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Older and wiser: Simon Amstell’s What is This?

Five years on from his last stand-up tour, Numb, Simon Amstell is a different man. The change in Amstell, and the concurrent shift in his comedy is reflected in his new tour, titled What is This?. It’s not so much that Amstell is a changed man, but he is an older, wiser character; at least on stage. His comedy has developed from the hyper-critical nit-picking of Numb, to something far more acceptant in his 2017 tour. While much of his previous work has been introspective attacks on his own character, What Is This? presents Amstell as a man acclimated and perhaps even comfortable with his own flaws and idiosyncrasies, at one point stating “My anxieties are those of someone whose primary needs have been met”.

Not only has his perspective developed, so too has his ability as a comedian. Mastery is too grand a word, but there’s something like that in the way Amstell performs now. His interactions with the audience are relaxed, authentic and polished without seeming rehearsed. He doesn’t wheel out the generic crowd-work lines of lower-grade comedians (cough Jimmy Carr cough) designed to work indiscriminately in every town in the country. If he speaks to someone, it’s because it’s interesting to do so, not as a warm-up tool. His range is also expansive. Whilst he sits comfortably in the format of a rambling story, it’s interspersed with clean one-liners as well as Louis C.K. style graphic honesty; honourable mention goes to the details of his unconventional form of Bulimia.

While much of his previous work has been introspective attacks on his own character, What Is This? presents Amstell as a man acclimated and perhaps even comfortable with his own flaws and idiosyncrasies

Most interestingly, however, is Amstell’s comfort in silence. Some of the biggest laughs in the show come from letting an awkward note play out, or through eking out the tension between set up and punchline. This seems to derive from his newfound acceptance of himself. The show acts as a therapeutic retrospective of Amstell’s life, sometimes touching upon anecdotes present in previous shows, but now with an atmosphere of detachment rather than embarrassment; more ‘Isn’t this funny?’ than ‘Aren’t I an idiot?’.

He discusses the difficulty he had in letting himself be loved by his partner of six years, his experience coming out as gay and how he learned to forgive his father. It’s clear now that Amstell is no longer craves the approval of his father, and by proxy the audience, so the show itself falls naturally into comedic lulls, where things are more interesting than funny. You’re never bored, but you’re not always laughing. The show never reaches rolling-in-the-aisles hilarious, but I’m not sure it ever tries to. Once again, Amstell is too self-secure in his current form to ever really pander to or grovel for the big laughs. He opens the show with “I’m going to talk to you about a variety of things.” Which is exactly what he does. It’s a collection of his reminiscences and if they’re funny, great, if not, they’re still pretty interesting; something which Amstell is well aware throughout the hour-long show.

Amstell is too self-secure in his current form to ever really pander to or grovel for the big laughs

Which leads to the main question surrounding What Is This?: is it okay, or appropriate, for a stand up show to let humour take the backseat to insight? Amstell seems to straddle the borderline, alongside people like Neil Brennan and Hassan Minhaj (albeit more indirectly than the other two), between stand-up act and one-man show. All three seem to have something to say that sometimes either, isn’t amenable to getting a laugh, or is somehow more important than the format. Which is interesting in its own right and what they have to say is important, not to mention more likely to get you a good review in the Guardian, but when confronted with the simple question ‘what makes a good comedy show?’  the only answer you can really take seriously is ‘it’s funny’, right?

So, Amstell’s own emotional health seems to be at odds with his craft. There’s a moment when Amstell describes going to a party, taking MDMA and actually having a fantastic time. Which seems to recall dangerously the famous quote from Gary Shandling to Jerry Seinfeld “the moment you’re comfortable at a party, you’re not funny anymore”. Whilst Amstell is still decidedly funny, very funny in fact, it does make you realise that the cliché of the tragic clown didn’t spring out of nowhere.

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