Simon Amstell: “I spent years trying to get away from ‘Popworld’ – now I feel grateful”

How taking his clothes off at a Peruvian ayahuasca retreat solved the comic's midlife crisis

Before the first lockdown in 2020, comedian Simon Amstell returned from his second ever ayahuasca retreat in Peru, where he drank the psychedelic brew under the guidance of a shaman. When he came back to north London, he was visited by a friend. “And we had a magic mushroom ceremony together, which wasn’t something I’d done before,” he says. “We sat in a circle, set intentions and put eye-masks on so our journeys would be completely internal – that set me up for the pandemic!”

His experiences of shrooms – medicine, not drugs as he sees them – have partly inspired Spirit Hole, his first stand-up show in four years, which is billed as a “blissful, spiritual, sensational exploration of love, sex, shame, mushrooms and more.”

“Previous shows have really focused on the trauma and pain of being alive. I had a show years ago called Numb but this new one is more playful and colourful. I hope it will provide what I feel we all need after the past year – which is a lot of joy and laughter.

“I’m at my most joyful and alive now”

For most people, the pandemic has proved a time of self-examination, but Amstell has been “looking inwards” for decades, always refining his self-deprecatory brand of comedy. Since quitting his role as caustic master of Never Mind the Buzzcocks in 2009, he has untangled his anxieties onstage, sometimes referring to the mental health issues he has grappled with. His work has been largely autobiographical: BBC sitcom Grandma’s House (2010-12) was based on his own family, while the tender 2018 film Benjamin, which he wrote and directed, was an attempt to work through the fear of intimacy he faced in his twenties. However, even with the aid of magic mushrooms COVID-19 was nonetheless challenging. “There’s a feeling of safety around the idea that no matter what happens in your life, you can always do stand-up,” he muses. “And then COVID came along and said: ’No, not even that.’”

Over Zoom from his home in London that he shares with his partner, Amstell is good fun: far more relaxed than his self-abasing neurotic stand-up persona, and more friendly and open-hearted than his ego-puncturing role on Buzzcocks might have suggested. He punctuates many of his sentences with an infectious yelp of laughter. “I feel like a really weird child now,” he says. “You know when you see a toddler running around and they’re purely in the moment? They’re not interested in what they’re going to be doing next week or their regrets from when they were aged one. I feel like I’m at my most joyful and alive now, like a kid running around having a delightful time.”

Simon Amstell
CREDIT: Harry Carr

That said, he’s still hyper self-aware and almost provides a DVD commentary of how the interview is going, while offering multiple answers to each question (“Wait! I’ve thought of a better way of saying this!”), like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Book. His walls are plastered with Post-it notes for forthcoming films and behind him are three toys: a moose he won in a comedy competition, a Fraggle (from the Jim Henson-created ‘80s kids show) his brother gave him, and a tiny baby doll gifted by Russell Brand. “It was my birthday that night and he said: Do you want this? He’d used it in a sketch where he was breastfeeding it, so now I’ve got this strange doll covered in milk that had apparently come out of one of his nipples.”

Spirit Hole also delves deeper into sex and shame, twin pillars of Amstell’s comedy. During his first stay at the ayahuasca rainforest retreat, he found himself purging his body of all the negativity trapped within it.

“So I found myself taking all my clothes off during the ceremony, and I felt pulled to take my trousers off, and as I was taking my underwear off, I could feel the shame being peeled off and out of my body.

“And then all kinds of mad things happened where my finger, beyond my control…” He emphasises that it was beyond his control… ”made my way towards my perineum and there was some kind of mad spiritual sex act where it was clear in that moment I had a choice between shame and pleasure if I could just let go and push my finger into the pleasure, then there was all this ecstasy available and I could have this intense ecstatic experience that would extract all the shame from my body.”

Simon Amstell
CREDIT: Harry Carr

Whether it’s involuntarily fingering himself on psychedelics or simply telling personal stories to a packed-out audience, Amstell finds it cathartic to defy the inner-voice that says: “You shouldn’t say this out loud.”

“Everything I try to do is about slaying that dragon of shame,” he says. “It’s both incredibly healing and also incredibly funny when I talk about it.”

You only realise how powerful this might be when you consider how long Amstell had to remain circumspect about parts of his life. Growing up as the painfully shy eldest of four children in a Jewish family in Essex, he knew he was gay at 13 but didn’t come out until he was 21. “In the Jewish religion, if you have a boyfriend, it’s very important that he’s a girl,” he has joked in the past. Coming out to his family sounds bruising – his mother assumed he was joking, his father recommended therapy to cure him, his aunt cried for two hours straight and he wasn’t allowed to tell his grandparents. He’s still picking out the emotional shrapnel.

“I’ve only recently managed to heal from all the nonsense that was put into my body at a young age”

“In the past, I’ve spoken about sex and relationships in a way that suggests it’s kind of irrelevant that I’m a boy having sex with boys and tried not to make it the key point,” he says. “It felt like it was important to transcend those labels,” he continues. “But in this upcoming show, what I’m saying is I grew up in a culture where there were rigid conventions about sexuality and gender and those conventions had an effect, and it’s only recently that I’ve managed to heal from all that nonsense that was put into my body at a young age.”

