Review – Simon Amstell, Numb

Thursday, June 14 2012

Simon Amstell's latest show is steeped in self-help and spirituality – two potential comedy killers – but Numb is ultimately very, very funny, writes Ben Clover

Simon Amstell

The odd news is Simon Amstell has gone all spiritual, the good news is he is still very funny.

You hear terms like “searingly honest” bandied around about the former Never Mind The Buzzcocks star’s stand-up, and not without reason. He’s called this one “Numb”, which sounds more like a B-side by one of the unknown indie bands Amstell would mock for their obscurity on NMTB.

But happily his latest show isn't about numbness, it's about learning to feel again – which sounds very self-help book American, and is. The subject matter is pretty sad: a bad break-up, a stymied childhood, a distant father and a quest for happiness.

The 32-year-old gets away with it though, with a winning directness and a constant stream of big, big punchlines. He's like a comedy Smokey Robinson: big hooks and sad stories. Each punchline is the kind of thing lesser acts would set up over a laughless-minute, trusting to the pay-off to justify it. Amstell just socks them home one after another, a real feat of writing.

He still seems happier in this mode than off-piste though, and in the moments he does interact with the crowd he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable. But who cares when he’s obviously got a lot to say, and an excellent battery of gags to back that up.

You can’t really fault this as a comedy show, there is wit, warmth and some roof-raising gags. What is curious though is how different he seems. There was none of his trademark jaw-dropping rudeness, or the bravura cattiness of his NMTB days.

That was a different era though, pre-recession when everyone was a bit more shocking out of boredom, and I preferr his new incarnation. But has he got religious somewhere along the way? Before leaving the stage and after coming back on for a deserved encore he puts his hands together in a gesture of... what? Prayer? Thanks? Supplication? After all of the pain, laughs and honesty he's given us over the hour, it seems rude to ask.

I’d be interested to see the old any-kind-of-pretension-skewered-mercilessly Amstell grill the new organic-food-and-human-warmth Amstell – but barring a particularly meta and low-budget Dr Who Christmas special that won’t happen.

There’s a bit in Dostoevsky’s prison memoirs House of the Dead where the Russian writer says you can tell a lot about someone from how they laugh. It’s something Amstell alludes to when he demonstrates his one-note honk-squawk of laughter to the Hammersmith crowd. He said its shortness and harshness illustrates his lack of joy.

Our review tickets came with an unprecedented invitation to come to an upstairs bar and have a drink with the man himself after the show. We didn’t get to speak to him, it was very busy, but enjoyed a pint on the man.

During the drink I kept hearing through the throng a loud, two-note honk-squawk of laughter. It was Amstell, who on this evidence is twice as happy as before. And on the strength of this show and the work that went into it, deservedly so.

4 stars

Review by Ben Clover


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