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Simon Amstell finds humor in a show full of angst

Simon Amstell says his stand-up comedy is based on reflections on things that caused him embarrassment or shame.

Richard Grassie

Simon Amstell says his stand-up comedy is based on reflections on things that caused him embarrassment or shame.

English comedian Simon Amstell made a name for himself in the United Kingdom skewering celebrities on shows like “Popworld” and “Never Mind the Buzzcocks.” But he’s no easier on himself. He regularly takes himself to task in his stand-up act, which often deals with his awkward, squirm-inducing personal life — why he mooned his grandmother or how his perfect romantic match is Jared Leto’s character from “My So-Called Life.”

“If something’s going to become a bit of stand-up comedy in my act,” says Amstell, who performs Saturday at the Wilbur Theatre, “it’ll be because something happened that made me feel a sense of shame or horrifically embarrassed or confused or alive. It’s coming from that.”

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In conversation, Amstell is deeply reflective but doesn’t take himself too seriously. His radar for pretention works in real time, and even he can’t escape it. He calls himself out immediately after making any kind of flowery, self-promoting pronouncement. Sometimes he does it even before he’s finished the statement, almost heckling himself.

“I suppose . . .” he says, pausing to think, then lets loose his trademark high-pitched laugh.
“ ‘I suppose what’s good about me,’ is that what I was about to say? Ha! I suppose the thing that would maybe make me a good thing to go and see on whatever night this show is happening, is that I’m showing the worst parts of myself in order to make people love me, you know? Rather than the best parts of myself.”

His propensity toward neurotic self-reflection has earned him comparisons to Woody Allen and Larry David, which he finds flattering but perhaps too superficial. “If that’s all anyone ever says, that’ll be troubling,” he says. “If people don’t just start going, you’re Simon Amstell and you’re your own unique, wonderful thing. As long as it turns into that after a while, I’m OK.”

That does set up an odd expectation for someone paid to make people laugh — a promise of a show full of angst — another word often associated with Amstell. Outside of a performance of “Numb” in New York, one audience member jokingly said he was afraid Amstell was actually getting too happy onstage for a moment. Amstell admits that may have been his fault for calling the show “Numb” in the first place.

There is a temptation to psychoanalyze a comedian whose show feels a bit like therapy. It’s also in Amstell’s history — he started doing comedy at age 13, the same year his parents were divorced. There is a wall in his flat covered with his comedy heroes, including Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen. However great those comics were, and however much Amstell might admire them now, they were not his initial inspiration to be funny. “The wall is a lie,” he says. “I didn’t know who any of those people were when I was 13. If there was any truth to that wall, it would just be a sign that read, ‘Parents divorced, learned to juggle to stop my mother crying.’ ”

“Numb” was written when Amstell was in psychotherapy, and that did affect the show. “A lot of the stuff that got uncovered in those sessions ended up in the show,” he says. His philosophy is that comedy only exists because there is tragedy. “If there wasn’t any tragedy there’d be no need to be laughing about anything,” he says. “It’s a release. It’s the same release as crying. It’s just another way of releasing all this stuff.”

But making light of tragedy is complicated. In his show “Do Nothing,” shown on BBC America in 2012, Amstell made a slight but important adjustment to the trope, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” It should be “tragedy plus time plus joke,” he noted. There is still some structure needed, an art to the reveal. “You couldn’t record a therapy session and then go and say what you said to your therapist onstage,” he says. “That’s not the thing. It’s a bit more difficult being funny.”

Amstell’s comic philosophy has evolved over the years. He originally thought that comedy came from pain and sadness. Now, he says, “I think it’s actually optimism and a feeling of absurdity around all that sadness. I think it’s not just the misery. Otherwise it’s just misery.”

He is working on a new show, which he hasn’t named yet, that will reflect that philosophy more directly. “I think in the end it’ll kind of be about freedom, really,” he says, “and about finding some way in this culture and with your own insecurities as just being as free and alive as possible. I think it’s a mildly perkier show than the last one.”

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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