Breaking Free

Simon Amstell visits Brighton this month as part of his to be free tour and Daniel White spoke to him about the highs and lows of being a neurotic stand-up comedian

During Simon Amstell’s last stand-up show there was a fiercely honest moment when he tells the audience that he is currently living on his own and that, “if you live alone and you don’t make plans, here is what happens. You wake up, and it just gets darker.”

The show was called Numb and he explains, “it was about not being able to feel, not being able to connect with human beings and not being able to love or be loved. And all the endless problems with being an anxious, depressed human being.”

Which, his staged theatrics aside, is the side of Simon Amsell that has been on display throughout his career.

The awkward, needy side of Simon Amstell has been well documented. It first appeared on our screens when he was presenting TV station Nickelodeon, where he was sacked for being “sarcastic and mean to children”.

As the host of Popworld he produced gawkily pleasurable entertainment by roasting his interview subjects as well as the interview itself, before moving on to host Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

High-profile falls outs on Channel 4’s panel-show included Ordinary Boys singer Samuel Preston and The Towers of London frontman Donny Tourette, while numerous pop stars were targets of relentless ridicule.

Following three awards-soaked seasons hosting the show he quit. After eight years of “taking the piss out of pop stars” he had had enough.

“What was funny about that show was that I was like this weird kid in the middle of this big studio and the things I was saying were occasionally quite shocking or inappropriate.” There’s a stock-taking pause. “Once it became appropriate to be inappropriate because it’s the expectation then it’s not funny any more.

“I wanted to be funnier. I really wanted to explore what was going on in my own life a bit more, I had lost interest in celebrity; I had totally lost interest in it,” he pauses to reflect. “I felt like I was reaching for something that I didn’t quite know how to do properly.”

Numb brought Amstell’s collection of intimately soul-bearing stories to life as he covered first-hand experiences such as isolation, depression, envy as well as romantic and family break-ups.

He describes how these issues were manifested in anger and frustration, regularly directed towards pop stars and fellow stand-ups, “I used to be really annoyed with people I felt were lying, because I was out there baring my soul and expressing all my pain and I was really angry with these other comedians for doing one liners,” there’s a slight sigh. “Also there were points when I would be making fun of someone and I realised what I was really doing was having a go at something within myself.”

Depression is a theme that arises again and again in his stand-up and he is characteristically forthcoming in his handling of it.

“I had a therapist who lived in Brighton and so I popped to Brighton a few times on the train and there is nothing that makes you feel worse about the situation you’re in, than having to get on a train for an hour to see a therapist who lives somewhere else,” he lets out a high-pitched squawk of a laugh.

“I said to her ‘I can’t keep coming on a train because it’s making me feel like there is something really wrong with me’ and she said ‘well you have depression, there is something wrong with you’. Hopefully she’ll come and she can see all her good work because really I’m much better now.”

He is better. Despite making misery his life’s work, Amstell is now in a much better place. That much is blinding clear as we talk, and one theme that continuously runs through his responses is the joy of living in the moment.

“What I’ve learned recently is that trying to do it is the problem; for example, we are not trying to breathe in and out, these things are just happening. The problems come from us trying to be better, trying to live in the moment.

“I’m just trying not to get in the way of my own brilliant creativity. My ambition is just to stay connected and joyful and alive and funny and all that that stuff. That’s all really… and then die,” he unleashes another squawk.

Amstell spent the best part of last year touring the United States and in his attempt to break America he admits, “it’s quite joyful to be the special new boy”.

His new show is called to be free and gives a clear indication of how far he has come since writing Numb.

“It’s about feeling alive and spontaneous and present and all the things that stop that feeling; either my own insecurities or fears of the culture and their insistence on various conventions”. He does however makes it clear that it doesn’t mean a complete step away from the neurotic, humiliating stand-up that made him so watchable.

“It’s all coming from a place of real truth, every moment of it is coming from a real feeling and all the stories are true. I suppose what I’m doing is I’m exploiting the most shameful, embarrassing, ridiculous parts of myself each night.”

He finally seems comfortable in his own skin and, aided with his therapy and the spiritual retreats in Peru, he believes this public form of confession is a cathartic experience; one which has helped aid his ability to feel free.

“We’re all fine exactly as we are and that’s another reason why it is quite handy getting to express some of the more shameful, embarrassing things of my sordid life,” he pauses to consider. “It’s quite freeing; for me definitely and also for the people listening because they’re able to go ‘oh yes we also have that disgusting habit, we’re also that weird person’.

“It’s great, because the truth sets you free right? The bloody truth, not one-liners; one-liners won’t set you free.”


Simon Amstell will be performing his stand-up show, to be free, at the Brighton Dome on October 17th as part of the Brighton Comedy Festival. For more information visit