“Simon Amstell” is a very different character depending on who you speak to. He was the zany Nickelodeon star paid to wear giant bow-ties and get children hyped. Sharp-witted Popworld Simon embarrassed indie kids for a living by forcing them to admit to heinous crimes like attending stage school, before he evolved into the sarcastic presenter whose provocations became synonymous with the long-running pop music gameshow Never Mind The Buzzcocks, despite only hosting a few seasons.
Then there is the celebrated comedian who performs stand-up at the expense of his own existential crises, and more recently, artful writer-director Simon, the man who created Carnage, the uniquely engaging 2017 BBC mockumentary skewering the concept of eating meat and Benjamin, a semi-autobiographical 2018 film about a young gay filmmaker and his struggle with intimacy.
Now there’s spiritual Simon. In fairness he’s been engaged with this part of himself for years, through therapy, veganism, ayahuasca and ejecting himself from the ego-drive involved with TV presenting. His new stand-up show Spirit Hole is about sex, spirit, psychedelics and some of the self-reflection (or self-flagellation) typical of his comedy.
When we met at the outdoor seating area of a cafe at Parliament Hill Fields to discuss his life and the show, he sauntered over wearing a straw hat and sunglasses that stayed on for the duration of our hour’s chat. He spoke and gestured with the physiology of a babbling brook or wellness influencer. When I asked him about the curious level of zen he has apparently unlocked since I interviewed him last, he gave his idiosyncratic demented laugh – the one that encourages whole auditoriums to burst out laughing with him – and says, “It was the ayahuasca retreat, the pandemic and then magic mushrooms.”
VICE: How have you found the pandemic? Has it given you a classic Amstell existential crisis or was it a good opportunity to practice being this new, centred Simon?
Simon Amstell: Thankfully, just before the pandemic I returned from my second ever ayahuasca retreat in Peru, where I had learned to surrender in a quite dramatic way. And then suddenly, something happened, which meant that we weren't free. But I'd learned to surrender so it felt like a real moment to practice what I'd learned. What came up was the joy of this pause, where I didn't have to do anything. The truth is I've never had to do anything, but my mind suddenly stopped feeling like it needed to constantly produce something in order to feel safe. And then it got boring. And then I felt like I didn't want to write anything for a long time. Then I started writing and I learned that I love writing.
You’re into magic mushrooms now. What do you think is so brilliant about this drug?
It works because you're humbling yourself. Rather than being this ego human, who thinks that they can sort everything out on their own in this kind of British stiff upper-lip nonsense way, you're saying: “I have this sadness, there is this low level anxiety and depression and what is it? I can't figure this out on my own. I can’t even figure this out with a therapist.” I feel very lucky to have found these medicines that are not legal in this country. I wouldn't feel as alright as I do now if I respected the law. [laughs] Also, this is the way it's going anyway, there's so much research now that suggests mushrooms help with anxiety and depression. And they’re so much more profound than just that. I used to have a joke about how life was too long, and that I was probably still going to be alive in 40 years and the exhaustion of that. Now the more the better.
You’ve had these profound psychedelic or therapeutic experiences, but what do you do day-to-day when reality makes you feel bad?
In the show, I talk about feeling all this shame during a ceremony within my body and feeling this blue light across my chest and the medicine seemed to say: “With every push up, all you were saying to your body was you're not enough, be better. And you didn't need to do that.” The next morning after that ceremony, I thought, well, what is my morning routine now?
In answer to your question, I just stood on the spot and thought, let's just surrender to what the body requires. And my body just started moving of its own accord. My body knew what it needed to do in order to feel aligned and flexible and fit. I started doing that but with music, and that evolved into just dancing every morning like a lunatic in the living room for half an hour to an hour. It's this joyful contrast to lifting weights up and then putting them down again and for what reason? It’s not sustainable. Also, what the personal trainer doesn't tell you is you get the muscles but then you look in the mirror and you think, oh, you’ve still got the same head. And this is not necessarily a head that goes with this body. I'm a clown person.
So when the sadness returns, rather than trying to get away from it or pretending I'm some sort of robot who can just press the happy button, I look into the sadness.
[Simon notices someone waving at him. He thinks it’s Jordan from Rizzle Kicks but isn’t sure, so he just smiles serenely and waves back]
... I talk to my child self quite a lot now. After shows, especially if I'm really tired, I will literally stroke my own arm in the hotel room lying on the bed. I remember this in Dublin – I was stroking my arm and saying, “Well done Simon, you did just so well tonight, you were so funny. We’ve just got another two shows.” And he likes that! He appreciates that. Because that’s where the creativity and the curiosity and originality is coming from... It’s this child who wants to play. And if you just take him for granted, then he becomes disgruntled and you have a breakdown in a hotel room in LA.
Is that what happened to you?
Maybe five years ago. I just kept running and running and running. What was, I think, especially annoying to my child self was that I'd already done this run and it hadn't led to the fulfilment that it was supposed to. And I was like, let's do this run again.
Just to make sure!
Just to make sure, let's do it in America this time. And eventually the kid was just like, please, stop this. And so now the performing is very joyful because there's no point in doing it if it isn’t joyful. The ego is never going to get what it wants, which apparently is an email from my agent which says: “Congratulations, all the other performers have died – you've won.” That’s not going to happen. I made a sitcom years ago and I really was very conscious that on the second series, I wouldn't do what I did on the first series, which was while we were writing it, I couldn't wait to be shooting it. Then when we were shooting, I couldn't wait to be editing it. And then we were editing, I couldn’t wait to be in New York doing stand-up. I was like, when am I going to just be where I am?
