Edinburgh Reviews #18: Simon Amstell

Simon Amstell: No Self
Company: Mick Perrin for Just
Venue: Pleasance – Grand
Date: 25 Aug ’07

Enjoying unexpectedly high demand for his show, Simon Amstell and Pleasance decided to shove in a few extra dates at lunchtime in the Pleasance Grand (not, if truth be told, the ideal stand-up venue, as Amstell admitted) in addition to his regular evening slot. A move I appreciated, and stayed in Edinburgh a day later than planned to take advantage of. I have never seen Amstell do stand-up, but the good reviews and his chairing of Never Mind the Buzzcocks were enough to persuade me that it might be worth sticking around for.

I wasn’t disappointed. Amstell’s show is probably the most intelligent stand-up I saw. Where Reg D. Hunter’s title attached only to a pretty loose theme of “consequences” and a “Fuck You” punchline, here “No Self” genuinely does indicate a show about something. Amstell places himself here firmly in the school of stand-up comedy that wants to do more than make you laugh; it wants to explain its take on the world to you. It’s a genre that makes me think, before anyone else, of Bill Hicks. Interestingly, Amstell did in fact lift Hicks’s line about “one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively” towards the beginning of the show.

So how to describe Amstell’s premise? Essentially, he examines the concepts of self and personality, arguing that they are largely illusions which we concoct to keep ourselves entertained against a background of meaninglessness – he sees us as being in fact little more than “stimulus-response machines”. Of course, this is comedy, not a philosophical talk, so he does so by examining the things that make up (or don’t, as the case may be) his own “self”; it’s basically a vehicle for some stories that represent his personality.

Another thing that struck me in passing: in Rhona Cameron’s show, homosexuality was a very definite Issue in and of itself. Amstell marked himself as being of a younger generation by treating it as simply a facet of his life that is mentioned where necessary and not before, nor with any particular fanfare. A single throwaway remark about his mother was the only thing in the whole hour that even suggested there was any kind of Issue there. I thought that was nice. That’s all.

So yeah, essentially, Amstell’s stand-up is a bit like Hicks (from me, high praise) with much of the anger removed and replaced by a kind of whingeing-ness (if I had a single criticism, it would be that as a sound technician I felt sure his voice could be EQed in a slightly kinder way – perhaps this was because he wasn’t in his regular venue). It is very funny, fresh, and challenging in places, but in a way that doesn’t invite you to be impressed by it, because it’s not just thrown out there for affect; rather, it makes up a part of the larger worldview of which it is born. I look forward to seeing Amstell again.


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