“Is he lonely? No, he must be a traveling genius.”
He may not be a household name in this country (not yet at least), but Simon Amstell has spent the last decade cutting through the regular rank and file of British television with his highly intelligent and intensely acerbic wit. He now brings that wit — and a good dose of accumulated wisdom — to the historic and noteworthy* East Village venue, Theatre 80.
His prickly attitude toward celebrity has served him well. As a presenter on the popular music show Popworld, he gained a massive cult-like youth following for taking some of the world’s biggest musical acts to task for… I don’t know… crimes against humanity? He famously made Britney Spears cry and stalk off the stage after asking her if the thought she might be “a bit nuts.”
Amstell himself has addressed the issue in standard comic form, writing in a previous bio, “He started his TV career at Nickelodeon where he was fired for making pop stars uncomfortable. He then began presenting the Channel 4 show, Popworld, where he gained a huge following for his groundbreaking work in making pop stars uncomfortable.”
All this served Amstell well when he took over hosting duties on one of the BBC’s longest-running comedy panel game shows, Never Mind the Buzzcocks. For three memorable seasons, he verbally sparred with guests and regulars alike, trading on his youth and using his self-deprecating humor to good effect. (A round of congratulations went around the set when Amstell read a letter to the Daily Mail saying that the show was unwatchable… contain[ing] gay filth.)
Now that Simon has a few more years behind him, his show has taken a turn for the decidedly mature, and I don’t just mean the language. He’s frank in his discussion about love and loss — the two appearing hand in hand more often than not — and how he copes with life as a single and singularly awkward man living on the fringes of a boisterous crowd in one of the more exuberant cities in the world. He speaks with tenderness about family, how we present love to each other and how it’s sometimes hardest to cope with the people we love. Not quite fitting in is the general theme for the hour, though I found that the more he spoke about his self-conscious dealings with other members of the human race, the better I was able to relate to him. I doubt very much that that’s an accident.
This is not to say the show is by any means a downer. Rarely have fear, anger, depression, disconnection, and loneliness been presented in such an affable and hilarious fashion. The laughs come quickly and easily and without any real relief for the hour-long set. It’s true this is a show full of first world problems and white whine, but Amstell will be the first to point it out. And then he will mock it. And eventually he will bring you around, as predicted, to a place of introspective contemplation on cultural norms, the often hidden subtleties of love and no smaller matter than the very meaning of life.
Numb plays through August 9. 2012. For more information, go to the Theatre 80 website.
(Note: Theater 80 has been family owned and run for three generations, was a Prohibition-era speakeasy, was the first theater to present You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, employed Billy Crystal as an usher, has a spectacular array of liquors not likely to be found in other, larger city haunts and has the most legroom of any performance space I’ve ever visited. It’s a charming old place and the staff is equally lovely.)