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Coming to America: Finding Joy With British Comedian Simon Amstell

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(Photograph by Carol Rosegg)

When I lived in the U.K., I spent many rainy nights watching the music quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks and found myself delightfully intrigued and genuinely entertained by the clever and often times cheeky humor of its host, Simon Amstell. Early in his career as a television presenter on Popworld, Amstell interviewed various personalities, displaying a forthright style of comedy verging on the surreal. He once asked Britney Spears if she had ever "licked a battery" and asked Bjork if she had ever been pinned against the wall by a big hairy dog.

In more recent years, Amstell has focused on stand-up comedy, bringing his humor to audiences around the globe. With Numb, he reaches deep into reflections on various events from his life, describing situations with an honesty that can at times be simultaneously hilarious and moving. He once attended a clowning course in France where he learned the importance of vulnerability, and this is a quality that he brings to his shows -- leaving him exposed to the possibility of connectedness.

Next week, he will bring his show Numb to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. I recently spoke with Amstell by telephone, where from London he talked about clowns, Bill Cosby, and not taking over Hollywood.

You're coming to L.A. Is there anything you find annoying about this city?
I feel like I haven't really gotten involved enough yet to be annoyed. What do you find annoying?

It's too hot here and people smile too much.
[Laughs] So far I've only found pure joy.

Pure joy?
Pure joy everywhere.

What are some of the things that give you pure joy when you're here?
I don't know. The last time I was there, I was staying with some friends and it didn't feel like the scary L.A. that people talk about. I guess I was with fun people. I will try to get better observations about L.A. by the time I get there.

I read a while back that you once went to a clowning course in Paris. That seems surreal. Can you share any stories about that?
I only did a month and people like Sacha Baron Cohen were there for two years. I did a kind of refresher thing with a great clown called Philip Burgers and it's really just about finding where you are funny without any defense mechanisms. Through various exercises you are put into situations without any context, where you can't rely on what you'd normally rely on. Everyone has their own thing that they rely on whether quietness or loudness or being too overly language based and feel sort of stuck in situations where the only thing you can do is trust your instincts and the spontaneity of the moment. Then something funny comes out of you there that is much more pure than anything that was coming out of you before all your defenses were removed.

There were like 30 or 40 people in the class and he asked us our names and what we did, and our ages, and I said that I was a comedian and I thought that would be a good thing but he just was very unimpressed with the idea of anyone being a comedian. So there was one exercise where he got an Australian girl and I with no script and no context of why to just sort of be here in this space and entertain for 20 minutes. She started doing animal noises and stuff like "Grrr, I'm a tiger," and because I was so stuck in my head, rather than going with the joy of her tiger, all I could think was "well, you're not a tiger. This is a lie." And so then he stopped the exercise because I was being so boring and asked her if she would hit me until I was interesting. So then she, I thought would play hit me, but then it really was quite violent and then I'm sort of yelping and screaming from the pain and then the people in the class are laughing and I think, "Oh well, at least we found some laughter and joy in the room." Then after she's finished hitting me, he says "By the way, those were not your laughs, those were her laughs for the joy she took in hitting you."

[Laughs] That sounds so interesting.
Yeah, it's about vulnerability and joy and being a child and being an idiot rather than being like someone who knows anything. It's like being comfortable in a place where you don't know what's going to happen or what you might say or what you might do, and that's sort of more interesting.

You mentioned going back to feeling that vulnerability, like being a child. In previous interviews you said you were a peculiar child -- why do you think you were so weird?
My first stand up gig I did when I was 13. That's not a normal kid, that's a peculiar thing to want to do -- to stand in front of a bunch of people and try to make them laugh at 13. There's something wrong with that kid, I think. But I quite enjoyed it. I think I'm probably being a bit judgmental of my younger self when I call myself peculiar, but I think I was a bit.

Do you remember the very first time you ever did stand up?
Yeah, I remember the feeling of hearing the laughter happening and thinking, "I'll just keep having all of that, I think." I remember thinking that was just a really good feeling and I don't really remember what I spoke about. Actually, we did a sitcom called Grandma's House and the main character was based on me so we used that clip of my first standup gig in one of the episodes from the first series, and it was horribly embarrassing and I could hardly be in the edits when it was being put together. I was there for the whole edit until that bit and I said, "I think you'll have to do this while I wait outside."