Fame was meant to be the cure to his loneliness and offer a route-map to acceptance. Wildly ambitious, he started stand-up aged 13, but everything he has done, he says, has been an attempt to tell that lost, vulnerable teenager that everything’s OK. His second TV presenter gig, for example, was hosting Channel 4’s gloriously irreverent Popworld with Miquita Oliver from 2001 to 2006, which once featured an interview where he flirted with Beenie Man, whose lyrics were notoriously homophobic, and concluded the segment by giving the rapper a banana with his phone number on it – not only funny, but also a subtle Bat-Signal to confused, queer teens everywhere that there was nothing wrong with them.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Popworld first airing – which teemed with those surreal water-cooler moments, such as The Strokes being probed by a horse or Amstell interrogating Natalie “You’re too beautiful!” Imbruglia with a bag over his head. How does Amstell look back on it?

‘Popworld’ presenters Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver. Credit: Channel 4

“I’m quite impressed with that kid,” he says, tellingly using the third person. “I’m 41 now, and much more free and open than I was then and yet that 21-year-old managed to be so cheeky and free on that show. And also I feel like a completely different person now who’s living a different life. But having spent so many years previously trying to get away from that kind of stuff, I can now look at it and feel very grateful for all the hard work he did and feel impressed with how silly and funny he was able to be despite being quite troubled when not on the screen.”

After Popworld came Buzzcocks, where headline-grabbing moments included Ordinary Boy Preston storming off when Amstell read excerpts from his then-wife Chantelle Houghton’s autobiography. Amstell got bored and quit: instead of finding the flaws in pop stars, he revealed his own which proved more fulfilling. “My body didn’t want to do it anymore,” he says of his decision to switch career lanes. “You see people who are still there doing things but their souls have disappeared so there’s no joy in it anymore, so I’m scared of not listening to the part of me that knows when it’s time to stop something and start something new. You have to keep shedding old skin in order to be reborn as something else. I’m constantly rewriting who I am but sometimes it takes a while for people to catch up with that.”

Besides, fame didn’t fix him. “What I learned in the end is that my ego is never going to get what it wants, which apparently is a letter from my agent saying: ‘Congratulations, everyone died – you won!’ he says, using a line he’s spun before. He visibly squirms when he talks about Popworld or Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which is perhaps understandable considering it collided with the apex of his angst. When I ask whether the #FreeBritney movement, which chronicles her frequently toxic treatment by the media, made him think of his own Popworld ‘Big Ones’ interrogation with her where he baffled her by asking: “Have you ever licked a battery?” he filibusts. “Not really. I sort of tried to watch that [Framing Britney Spears] then quite quickly realised there was no way of… I just felt like I didn’t really… I couldn’t see what was actually… I couldn’t really figure out what was going on and it was so confusing to me as a thing. Sorry, I’ve got nothing intelligent to say on that.”

“You have to keep shedding old skin in order to be reborn as something else”

One of Popworld’s most iconic interviews was when Amstell, as spoof therapist ‘The Si-chiatrist’ interviewed The Kooks and berated them about their stage school background and made jibes about frontman Luke Pritchard’s then-fresh breakup with Katie Melua. Last year, Pritchard regaled a mind-boggling anecdote to the now-defunct Q magazine that years later, Amstell had told him he once pretended to be Luke to have sex with someone. Is it true?

“That’s funny!” cackles Amstell raucously, looking as bewildered as Britney considering whether she’s introduced her saliva to Duracell. “I can’t think how that would work but I think part of shedding the old skin is not revisiting it too much. But I can’t imagine how that would work!”

He doesn’t want to dwell on the past, but culture is channeling nostalgia, with Never Mind The Buzzcocks set to return to screens. Was he asked to come back? “I’ve shed that skin,” he laughs. “That skin is on the floor.” He shakes his head. “No.”

When I later ask another question about the past, he brilliantly deflects by saying “I’ll just hide under the table,” and bobs his head off camera.

Simon Amstell
Onstage during his 2019 Netflix special ‘Set Free’. CREDIT: Netflix

For someone so beloved, Amstell has relatively few IMDb credits: he values quality over quantity, he notes, starting an answer three or four times. “Even with this interview, I’m trying to achieve a high level of quality for the answer rather than talking mindlessly!” he quips. But essentially if your creative process involves tracking change, that takes time. “Often what I’m interested in is a character going on some sort of journey – so with [my film] Benjamin, he goes from not being able to experience intimacy to being free enough to leave London for love.” Rather than feature a boyish tortured soul that is an Amstell doppelganger (in Benjamin’s case, played by actor Colin Morgan), his new film, which he’s written and will direct next year, has a woman going on an emotional journey as the lead – she’s “even more deranged than Benjamin.”

Writing for a different gender wasn’t a challenge: his script editor and agent are women. “There was one scene where I had my character masturbating in a tree and my agent thought that would be tricky for the average woman to do so I removed it,” he says. “But apart from that, I had someone’s voice in mind when I was writing her so it didn’t feel different.”

His stand-up also involves change: it’s where he unveils his new improved self, and the reward is the validation of the audience. “In this one [Spirit Hole], I’m going from someone who’s terrified of getting older to somebody who feels so joyful about getting older that he’s become almost a toddler.”

He detested hitting the milestone of 40, presuming life was “just going to be a combination of compromise and regret.” He adds: “We live in a culture where if someone says: ‘You don’t look 40,’ that sounds like a compliment but what they’re saying is: ‘You don’t look 40 now but when you do, that’ll be disgusting!’ But if you can surrender, it’s wonderful. You have the sense that time is running out so that awareness of death means you’re really conscious about what you’re doing with life.

“But yeah, “he pauses, “I didn’t like it.” How did he solve the midlife crisis? “Easy,” he laughs. “I went to Peru, drank ayahuasca and ayahuasca told me to take my clothes off and everything was fine!”

Simon Amstell’s new stand-up tour ‘Spirit Hole’ opens in Margate on September 8 – for full dates see here

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