I find what you say about getting fulfilment out of work very relatable. After I released a book I wrote, I was mentally in the bin. It was like: “How odd, I still don’t feel safe and loved. I'm not getting what I want out of this and it's obviously a complicated mix of things, some of which could just never materialise." And I think many people try a version of that and have to go through it, otherwise they won't believe that achievements aren’t universally happy, healing experiences.
And I tried it and it didn't work and tried it again, and that breakdown in LA was because I’d totally failed to listen to how I felt about what had happened so far. I say in the show, even if this isn't relatable, the truth is we're all seeking the love that we think we didn't receive as children. Even if you did receive all the love you were supposed to receive, you still may have perceived that you didn't receive the love you're supposed to receive. It's the perception. And then you compensate – I must find a way to become loved! I’ll write a book. Shit! That didn’t work. Why didn't the book work? The book! I wrote a fucking book! [laughs] What do they want me to do?! A book!
It’s torturous! So was your version of that going to LA thinking you have to “break America”?
It seemed important because otherwise, what am I! Some kind of regional comedian? I did stand-up for all the big talk shows, and did sold-out residences in New York and LA but nothing was ever enough. The ego will never be satiated. It's a really stressful voice to have in your head the whole time. Then this year, I really properly learned for the first time that you can actually live, rather than continually producing work in order to feel valid. If you're privileged enough, you can spend a Wednesday afternoon on Hampstead Heath with friends.
That used to freak me out, that idea. I remember, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, a friend of mine at the last minute said, “Do you want to come to Oxford?” I went to Oxford and we ended up in a playground. I was on a swing and realised that life is a playground. And it freaked me out so much, I thought I could never take another day off like this. Because if I take a Thursday afternoon off, then I could take all of February off, and then who am I? What I found is that you come back to the things that you love doing, but without the stress of it. It turns out I love stand-up, writing and directing. It's my own creative spiritual path that has led me here, as well as the ego.
Tell me more about Spirit Hole. I love anything with “Hole” in the title. What holes are we talking about?
I had a kind of wild spiritual-slash-sexual experience while on ayahuasca, which involved the opening up of a new spirit hole. So that's one reason it's called Spirit Hole. And then also the hole that we all feel within that leads us to write books or do things so that people will love us.
What's missing in this culture, which has led to a climate crisis, is spirit. We can't fully embrace spirit without feeling nuts. In this culture, we're like, OK, we're all fucked up, so we'll do a bit of mindfulness and then maybe we’ll be able to cope with carrying on with everything we're doing at the moment. Just a bit of mindfulness and we’ll be OK. But it’s not enough to have an app. And the phone is part of the problem. I wonder what would be better for the human brain? Is it downloading the mindfulness app? Or is it throwing the phone in a pond?
Possibly getting rid of the phone altogether. What was the initial crumb of an idea for this show and how did it grow?
Getting older was the beginning of this show, and being in a culture where we've fetishised youth to such an extent that the idea of getting older than 27 is a crisis. I was about to turn 40. I didn't know what I was going to do about it. And obviously there's nothing to be done. But we’re in a culture where we’re sold anti-ageing products when the advert should say, “Hi, nothing can be done!”
Then there's stuff about acknowledging the full trauma of growing up in suburbia liking boys. I'd touched on it, but I hadn't really sat in the sadness of this little boy who couldn't tell anyone who he was until he was 21. That’s a long time to constrict yourself and to feel alone. You “come out” but your body's still full of the shame of the previous eight years of oppression.
We don't acknowledge the loss of joy and freedom that comes with all that stuff. I bought some shorts I thought were really cool when I was 12. But they were a bit too flowy. If my legs weren't far enough apart, they appeared to be a skirt. And the shame that came one day from my uncle saying, “Why are you wearing a skirt?” – I had to run inside and find less ambiguous shorts. Why couldn’t I have even bought a skirt? What was going on in Essex? Why couldn't we just be floaty free, little spirit beings?
How do you feel about young Simon who was on the TV now? Do you think of him as a character, someone you feel sympathetic towards?
I think about my 13-year-old self quite a lot. I used to cringe when I thought about him. God, he did impressions, magic, juggling, and stand-up comedy at 13 somehow! And his need to get into the television and be funny used to embarrass me. And that was part of what happened in that hotel room in LA. I think that kid was a bit pissed off that I didn't appreciate everything he'd done for me. Without all those magic tricks and learning to juggle, I wouldn't now be in this hotel room in LA doing stand-up. It's a miracle what he managed to achieve. To have come out of Essex, and got a job in TV at 18 talking to a puppet. Once I had been doing stuff for a while, I started to meet people who have gone to RADA and written plays and everything that I had done seemed a bit cringe-y or lowbrow.
But what about the coarser Popworld-era Simon? What's your relationship with him? Is there detachment or empathy?
There was a time when I was trying to get as far away from being a pop music presenter person as possible. I wanted to do stuff that was more meaningful and less disposable. But now I look at [him] and think, wow, it's incredible that he was that free. In contrast to how free I feel now, he was incredibly held and repressed and ashamed. And somehow he managed to be out as a gay person on kids’ TV, despite an email or two from Channel 4 that seemed to suggest that they'd rather I didn't talk about fancying Justin Timberlake. So I'm very impressed with him. This kid was so quick and naughty. If you asked me to do any of that now, I would be terrified, I wouldn't know how.
I feel really grateful for all his hard work. I definitely don't work as hard as he did. I've sort of chosen to be fulfilled, happy, at peace. Have I chosen it? I mean, I just had a breakdown. No, “breakdown” is too strong – I just cried for a while in a hotel room in LA [laughs]. Young people can push through everything. And there's a point where you can't push through it anymore, you have to really look at what’s going on.
Simon Amstell’s Stand Up Tour ‘Spirit Hole’ is coming this autumn. For dates visit simonamstell.com.
This interview has been shortened and condensed for clarity.