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Simon Amstell: What is This? Review

Simon Amstell came to the Brighton Dome last weekend on his UK stand-up tour: What Is This? The comedian best known for hosting Never Mind the Buzzcocks, is also a writer and director, achieving popular success with his vegan mockumentary Carnage earlier this year.

The evening started with support act Mawaan Razman, who brought his comedy to life with daft songs written by himself and fantastically playful physicality. Razman was the perfect match for Amstell; the two have many things in common from their veganism, to being gay, to both emerging from culturally conservative families. While their similarities allow them to cover similar territory and cater to the same audience, Razman’s insatiable energy and charming ridiculousness balances out Amstell’s rather more subdued and contemplative style.

Being more familiar with Amstell’s comedy panel presence – and a big fan of Carnage – his stripped-back stand-up style was a surprising but not unwelcome shift in demeanour. He spent the evening recounting an autobiographical tale of acceptance and self-discovery, dwelling particularly on his struggles with his sexuality and his relationship with his parents. The set was more reflective and philosophical at points than most stand-up shows I’ve seen and I think for some that lack of hilarity could have been disappointing. For myself, Amstell’s charisma was enough to carry the performance, and finding points of relatability was entertaining as well as somewhat cathartic.

Amstell’s discussion of sexuality was especially funny. He recounted his first experiences with other men as a somewhat repressed teenager – as the experiences developed Amstell’s internal voice commented “ah yes: gay”. He also mentioned the experience of attending a deeply traditional Christian wedding and, being both gay and Jewish, illustrated his overwhelming sense of alienation. He commented: “I felt that if the Nazis came to the wedding to take me away, people would be sad, but they wouldn’t stop it.”

Amstell’s comedic strengths still lie firmly in his ability to improvise and interact with others, both elements that are unfortunately limited within the constraints of stand-up. He did shine in this respect when an audience member began randomly shouting about him being vegan – possibly the most cringe-inducing experience I’ve ever had at a comedy night – handling it fantastically. “Yes. I am vegan.” he said, with tangible blankness and awkwardness, before criticising the audience member for “thinking I’m a DJ taking suggestions”. He did also take the opportunity to mention the mobile app Happy Cow which can be used to find nearby veggie eateries, describing it as “Grindr for chickpeas”.

The approach to stand-up Amstell offered was something I found refreshing and exciting, although I can understand some audiences finding it a little self-indulgent. I think a lot of my enjoyment was dependent upon sharing similar perspectives and experiences as Amstell, and finding him wonderfully charming in himself. Appealing to particular audiences is perhaps something we have labelled a negative thing in comedy without good reason – after all isn’t humour that feels the most intimate often the most invigorating? To break away from convention and be unashamedly personal, thoughtful and even a little niche, was something I have a lot of respect for, especially for someone as caught up in the mainstream comedy scene as himself.

Featured Image Credit: Geograph, Paul Gillett

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