Despite finding popularity firstly on Channel 4’s Popworld and more recently as the new presenter of the Beeb’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Simon Amstell continues to pursue the stand up that he has dabbled in all along. The telly jobs have, of course, provided him with the opportunity to flex his flippant sense of humour too: on Popworld it was through using unusual methods to interview somewhat unsuspecting pop stars - on occasion he and co-presenter Miquita Oliver would pretend to be a horses – whilst on Buzzcockss he uses trademark sarcasm.
The material was big on philosophies but less on funnies, it was more likely to make you think and smile rather than laugh. Nor barbed comments such as his aside to a man in the front row that if he became a juggler his mother ‘would pray you died of cancer’ really cut the mustard.
With this amount of exposure in such cult TV viewing – the audience on Friday in Leeds were, for the most part, the kind of hip youngsters you’d expect to be cosied up next to each other viewing such fodder – Amstell was unlikely to go wrong. Indeed his entrance onto the stage part way through the first half, following his introduction by his support act Arnab Chanda verged on the rock‘n’roll.
First a few words on Chanda. Many support acts are mediocre and unremarkable – after all who wants to be upstaged on their own tour? But Amstell was brave enough to give space to a promising comedian. Relaxed and confident, though some of material fell a little flat, he also had some interesting gags such as the irony of his International School’s multi-cultural production of the Sound of Music and the perils of getting Hamas and hummus mixed up whilst living in the Middle East.
But back to Amstell. He took to the stage, gauche, dressed casually in jeans and jumper and enunciating well-sounded consonants and well-rounded vowels.
On spying two empty seats in the front he got the reference to his TV ‘stardom’ out of the way with a self-conscious joke about his own success.
And then into the show proper. The first section of which offered some interesting ideas surrounding identity and how we seek to define ourselves particularly within a relationship. But the material was big on philosophies but less on funnies, it was more likely to make you think and smile rather than laugh. Nor barbed comments such as his aside to a man in the front row that if he became a juggler his mother ‘would pray you died of cancer’ really cut the mustard.
Amstell only came into his own, in the last half hour of the show, where nicely timed combinations of a serious point - on topics such as eco-neurosis and the tsunami - were closely followed by irreverent and inappropriate punch lines. Elsewhere he strayed to the poignant with melancholic musings on how death would mean avoiding the mediocrity of dental appointments. Though even here a comment on the misguided focus of the press where he predictably compared the fact that while 30,000 Africans die brutally each day (where did he get those stats?) when one little white girl goes missing then ‘we must find Maddie’, was hardly ground-breaking and actually very trite.
During this section he also displayed a difficulty in dealing with hecklers. In response to his invitation to suggest tragedies that it may or may not be ok to joke about, the fact that he was confused by a suggestion of ‘Shannon Mathews’ and didn’t know who she was, threatened to knock the whole exercise off course.
To sum up while Amstell holds promise in his alternative, parallel TV career, as a stand up he’s a distance from the finished article. An hour and a half on stage pushed the boundaries of his talent too far.
Simon Amstell was at City Varieties on Friday 6 June