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‘I’m not really good at this,’ Simon Amstell tells me. He doesn’t enjoy being interviewed. Plus, he’s tired from touring. ‘But I’ll try my best for you, Ben. As long as you edit it into something that sounds like a reasonable human being, I’m okay.’
Ten years ago, Amstell was known for agitating celebrities on pop music panel shows. These days, rather than directing insults at D-listers, the 35-year-old aims the put-downs at himself, picking apart his own flaws in vulnerable, brutally honest stand-up shows. His latest, ‘To Be Free’, is his funniest and most sincere yet. And that’s where he’s most at ease; talking about himself in front of 1,000 strangers, not on the phone to me.
What worries you about doing interviews?
‘I think one of the reasons I don’t really feel comfortable being interviewed is because it drives my ego a bit insane, and it doesn’t serve my journey of freeing myself of it.’
‘Freeing’ yourself of your ego?
‘Well, the new show is sort of about coming home from Peru – where I drank ayahuasca [a hallucinogenic drink] – feeling healed, feeling like I’d been re-set as a human being. But after a while all my insecurities were slowly creeping back in. It was frustrating, because I felt like I had found such freedom and joy. It would’ve been easier to stay in Peru and find a cave and a bongo drum somewhere and have a routine of waking up, a bit of swimming, a bit of drumming, eat something… To be free is to transcend the self. So, on stage, I’m discussing this journey while also saying, “Please look at me and laugh at everything I’m saying, and tell all your friends what a lovely time you had.” This is a problem.’
So by performing stand-up you can’t achieve your spiritual goal?
‘Yes. I’m being held back spiritually by my talent!’
You started showcasing that talent at an early age. Your first TV appearance was on ‘GamesMaster’, aged 13, and you seemed very confident.
‘That’s a kind word for that kid’s personality.’
Were you as self-assured as you seemed?
‘No, I was a painfully shy child who wouldn’t go to parties. The reason anything happened for me at all was because my parents, on advice from a primary school teacher, sent me to a drama club on Saturday mornings to bring me out of my shell, and I learned how to be on stage confidently. I didn’t learn how to exist with other people in real life, but I knew how to be on stage or in front of a camera. Even I knew that I was playing this annoying role on that kids’ show. But I thought it was more important that people would react to that character, whereas the other contestants were just so dull! I would look at them and think: Well, that was a really boring answer, that’s not going to make good television.’
How do you feel about your 13-year-old self now?
‘I had a lot of issues with that kid for a long time, but I really made peace with him recently. He knew what he was doing, he really knew how to get somewhere. I’m really grateful for all his work. He’s a deranged lunatic, and you sort of need to be a deranged lunatic to make something happen for yourself. That kid was a loon, and I thank him for his lunacy every day!’
Was that the same loon who went on to present ‘Popworld’ and ‘Buzzcocks’?
‘Yes, I guess I sort of refined it over the years. I think the thing that connects everything I’ve done is that I’m just trying to say something truthful, wherever I am. Whether I’m sat next to a pop star or in the middle of a stand-up show, I’m interested in saying the thing that isn’t being said. The truth is enough! I don’t watch much television any more because I just feel like it’s a bunch of people lying to me, putting on a smile or putting on a sad face and saying something appropriate. I’m not interested.’
You’ve said that you occasionally didn’t feel proud of yourself on ‘Buzzcocks’. Did you go too far with anything you said or did?
‘Yeah, maybe. My priority was completely to the audience watching those shows, I was not particularly sensitive to the feelings of the people being interviewed. When it worked really well I felt like I was getting away with being a bit cheeky, and I was hoping that what I was saying was so funny and truthful that their instinct would be to laugh at that before they had the chance to think about being offended or upset. Sometimes that didn’t happen. But when I watch those kinds of shows what’s offensive, to me, is an interviewer pretending that they like the interviewee, and that they’re great friends. People should be asking the other presenters if they feel ashamed of themselves for lying to the public for their entire careers!’
As well as being very personal, you bring up a lot of issues with society as a whole in the new show. With the election coming up, do you feel politically engaged?
‘Hmm, let’s figure out what the answer is… I kind of carefully dip in and out of it. I think I’m a more useful person if I am disconnected from that noise. I’m not really interested in waiting for the culture that I’m in or the government that’s in power to tell me that I’m okay, or to change a law that makes me feel like everything will be all right. The changes that have been made in my life have happened because I’ve looked in great and horrific depth at my own thoughts, and meditated endlessly. That’s not necessarily to say that I won’t vote for someone but, to me, the main focus of my day will be dancing around naked to Michael Jackson songs because I know that’s the thing that’s going to bring me the most joy.’