view: “If you’re like me, you’ll begin to see that you have learned to live with dissatisfaction, always vaguely aggrieved, believing there is nothing better out there for you. There is.”

Those of us who remember Brand’s last attempt to “help” the problem of engagement in politics by telling young people not to vote might well approach this latest attempt at intervention with wariness. But one of his endearing traits is that there is no criticism you can level at him that he has not already aimed at himself; he talks of the failure of his “quest” as a political campaigner because “the egoic and venomous energy that’s in me” got in the way. When he writes with evangelical zeal about turning around his own addictions, it comes across as well intentioned and heartfelt, but at the same time part of a performance. Brand has always been his own shrewdest observer; his 2013 show was titled Messiah Complex and there’s a sense that this aspect of his character persists, though it’s now channelled into a desire to sort out other people’s problems. “Me, with my proclivity for grandiosity, I will always favour sweeping change and grand revolutions, wild and wordy statements of intent, martyrdom and marvels.”

So it’s disarming to find that, behind all the verbosity and therapy-speak, there are glimmers of good sense in here. While the insights are not original, the experience of them is unique, and it’s Brand’s own story that gives the book its energy. Whether he really will change the world by example only time will tell; in the meantime, for anyone with an abiding interest in Russell Brand, it offers an entertaining glimpse into the latest stage in his transfiguration.

Help by Simon Amstell is published by Square Peg (£12.99) and Recovery by Russell Brand by Macmillan (£20). To order the former for £11.04 or the latter for £17, go to or call 0330 333 6486. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Stephanie Merritt

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Celebrity memoirs: Simon Pegg; Russell Brand; Susan Boyle; Paul O'Grady; Harry Hill – review
As the seasonal glut of celebrity memoirs hits our shelves, Euan Ferguson finds out if they're any good

Euan Ferguson

09, Oct, 2010 @11:04 PM

Article image
Mentors: How to Help and Be Helped by Russell Brand review – a grown-up guru
After several false starts, the comedian and presenter’s worldview has become surprisingly mature

Jonnie Wolf

27, Jan, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Parenthesis by Élodie Durand review – gripping graphic memoir about the joy of recovery
The French artist deftly evokes the fog and fear of illness and the thrill of getting better

Rachel Cooke

02, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Everybody: A Book About Freedom by Olivia Laing review – free your body and your mind will follow
The Lonely City author explores Wilhelm Reich’s insights into the physical impact of emotional pain in a deft book of many parts

Ashish Ghadiali

09, May, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
Notes from the Cévennes review – an English writer abroad
Adam Thorpe’s erudite memoir reflects on the realities of relocating to a rustic French idyll

Kate Kellaway

18, Jun, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
And Away… review – how Bob Mortimer went from sidekick to standalone
An often moving memoir examines the comedian’s unlikely journey from Big Nights Out to riverbank ruminations with Paul Whitehouse

Stephanie Merritt

26, Sep, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Writer’s Luck by David Lodge review – from academia to the mainstream
In his second volume of memoir, the novelist ranges from earnest to Pooterish

DJ Taylor

31, Dec, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Invisible Walls by Hella Pick review – vital lessons from a titan of journalism
Pick recounts her incredible life story, from Kindertransport evacuee to doyenne of the diplomatic press corps, in this profound must-read

Fergal Keane

22, Mar, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Word Detective: A Life in Words; From Serendipity to Selfie – review
Lexicographer John Simpson weaves etymology with personal history in a compelling tribute to the wonder of language

Anita Sethi

16, Oct, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
In briefs: Homeland Elegies; What You Can See from Here; The Accidental Footballer – review
A twisty tale of Trump’s America, a charmingly strange bestseller, and a surprising sports memoir

Ben East

25, Jul, 2021 @2:00 PM