Simon Amstell: 'I thought: ‘I’ll never be happy'

A decade on from Popworld, the comic has faced his demons, found love and made a mock doc about veganism. He explains why fame couldn’t fix him

Fame, says Simon Amstell, was supposed to fix his loneliness. Being on TV, taking the piss out of pop stars first on Popworld, then Never Mind The Buzzcocks, being loved by enough people, was supposed to make him feel safe. “But when it didn’t, when I still felt lonely and unsafe, it was: ‘Well, now what? What do I do now? Experience actual love? Well, that’s going to be tricky. How am I going to find actual love?’”

Amstell is now 37 but still looks, as he has always done, a decade younger. His hair’s longer, the glasses aren’t as thickly framed, but he’s still slight and boyish, shrouded under a thick grey marl sweatshirt. We meet in the cafe at the BFI where his new BBC film Carnage – a mockumentary about veganism that he’s written and directed – will be screened in a couple of weeks.

From the outside at least, it seems he’s had something of a career hiatus. It’s been five years since the final episode of Grandma’s House, the BBC2 sitcom loosely based on his family, and almost two since his last standup tour. In which time he directed a short film for one of the Klaxons, did voice work for a video game – and found love. “Yes, I’m in a stable, non-deranged relationship,” he says with slow, deliberate emphasis, “so, that’s handy.” It seems that “actual love”, coupled with his self-searching trip to Peru – where, he says, drinking the psychedelic brew ayahuasca “cured my depression” – have flipped things for him.

simon amstell
‘If I don’t meditate that despair will return’: Simon Amstell. Photograph: Publicity image

It’s probably unsurprising that the height of Amstell’s fame – when he was, arguably, the funniest presenter on TV – collided with the height of his angst. “I used to feel my neutral state was despair,” he says. “Now my neutral state is one of peace and contentment. However, it is a constant practice to clean up the mud that could get in the way of such joy.” He giggles, as punctuation to deflate the loftiness of therapy-speak. “I’m happy, but if I don’t meditate, if I don’t jump around in the morning, do a bit of yoga, that despair will return.”

He physically cringes when asked whether he might return to TV presenting. It’s 10 years – to the day according to a story in the Metro that very morning – since Buzzcocks’ most famous moment, when Amstell, with a nerve and guile easier in your 20s, goaded Preston from the Ordinary Boys until he walked off the show. But just the mention of it now makes him clam up, lips sealed under a cartoon headshake, until I laugh and move on.

“Ruby Wax, who I basically stole from in every interview I ever did, said the problem is we live so long we keep having to come up with new things to do.” Leaning forward, Amstell’s arms waggle over the table to make his point. “If you made a film about my life, the biggest arc would be growing up in Essex and getting into television – that’s the journey. Really, the credits roll when I’m 21 years old. But I didn’t die and so I keep having to come up with new things to do because the horror of being at a party and that question.” What question? “‘What are you up to at the moment?’ If we didn’t have that question, we wouldn’t do anything! That question! ‘What do you do?!” He yelps.

Pop quiz: Amstell (centre) with team captains Phill Jupitus and Bill Bailey on Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
Pop quiz: Amstell (centre) with team captains Phill Jupitus and Bill Bailey on Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Photograph: Brian Ritchie/Talkback Thames

Three years ago, it seemed clear that Amstell was on the verge of breaking the US. His shows in New York sold out, he did well on the late-night talkshow circuit; the next step might feasibly have been Hollywood or a HBO show. His manager sent him for auditions, which Amstell invariably found uncomfortable and eventually put a stop to. “What I discovered about myself is that I really like being in charge,” he says. “Much more than wanting to be cast as the skinny Jew in something, I’d rather be the guy who is directing the thing he has written that there is a connection to.” The plan now, he says, is to write and perform a standup show every couple of years and alternate that with writing and directing films.

“It took a while to figure out why to continue what I was doing,” he explains. “Because the ability to do standup comedy began as a defence mechanism about an inability to experience intimacy with one person at a time. So to now allow myself to be vulnerable enough to experience love … ” He breaks off, to think about how his sentence will work in print. “Suddenly, there is an energy missing,” he starts again. “There was a driving force in me before that needed a lot of applause quite often. It wasn’t there any more and I really had to reconfigure myself.”

