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The Comedy of Errors

"At some point I realised that the truth sets you free." We talk to Simon Amstell Ahead of the Nottingham Date of his Spirit Hole Tour

13 October 21 interview: Jake Leonard

It’s fair to say that Simon Amstell has come a long way since the days of broadsiding bemused musicians with snarky questions on Popworld. We caught up with the stand-up comedian, filmmaker and presenter as he heads back on tour with his new show, Spirit Hole, to talk lockdown, dodging threesomes in New York and drinking ayahuasca with a Peruvian shaman...

You're currently on the road with your latest stand-up tour, Spirit Hole. What can you tell us about the show?
It’s about being terrified of getting older and dying, and then realising that it’s going to happen anyway and feeling much better about it. I suppose there’s a lot in there about shame. There’s a journey to Peru where I drink ayahuasca with a shaman. There’s a bit about going to New York and having an age crisis, dyeing my hair blonde, and almost having a threesome. There’s some stuff about magic mushrooms...something for everybody, I would say!

Obviously we have to address the elephant in the room. How does it feel to be touring during a pandemic? How has the last eighteen months affected you and your work?
I feel very happy that we get to do it again. There was a period where it was just impossible and that was challenging. A lot of my sense of self comes from this idea that I can get on stage and be funny. So it was great to be able to do that again. Everyone seems really relaxed about it - I think I’m the one who’s most paranoid. In the audience, people are laughing and coughing - nobody cares! I guess everyone is vaccinated and just trying to live their lives again. On this ayahuasca retreat in Peru, we learned how to surrender, and once the pandemic hit that’s all we could do. I can’t speak for anyone else and their experience, but over the course of lockdown I felt like I grew as a person. I understand myself better, and a lot of this has ended up in the show.

As well as a comedian, you’re a writer, director and presenter. What is it about live comedy that brings you back, and how do you jump between art forms?
I feel very grateful that I can move between stand-up comedy and making films. They bring me the most joy. If I could come up with a new stand-up show, then a new film every few years, that would be the ideal. At the end of a tour, you’re so exhausted you think you could never possibly get on stage again, so having a set of actors that can do it all for you is very appealing. Then, after months and months of being sat in an editing suite, you’re desperate to get out and show off in front of people again. So they work quite well together. I keep coming back to comedy because every few years I go through some kind of crisis that I need to resolve. It’s my route out of the confusion. I just get the urge every now and then to get up on a stage and make people laugh. It starts as a build-up of material, where I Google stuff and think about how I can talk about it, and then eventually there’s a thumbnail on my laptop that’s full of these thoughts that could become jokes. Then I do these work-in-progress gigs and the show gets built and I find myself on tour again. It just seems to happen!

If you say something out loud you can really free yourself of all the stuff in your head that’s causing you distress

A lot of your recent projects have been very open and personal (your second feature, Benjamin, and your Netflix special Set Free). Do you find something cathartic in your work?
At some point I realised that the truth sets you free. If you say something out loud (without editing out the embarrassing bits you find most shameful), you can really free yourself of all the stuff in your head that’s causing you distress. You can create a fictional version of it in a film, but stand-up comedy is the place where you’re allowed (and encouraged) to tell the hideous truth. It would be a shame not to use the stage in that way. There are a lot of jobs to apply for if you want to lie for a living. It’s strange to me that a stand-up comedian wouldn’t just tell you who they are, because that’s the funniest thing: the actual stupid human being you are. All I’m doing is talking about stuff that’s happened or that I’ve felt. Whenever I’m confused or sad about something, through working out what’s wrong with me, I end up writing a load of stand-up comedy and then there’s a show.

What have your experiences with audiences been like so far on the tour?
Usually it works out well if everyone knows what they’re there for. On this tour, audience members have bought a ticket to see me, specifically, so the only thing that can go wrong is if I forget to do stand-up comedy! There was a charity event years ago where people thought I was supposed to be making a speech rather than performing, and that didn’t go well... but this tour has been amazing. My ego would like to believe that people are just happy to see me, but I think they’re really thrilled to be in a room laughing communally, and having what feels like the kind of night out they’d have taken for granted before. We’re at the beginning of the tour, so me and my lovely team are all getting along and having a great time - I have a wonderful support act called Leo Reich, and a brilliant tour manager. We keep making the show better in the car on the way to the next place, which is exciting. But ask me again at the end, and we’ll let you know how it’s all going!

Simon Amstell is performing Spirit Hole at Nottingham Playhouse on Monday 18 October

nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk

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