Simon Amstell: Never mind the Buzzcocks – here’s the real me
The comedian's new film is about an insecure film-maker. ‘Not me,’ insists the ‘twisted gay geek’
Simon Amstell: ‘The reason I started doing stand-up comedy was because I was so shy that I wouldn’t go to parties. And I ended up thinking that being on stage would be a way to communicate with people.’
Last October, Simon Amstell was travelling to the premiere of Benjamin, his second feature as a writer-director, at the London Film Festival, and feeling nervous.
“I was thinking about the speech that I had to give at the beginning of the film,” he says. “And about sitting there watching it with an audience for the first time and waiting to hear if they would laugh and feel things when they were supposed to. And then I thought about how anxious the character Benjamin is on the night of his premiere and I realised: well, you’ve written that guy out of you; there’s no point in fictionalising that part of yourself unless you’re going to let him go. So I decided I would just enjoy the evening instead. And I did.”
At 39, Amstell has successfully mined his own anxieties and complexities to create award-winning stand-up and TV since the turn of the millennium. Debuting in 2010, his BBC sitcom Grandma’s House saw Amstell, having recently quit the comedy pop panel game show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, playing a version of Simon Amstell, having recently quit a comedy pop panel game show.
In 2017, the comedian and presenter published his first book, Help, a collection of annotated stand-up scripts and stories linked by personal battles with despair and depression. “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.”
His subsequent tour, What is This?, touched on his own experiences with Judaism, circumcision, sweat lodges and MDMA. To paraphrase Nora Ephron, everything is material. As part of The Big Issue’s A Letter to My Younger Self feature, Amstell recently wrote: “I think everything I have ever done has been an attempt to reach a hand out to my teenage self and tell him he is OK.” He added: “I had to lie about who I was between the ages of 13 and 21. Or I felt I did. Because I liked boys. I felt very alone, I didn’t think it was possible to like boys without ruining my entire life.”
Speaking to Amstell about Benjamin, the words “he’s not me” pop up often enough to become a kind of running joke. The film concerns a young film-maker (played by the Irish star of Merlin and The Happy Prince, Colin Morgan) who is fretting over the release of his second feature, when he is introduced to a talented French musician called Noah (Phénix Brossard). In keeping with Amstell’s observational brand, the moment is more meet awkward than meet cute.
“Noah’s studying music at Guildhall,” says a mutual friend.
“Oh, Guildhall,” blurts Benjamin. “That’s a good one. Have you had any drugs yet?”
“Not many of the events that happen in the film have actually happened to me in my life,” says Amstell. “But all of the feelings are my own. So everything that the character Benjamin feels is something I’ve felt at one time or another. There are little bits of dialogue that I’ve taken from specific moments. I suppose I wrote it as a way of figuring out what was wrong with me in my 20s in terms of the romantic relationships I ended up in. Writing and directing this film was a kind of therapy, I suppose.”
Does he find writing and performing to be effective therapy?
“I do think you also need actual therapy at the same time,” he says. “But I have ended up writing a lot of stuff out of me. By the time I finished Benjamin, I felt like I had got my 20s out of me, like I could heal.”
Over the years,in addition to therapeutic writing, Amstell has tried yoga, the “therapy of therapy”, and has dabbled with ayahuasca.
“I wouldn’t say I dabbled with it,” he laughs. “I specifically went to Peru for a week to drink this healing plant that I heard about from my friend. He told me where he went. Dabbled makes it sound like I was in somebody’s basement in Hoxton. It had an incredible effect. I went in there with depression; after four ceremonies I left having got to the root of that depression, feeling reborn and feeling completely reset.”
While it’s not strictly autobiographical, it’s hard to reconcile the 20-something angst depicted in Benjamin with the cocksure 20-something Amstell who shot to fame as a “twisted 21-year-old gay geek from Essex” alongside Miquita Oliver, as the co-presenters of Channel 4’s Popworld.
Growing up in Essex, Amstell had set his sights on television early. He started performing stand-up at 14 and TV soon after, impersonating kindred spirit Dame Edna on Good Morning with Anne and Nick, and performing magic tricks on Family Catchphrase. By 18, he landed his first presenting job on Nickelodeon only to be fired for being “sarcastic and mean to children”.
Those same attributes served him well on the irreverent Popworld, a show that allowed him to baffle Britney Spears (“Have you ever licked a battery?” he asks her, straightfaced), bemuse Craig David (“So what’s the longest word on your album?”) and infuriate Girls Aloud, by asking Cheryl Tweedy (later Cole and Fernandez-Versini), in the months after she was found guilty of assaulting a lavatory attendant, if people were frightened to see her walk into the ladies. The same sharp-shooting enlivened Never Mind the Buzzcocks (“Jordan’s third favourite tit and second favourite twat – it’s Peter Andre!”) until 2009 when he left, much to the chagrin of his fictionalised mum in Grandma’s House. As accustomed as we are to the concept of the tragic clown, the brilliantly cocky Amstell of the noughties looks absolutely nothing like Colin Morgan’s socially maladroit Benjamin.
I do stuff until I know how to do it and then I get bored and then I’ve got to find something else
“Well, neither of those is the real me,” says Amstell. “I was really lucky to meet Colin Morgan and see that that he could be really both really funny and make you feel things. When we first read the script together, he did it in a kind of London accent and I just thought it would be better if he did it in his own accent to remove a layer of acting between him and the audience. Benjamin isn’t really me. I feel like if he’s anybody he’s me in my 20s combined with Colin Morgan exploring some of his own stuff. The thing about Benjamin is that he’s somebody who is seeking love from an audience because he’s terrified of letting himself be comfortable enough to experience intimacy. I know what that feels like. I know the anxiety of the character. The reason I started doing stand-up comedy was because I was so shy that I wouldn’t go to parties. And I ended up thinking that being on stage would be a way to communicate with people when I was a teenager. I still wasn’t very good at talking to people in real life, but I was able to perform, and performing was easier somehow than real life.”
He left Popworld and Buzzcocks to focus on stand-up comedy, but his subsequent career has expanded to include filmmaking and writing.
“I do stuff until I know how to do it and then I get bored and then I’ve got to find something else,” he says.
For the moment he’s enjoying “the long days” required for film production. He has directed a short film for one of The Klaxons and a directed a series of shorts written by Harry Potter star Jessie Cave. He provided voice work for the video game Dr Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist.
A teetotal vegan, Amstell made his feature debut with Carnage 2017, a satire set in 2067, at a moment when veganism is normalised that looks back toward “the time people got upset when their pets died – and when other animals died, they ate them”. He’s pleased that even in the short time since Carnage premiered, that vegans look less marginal than they once did.
“I came at it from a comedy angle, which I think was helpful so that the message was delivered in a way that wouldn’t be too upsetting or smug or self-righteous. I feel that something has changed now. It used to be that a vegan was a punchline. And I feel like there’s a kind of grudging understanding that a plant-based diet is the inevitable future for us all. And that really, the absurd thing is the carnism that we’ve been involved in up to this point.”
Benjamin is released on March 15th