Being prone to both acute self-awareness and control freakery has served him well, though. Amstell always seems to have to cut loose from a project far earlier than his audience are ready for and so never really outstays his welcome or risks over-exposure. The main reason, he reckons, is boredom. “Once I know how a format works, it’s very difficult for me to stay within that format,” he says. Standup remains the exception but everything else becomes unnecessary noise unless it’s original and makes him laugh: “If something is inauthentic or not funny, I feel a bit sick.” Plus, as he’s now in the comfortable position to point out: “I don’t have to think of a TV project that doesn’t mean anything to me. I can wait till something bubbles up.”

Give ’em enough OAP: Amstell with the cast of Grandma’s House.
Give ’em enough OAP: Amstell with the cast of Grandma’s House. Photograph: BBC

In the case of Carnage, the BBC came to him asking if he had any ideas – “and I had an idea! I had one in my pocket!” – and gave him relative freedom and control to do what he liked. So he arrived at a future utopia in 2067, where depression is defeated by intimacy, violence is destroyed by compassion – and everyone is vegan. Made as a spoofy documentary with turns from Linda Bassett (Grandma from Grandma’s House), Martin Freeman, Joanna Lumley and grime rapper JME, Carnage makes tonal nods to Chris Morris and Louis Theroux; real archival footage of, say, vegans from the 70s being interviewed about their diet is cut alongside clips of Jamie Oliver moaning about “thick-as-shit parents”. The Best in Show-style scripted set-ups are awkwardly funny, satirising “the time people got upset when their pets died – and when other animals died, they ate them”. And there are relentless jokes at the expense of veganism, a surprise if only because Amstell himself is a committed vegan. “That sounds horrific, though,” he says, looking appalled. “A committed vegan!” He honks. “I’m just a … I think it’s best if we go for: ‘Brilliant, funny person who unfortunately happens to be vegan.’ Ha ha ha ha!”

As it is, he says he’s spent the last nine months sequestered making Carnage and now there is a new tour – What Is This? – coming up. He says that standup is the best way for him to reveal all the worst, most embarrassing parts of himself and feel freer, lighter. “I’m telling the truth each time. That’s what it will always be about and if that’s worth anything, I think I’ll have a career that keeps going.” It’s why, for instance, he says Grandma’s House did its run of two series and stopped. “I felt like I’d told the story and … nobody disagreed. What I could have done is make a very entertaining third series that, for me, wouldn’t have done anything. I feel like I wouldn’t have revealed anything more, there was no more healing to be done in that subject area.”

So, is being funny alone never enough? Does his comedy still need to act as a form of therapy? “The things I loved growing up, like Roseanne, actually said something about actual human beings,” he says. “I really loved her for speaking to people that didn’t have much of a voice. That excites me. Although I’m very excited by comedy, obviously, because it’s sort of what I do.” He giggles: “Although it depends who you ask.”

Children of the Quorn: Myles Sembi, Alex Lawther and Will Rastall in Carnage.
Children of the Quorn: Myles Sembi, Alex Lawther and Will Rastall in Carnage. Photograph: BBC

He talks about being excited rather than daunted by doing his live show in the US this time around. He wants to take what he calls the Eddie Izzard route: perform in a small theatre in New York every night for a couple of months until people notice. Last time he tried it he was still riddled with anxiety and his ego’s need “to get somewhere off the back of doing shows”. He forgot that performing had been his original ambition. “Somebody told me [back then]: ‘You’re doing your own show in New York every night. If you’re not happy now, you’ll never be happy.’ And I thought: ‘I’ll never be happy.’”

Except now he is. And it’s a lovely, if quieter thing – the more relaxed Amstell, liberated from the neediness of ego, competitiveness and insecurity. “I’m not interested in doing a thing just for the sake of making my name and face well known,” he says.

Having spent a portion of his very early career chasing fame, Amstell’s relationship with it now is significantly more laidback, a natural consequence of the realisation that it couldn’t “fix” him. “It’s a very sweet spot for me now,” he says. “I can be anonymous enough to be in a restaurant and have a delightful time with the person I’m with, but not so anonymous that somebody in that restaurant won’t tell me something I’ve done is brilliant.” He knows it sounds ridiculous, but it’s also his honest truth.

Carnage is available from 19 Mar, 9pm, BBC iPlayer


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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