Simon Amstell: “I Was Only Trying To Help!”

The British stand-up talks roasts, enforced hats and hallucinating in the jungle.

With Simon Amstell’s comedy special, Simon Amstell: Do Nothing premiering this weekend, we asked the TV and stand-up veteran about enforced hats and hallucinating in the jungle.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

For an American audience unfamiliar with your act, how would you describe your style of comedy?

It’s been described as quite sensitive and honest, and there’s a vulnerability to it and, er, funny, very, very funny. I should probably say that.

It must be weird to be considered a new stand-up comedian over here, after doing it for over ten years?

I guess, but I really liked it, I really liked it a lot. I think there’s something in being the new boy, it’s quite appealing to me. The other wonderful thing is that people think you’re peculiar because you’re British, and that’s the reason that you’re different. You can act like a real weirdo and people say, “Oh, it’s just a British thing.”

You spent years picking apart musicians and pop stars on Pop World and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Who’s the most obnoxious celebrity you’ve dealt with while presenting?

I always feel like, I only met them for 10 or 15 minutes and then they had to deal with me, and I was really annoying with them. So I don’t know – some of them were less good at dealing with me, I suppose. Mainly these people are quite delightful. Our thing was, we would see a press release and our aim was to unpick it and figure out what was really going on. In pop music, there are so many decisions, from the hat the person is wearing to the font they’ve used on their sleeve, and you have an idea of what they’re trying to do and sort of point out that, that hat was a decision. Not just a decision for the person sat there in the hat, but the style team, manager, and PR group. We became really good at figuring out what was being forced, and the message they were trying to force.

Who do you think was the biggest victim of that?

There were no victims!

But who do you think was the most artificially manufactured personality?

I did the show in 2005, so I can’t think of one. But the people who came on who were really good and came across well were the people who really went with that and were happy to be teased. America has a tradition of roasts, and the great people laugh because there’s a real pleasure in being torn apart – someone is paying attention to you enough to figure out the parts of you that aren’t as authentic as others. Once that’s out there, once you figure out something about yourself, it’s quite difficult to retain that aspect of your personality, because it just feels silly to carry on with that. What I’m saying is I was a great gift to the people. I was only trying to help!

Did they appreciate it?

The clever ones knew what I was trying to do.

In your show Numb,  you talk about having a hallucinogenic experience in the jungle. Did that really happen?

Yes! I went to Peru to drink this tonic medicine called ayahuasca. It was a very difficult story to translate into a stand up comedy routine, because the obvious joke is that this is just a ridiculous, crazy thing to do and it’s just an experience on a hallucinogenic drug, but it was so much more than that. I didn’t want to cheapen it, so it took a long time to explain parts of what had happened. It wasn’t rational, what happened – perhaps it might sound like a crazy drug trip, but compared to magic mushrooms, which are a lot of fun, this thing in the rain forest was horrific and traumatic, but in the end quite psychotherapeutic for me.

What’s it actually like?

It’s not for everyone – it’s horrific, but in the end it sorts you out. There’s throwing up involved, it tastes disgusting – it tastes worse every time you drink it, so it’s got a sort of anti-addictive quality to it. The best way to describe it is that all your fears come up, but then you accept them and you’re able to go beyond fear. I think it’s a personal journey for everyone so it’s difficult to describe. The cynical people would just say it’s a crazy drug trip – if you haven’t experienced this specific thing in a group of people led by a shaman and a ceremony, then that’s what it sounds like. I don’t recommend it to everyone…

Catch Simon Amstell: Do Nothing on October 6th at 11PM EST on BBC America.

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