Simon Amstell did his first stand-up gig at the age of thirteen. His parents had just divorced and puberty was confusing. Trying to be funny solved everything.
Simon Amstell made his name being acerbic and “horrible” to people on Channel 4’s Popworld and then Nevermind the Buzzcocks. He seemed fearless, cutting people – anyone – down with his smiling jibes.
This kind of approach meant not everyone warmed to him. But I found much amusement in seeing someone taking levels of cheek to dangerous new heights. I pretty much make friends with people by being alternatively adoring and horrible to them, the more I take the mickey out of you the more fabulous I think you are, so I got his brand of hair pulling.
I also loved his sitcom Grandma’s House, co-written by Dan Swimer, based around his own experiences of a Jewish upbringing – it was a gentler side to Amstell that hinted at a softer soul than the one we were used to seeing.
In Help, Amstell delves deep and openly into his mental health, childhood, sexuality and comedy career.
At the start of the book he states that the publication had initially been pitched to him as a collection of his stand-up routines (“Who for? People who don’t like hearing stand-up out loud?”), he certainly made the right choice to turn it into something much more autobiographical than that. I listened to the audiobook, and there are clips of his stand-up scattered throughout the chapters (not sure if these are in fact transcribed in the print edition), and the blend works well.
Amstell is a very likeable companion and as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression, it was comforting to spend time with someone who has had some of the same bat shit crazy thoughts as me. You can talk to as many open-minded and caring friends as you like, and certainly get a lot out of that, but this is how it usually goes:
“Do you think everyone in their houses are watching out the window at you as you walk down a street?”
“Do you worry you will chuck yourself under the next subway train, even though you really don’t want to?”
“Do you go and buy milk at 7am so you reduce the amount of people you will need to see, and also get it over and done with so you can spend the rest of the day locked in the house?”
“Do you spend your days off on edge about the door bell ringing?”
“Do you sometimes find the expanse of spare time at the weekend so overwhelming that you would actually prefer to be at work?”
The response is usually a long drawn out: “NooooOOOoooooOOOOoooooooo” and an awkward pause. Sometimes you are broken up with…
So there is always relief in someone going: “That’s nothing, listen to some of the banana truck thoughts I have on a daily basis”.
Amstell describes a friend that just “doesn’t think…he just doesn’t think about things at all!”. When I started to open up about my thoughts, it was these light bulb encounters with people that made me realise I may have an issue. Much like that first time you pop on a pair of glasses and realise with shock that everyone else sees the world with crisp lines and in full colour and not as though smeared with Vaseline and shit, you suddenly realise that most people don’t go around in a constant state of terror and sadness.
Amstell actually made me feel proud about myself, and the friends I have that suffer within the same brackets, we have this unique way of thinking – it might not always be positive and veers far away from “logical”, it can be scary and dark and isolating, but at least we think and examine and explore something.
I loved this book, Amstell was a self-deprecating, thoughtful and very funny pal for a couple of days and I already want to listen to it all over again, as well as revisit Grandma’s House.
Hurray for all the crazies!!
(Featured images from The Guardian and Penguin Books)