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Simon Amstell, Grand Opera House, May 31
COMEDIAN, television presenter and soul-bearing sitcom screenwriter and actor Simon Amstell will play York on his first national tour for three years in his new stand-up show, Numb.
The skinny, Jewish, homosexual comic from Essex will return to the Grand Opera House on May 31, having performed there previously on his Do Nothing tour in October 2009 and in May 2008.
After shutting himself away in a TV studio to make two series of his deeply personal BBC2 sitcom Grandma’s House, Simon will attempt once more to heal himself in public in Numb, another of his vulnerable and honest comedic therapy sessions.
The show goes on the road for 27 dates from May 5, taking in Harrogate Theatre on May 14 and Leeds City Varieties on May 31 as well as York, after evolving over a long series of small pre-tour gigs.
“What tends to happen is I go on stage with a few ideas, some scraps of paper, and just see what comes out of me,” says the former host of BBC2 pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks, describing his creative process when trying out new material.
“It’s a bit scary, I suppose, and often not that much fun for the audience. But what is great doing it this way is, there’s this almost unconscious discovery of new things about yourself as a direct result of the audience’s reaction and the show develops from that.”
His task is to transport his audience to a place where they are outside of themselves, says Simon, who “really does love doing stand-up”. “It’s the most amazing feeling when it’s going well; you’re free, you’re flying. This ‘thing’ is happening beyond your control. Something is powering you, something that isn’t you,” he says.
Is he ready for life on the road again, on the back of finishing filming and editing the second series of Grandma’s House for broadcast in the spring? “It can be quite emotionally draining, and what tends to happen, after about 20 dates, is that I have to remind myself just before I go onstage, ‘Remember, you like this. This is exactly where you want to be. This is definitely fun’.”
This ‘fun’ started when he was only 14, growing up in Gants Hill, Essex, where his early stand-up days culminated in his being the youngest finalist in the BBC New Comedy Award at 17.
Six years of hosting Channel 4’s Popworld ensued: the catalyst for his iconoclastic style of quick-witted television presentation.
If television has given him his public profile, his stage shows allow him to turn to broader subjects than pop culture. Numb, for example, will take the theme of disconnection and detachment.
“It’s about not being able to feel things in the moment and being incapable of expressing yourself emotionally and the fact that that leads to disconnectedness and depression – and it’s very funny!” says Simon.
Contrary to what others may see in Amstell’s live work, he insists Numb is comedy, not therapy.
“Being a comedian isn’t necessarily very therapeutic,” he says. “Any artist has to stand outside himself and distrust the normal and refuse to accept that anything is the way it should be. This isn’t ideal when it comes to living with other human beings on this planet.”
Audiences nevertheless relate to his material, despite his feelings of alienation, and Simon does not consider himself to be brave in exposing such feelings.
“Not really,” he says. “I think it’s actually quite healing eventually. When you reveal something personal and perhaps shameful, people acknowledge that it’s part of the human condition and they don’t feel so alone. They don’t feel stuck with an horrific secret.”
Comedy of a personal, confessional nature suits him best.
“Occasionally, I have tried to do stuff about other things, but it doesn’t really work for me. If it’s not coming from ‘here’s how I felt in this particular moment’, then it doesn’t resonate. When I say I feel a certain way, no one can argue with that. It’s a very authentic response to the world.”
Amstell’s humour on Never Mind The Buzzcocks could veer towards the cruel, but in both Grandma’s House, where he plays a skewed version of himself in a dysfunctional Essex family, and in his stand-up shows, he is the butt of his own jokes.
“It always ends up that I’m the fool in any story,” he says. “If I’m criticising people or making a judgement, it’s always clearly by the end that it was definitely my problem.”
He may sometimes dwell on the dark side, but Simon reckons this helps his comedy. “Without suffering, there would be no need for comedy,” he says. “Misery on its own doesn’t work, but misery combined with the perception that that misery is ridiculous is very funny, right?
“I don’t know, I suppose other comedians can talk about toasters, and that works quite well for them. Unfortunately I don’t really know why a toaster is funny. Sorry, I can’t find the funny in toasters. If I could, I would.”
Toasters are simply too narrow for Amstell and his constant curiosity. “There’s always this element of discovery in my comedy,” he says. “I’m not very good at making absolute statements. I think I’m better at trying to figure stuff out. Yes, that sounds sort of right.”
•Box office: York, 0844 871 3024 or atgtickets.com/york; Harrogate, 01423 502116 or harrogatetheatre.co.uk Leeds, 0113 243 0808 or cityvarieties.co.uk