What becomes of the neurotic comedian when he finds joyful contentment in love? Simon Amstell is happier than before, and less tough on himself. Instead, he’s being tough on the rest of us. His new show, To Be Free, is as worrisome and analytic as its predecessors, but here Amstell holds society, rather than his own ego, up for ridicule. And the comedy’s none the worse for it. The rules we live by, it turns out, are as dysfunctional and self-defeating as Amstell’s personality. This 70-minute set points fingers at this dodgy social construction and suggests how things might be better rebuilt.
I don’t want to suggest that Amstell – now in a great relationship, he tells us – comes across as well adjusted. The show is still driven by his highly strung personality, which he misses no opportunity to send up. He harps on his parents’ divorce, craves the audience’s love (“You’re my father!”), and his monogamous bliss is haunted by dreams of sex-dungeon promiscuity. Amstell presents this fretfulness less as egomania, more as social misfittery – which makes it highly endearing. He recounts how he couldn’t help puncturing the banality of a Radio 1 interview by blurting out an accusation of racism live on air, on the day Nelson Mandela died.
But it’s not just Amstell’s fault that he (like all of us, now and then) is a social misfit – it’s society’s, too. To Be Free calls on us to move beyond shame and hypocrisy in our dealings with one another, to embrace “our spontaneous and natural selves”. At its crudest, that means masturbating in public – a joke Amstell sets up with a lovely jump-cut (“People of the bus ...”). It also means transcending homophobia and sexism, traits for which Amstell feigns extreme incomprehension. This leads to a critique of the moral muddle of animal rights, which Amstell exposes – with deadpan disproportion and a lethal punchline – by contrasting them with the Holocaust.
My personal highlight is a routine about the Queen’s constitutional lack of self-awareness. “If she’s just a person who’s done a shit, those trumpets are going to start to sound sarcastic”: beautiful. It’s not all belly laughs, but it’s a constantly delightful and insightful tour of Amstell’s responses to the world – which, as ever, seem thought-about from every angle and un-glib. It wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t true, sometimes embarrassingly so. And this time out, it’s not only Amstell who should feel embarrassed, but all of us.