Laughter with feeling
For the past couple of years, Simon Amstell has been shut away in a TV studio making two series of his deeply personal BBC2 sitcom, the painfully funny, critically-acclaimed Grandma's House. Now he is back in stand-up mode.
Numb, which comes to Colston Hall later this month, has evolved from a long series of small pre-tour gigs, in which Simon has been trying out new material.
"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." he says.
"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 is this almost unconscious discovery of new things about yourself as a direct result of the audience's reaction and the show develops from that."
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Most people will know Simon as the former presenter of the BBC2 pop comedy show Never Mind the Buzzcocks, for which he won a BAFTA and a Royal Television Society Award, or as host of Channel 4's Popworld, but he says stand-up is one of his loves.
He says: "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.
"I suppose the idea for performers is to take their audience to a place where they're also outside of themselves."
Simon's first experience of stand-up began when he was only 14. At 17, he was the youngest ever finalist in the BBC New Comedy Award.
Since then his unique combination of original, thought-provoking material has continued to receive rave reviews.
This month he tours for the first time since his critically acclaimed show Do Nothing. He says Numb is about his own feelings 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 leads to disconnected-ness and depression. And it's very funny!" he adds with an embarrassed hoot of laughter.
The show is very much comedy, rather than therapy, though. Simon adds that being a comedian isn't necessarily very therapeutic. "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."
For all of his feelings of alienation, however, audiences relate to his personal form of comedy.
"Occasionally, I have tried to do stuff about other things," he insists, "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."
In the past, some critics have suggested that his comedy can veer towards the cruel, but as a stand-up, his vulnerability and openness creates the opposite impression. And crucially he ensures he is always the butt of his own jokes. "It always ends up that I'm the fool in any story. If I'm criticising people or making a judgement, it's always clearly by the end that it was definitely my problem."
The first to admit that he can dwell on the dark side, he maintains that helps his comedy. "Without suffering, there would be no need for comedy. Misery on its own doesn't work. But misery combined with the perception that misery is ridiculous is very funny, right?"