What is this? is Simon Amstell’s fifth stand up tour in the UK and the set was a very intimate, neurotic, existentialist and funny exploration of beauty, freedom, sexuality and what it is to be in loving relationship yet still aware that we all die so it’s mostly pretty pointless.
Before the man himself we were treated to a wacky supporting performance from YouTube star Mawaan Rizwan. Ostensibly a clown in a shell suit, Rizwan exceeded all my expectations with a mixture of musical numbers, great physicality and simple yet well-honed observational comedy. One song ‘I’ve got a new walk’ harked back to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks and was elevated to a different level when a ‘willing volunteer’ was dragged onto the stage to perform alongside Rizwan with a silly walk of his own. He did not disappoint.
After the intermission Amstell came on in his usual faux shy way and opened with ‘There’s much to discuss, mostly about me,’ I may be paraphrasing. It’s what we were expecting after seeing him last time at Loughborough Town Hall when he talked about his insecurities and misery.
He managed to bugger up his opening joke by laughing at his own punchline before he delivered it. Seeing him mess up may have been funnier than the actual joke, but we’ll never know because he chose to move on instead of getting through the delivery. He then told us that he’s been in a good relationship for five years with his boyfriend but, given that life is too short, being in a contented relationship throws up its own internal challenges. He then proceeded to outline the challenges he has in loving himself as much as his boyfriend does.
If this wasn’t a honed comedy performance with barbed camp and witty criticism of social norms it could have been interpreted as a hugely self-centred ramble by someone with a huge ego trapped in a façade of pretend self-misunderstanding. And I guess that’s why some people really don’t like Simon Amstell (apart from blaming him for the demise of the BBC’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks…).
He’s a very divisive character and perhaps some of the derision he attracts comes from his openness in discussing his homosexuality (which some people are stupidly offended by) and some from his intellectual analysis of the banal (which to the less introspective of us might sound like pointless whining). He happened to be spotted and agreed to a photo with a friend of mine in the Orange Tree (a trendy pub in town) which was then promptly posted on Facebook. There seemed to be a 50-50 split between slagging him off or heaping praise upon him.
Amstell obviously has daddy issues. He makes no secret of it. In fact, there’s very little he’s not willing to share if it’s not his constipation, blow jobs, awkwardness at orgies, testing the boundaries of his relationship and fancying younger men, it’s his drug use that he seems positively titillated to share.
I couldn’t help but think back to that video of him when he was but a wee boy doing a very camp impersonation of Dame Edna Everage. He still displays that same kind of glee when he’s not seemingly deep in wistful thought. Of course there’s comedy in shocking the audience but the interesting story of his self-analysis is a red thread through his act and underlies all the choice revelations.
His story of coming out to his family is funny and tragic in equal doses. He told his mother first and she thought he was joking. Then once she realised he wasn’t, she said that she wanted to tell his father so she could ‘see the look on his face.’ It’s this kind of family trouble mixed with a mismatch between his lifestyle and Jewish religion that has driven him to the therapist’s couch but also to the stage. Like many comedians it appears that his comedy is therapeutic.
After delivering what amounted to an advert for magic mushrooms and MDMA, the self-analysis concludes with the realisation that it’s okay to share himself wholly with his partner, warts and all. While I missed the huge portions of acerbic wit he has dished up in the past there was still plenty enough to tickle my funny bones and it’s a good message he’s delivering in terms of making the most of life and relationships, learning to love and be loved, while you have the chance. YOLO indeed.