I remember a time when Eddie Izzard was so funny that I was allowed to miss my first university appraisal to go and see his live show in Birmingham. ‘If you’ve got the chance to see Izzard,’ my tutor said, ‘I’ll cover for you with the Rector.’ Sadly the show in question, Sexie, was a disappointment: his stream of consciousness punctuated by so many ‘Note to self: must be funnier’ that it became less of a gag and more of a review. His recent Stripped was little better, becoming overly reliant on an audience’s knowledge of his past surrealist forays and wanderings. ‘Ah it’s the funny-walk-noise/ cat-drilling-for-oil / giraffe mime,’ we thought, then laughed, then wished we were re-watching the DVD box-set. So what a joy it is that Simon Amstell’s recent sell out show, Do Nothing, appears to confirm him in the role as Britain’s foremost thinking-comedian.
Amstell’s last show, No Self, suggested his intent – abandoning the quick, bitchy quips in favour of a philosophical examination of the nature of identity. In his new show he moves from Locke to Heidegger. Whilst Izzard’s world is viewed through the prism of surrealism, Amstell’s is through his own neurosis. But whilst before it merely felt clever, now there is a deep emotional investment here, which makes Amstell both funnier and more likeable, as he oscillates between exposing himself as an anxious freak and not too secretly suggesting that his ability to convey the universal so effectively marks him out as a genius. One such example is the image of him running down the Champs d’Elysses wondering why he isn’t enjoying the moment, feeling a bit stupid and left reflecting that ‘this will probably make a nice memory.’ Or his desire for an actor he has never met – a man thin, vulnerable, a sensation on the London stage four years ago (Ben Whishaw, anyone?) – and his own total failure when faced with the man in question and to accept the world as it really is, not the fiction created in his head.
The audience may wonder about his sincerity when describing himself as so neurotic, so beset by his ‘own personality’. The image of him crying into his bathroom’s second sink because it’s a constant reminder of his status as single jars with the fact that the show is punctuated by quite a lot of sex anecdotes and that even if he cannot handle celebrity as well as he’d like we do still learn that he attends parties with Keanu Reeves. But there is no doubting his desire to get to grips with himself and the world which he inhabits, exposing the worst of himself on the way, such as describing his crush on the young actor as based only on a projection of his own worst traits onto the other man and turning them into positives with which he can identify. His show sparkles with intelligence and subtlety. Even when the humour is cruder, like the occasion he moons his own grandmother as a teenager, it is an illustration of his precocious drive for sincerity, not merely an arse joke of the kind that quickly palls with Russell Howard. When tackling religion he doesn’t go for the easy option like so many of his contemporaries, but bemoans the lack of a real debate on the subject and even the lack of respect afforded religion. Having described his ideal man as ‘thin and vulnerable’ he tells us ‘I love Christianity. I mean, Jesus Christ – how much more thin and vulnerable can you get than that!’ Yet, later with one swift line he dismisses the liberalism that allows casual intolerance on religious grounds when describing his uncle and aunt’s refusal to meet his brother’s girlfriend because she’s a gentile: ‘But we have to respect their view. Because they hold a very strong belief – in racism.’
If I have any criticism it would be that the process of touring has blunted some of his material from the preview show at the Pleasance this summer. The pace appeared slower and the edge was taken off some of his sharper lines. However, Amstell remains an intensely likeable comedian as well as a highly intelligent one. This show completely vindicates his decision to leave Never Mind the Buzzcocks and focus entirely on his stand up career because those wanting wide-ranging, intelligent and observant humour need look no further. If a part of him believes that all the neurosis, the over-analysing, the intensity and isolation are but sure signs of his greatness then maybe – just maybe – the man has a point.