Simon Amstell is probably best known in Australia as the former host of Never Mind The Buzzcocks or as the star of his own BBC sitcom Grandma’s House. However, you’d be easily excused if you weren’t familiar with his work, certainly as a stand-up comedian, even though this is his fifth such effort for the stage he hasn’t performed in Australia for about seven years.
Nevertheless, it’s clear Amstell is stridently confident he’s quite famous, and certainly in the UK that’s the case. It’s reflected in the fact he has an autobiography (titled Help), released in 2017, which is available for purchase in the Fairfax Studio foyer if you should be so inclined.
This notoriety is also reflected in his self-important stance from the first moments of What Is This? Filled with stories induced by time in therapy, one has to wonder if his entitled behaviour has been caused by therapeutic reinforcement. Naturally, it seems his Jewish background brings the clichéd neuroses expected, including a strained relationship with his father, in part due to his being gay.
Experiments with various drugs, from the standard party variety to Mexican hallucinogenic brews make for funnier material and when he reaches into ribald territory, the tension recedes.
It’s doubtless Amstell is an intelligent comedian and his humour is carefully crafted, but he seems to have eschewed the need to create a rapport with the crowd before exclaiming his fame. Perhaps his audiences throughout the Melbourne International Comedy Festival will be made up of die-hard fans who lap up this kind of conceited behaviour, but it’s less certain if the usual curiously adventurous festival crowd taking a chance will be so enthusiastic.