I think I'll have to go back and re-watch that!
Oh yeah, it's very upsetting, very upsetting for everyone involved. Yeah, I think I'm funnier now.

Between now and the last time you were on tour with Numb, have any aspects of the show changed at all?
It's a written show, it's a thing that begins somewhere and ends somewhere. There's a sort of point to telling the story so I think what I've learned from that bit of refresher clown school recently is that the spontaneity often is coming from not necessarily the material being new but your curiosity with each new audience -- being sensitive to them and what they are responding to and how you're going to be with them in this moment for the first time. The show itself hasn't changed much. I mean, it changes from night to night. Even if you did it the night before, it would be different in terms of being a different experience for the audience.

Have you developed any new anxieties recently?
[Laughs] I think what tends to happen is you think you've overcome your anxieties from the past and then they seem to pop up again which can make you quite anxious. I don't wanna be like a traveling anxiety guy.

Maybe I'm giving you anxiety now.
Interviews are my main anxiety now.

You used to watch Roseanne when you were growing up. What do you like watching now?
Gosh. This is not going to be very up to date, but I've been watching The Larry Sanders Show. I've been re-watching all of those. That's not an answer, is it?

[Laughs] It is an answer. I'm just looking for a recommendation.
I'd just get The Larry Sanders box set. I think that's the only thing you need to watch.

Do you plan on writing any more sitcoms or venturing into film?
We felt we'd written all the pain out of us with Grandma's House and I felt it would be sort of gratuitous to carry on. I quite like the stuff that comes from direct visceral pain and if it's coming from a place of just wanting to entertain people, it doesn't excite me as much. It's probably quite selfish. It really healed me, writing and acting in that sitcom. I understand myself and my relationship with my family much better having written about that stuff. I feel like I didn't want to spend anymore time on something that was kind of evolved for me.

Just before you called, the guy I wrote Grandma's House with was over and we were trying to come up with something. Maybe both of those things will happen. I'm sort of wary of saying things are happening at all, it just sort of feels like you should get on and do things.

Are you going to take over Hollywood when you come here?
[Laughs] No, I don't think so. I did a residency in New York last year and my ego drove me a bit crazy -- like what needed to be achieved, what success meant, and I kind of forgot that just the thing of performing every night in New York was quite a treat. I drove myself crazy... the idea of this thing, that it is important, that it is a vital thing in one's life to attain things or status. I'm not interested in taking over anything or breaking into anything or doing anything. I've just got these shows. I just want to do my shows.

What gets you excited -- are there any comedians who you like to watch? What's out there that inspires you?
I think seeing comedians who have been doing it for a very long time. When I was at the Montreal Comedy Festival, I saw Bill Cosby. I don't know if there's been a lasting change in me but I had my show on straight after his and I had to run from his venue to my venue and had to do my show, and Bill Cosby's "Bill Cosbiness" was in me for my performance and it made me so much better. The joy in his face when he tells a story is such a beautiful thing and I was just filled with joy. Until when I went to do my show I wasn't really thinking about myself or who might be in the audience or how the show was going to go, I was just kind of filled with this child-like joy. I recently saw Jerry Seinfeld when he played London and that was really good as well. When you see these people, you see their craft -- they just get better and better, and they're still silly, they're still playful.

What do you want people to take from your show?
I think the pure truth of me is that I'm only really doing it for me. So when I'm going in front of audiences for the first time and not really knowing what I'm going to say, I'm usually in the process of trying to work something out about who I am and what's wrong with me, and it's really the audience helping me to do that. So when they laugh, there's this sort of feeling like they've understood what I've said but their laughter is some recognition that something is wrong with them as well. That we're all flawed, so it's a very healing process because you feel connected to other human beings and it's a place where I'm more free than I am in life. So I suppose the only thing that I want anyone to leave the show with, other than having a lovely time and laughing a lot, is a feeling of connection. The same kind of connection that I'm trying to get from doing it.

For more information, please visit: Amstell will be taking his show Numb, to the following locations:

Los Angeles
May 2nd, May 3rd - The Largo

San Francisco
May 4th - Brava Theatre Center

May 5th - Showbox at the Market

Amstell will also be a panel guest on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on May 3rd.