“I mean, I don’t want to go on about it…but if people start turning their backs on comedy and walking off panel shows…: then the terrorists have won.” That was probably the moment. That’s right, the moment when I fell a little bit in love with a skinny, mop-topped, homosexual, Jewish comedian. Simon Amstell had done the unfathomable. He had jibed Ordinary Boy Preston into walking off his panel-show ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’. Was it borderline bullying? Was it ingenious comedic manoeuvring? Regardless, I was caught in a delightful dichotomy of cringe and cackle. For two years, Buzzcocks became my comedy opium…but with Amstell’s departure and disposable new sitcom ‘Grandma’s House’…I can longer seem to get my fix.
Amstell’s foray into comedy began in a seemingly unorthodox space for his irreverent, merciless and surreal witticisms – as co-host of youth strand T4’s Popworld. Intending to provide a mid-morning medley of pop trivia, Amstell instead used the show as a platform to verbally skewer celebrities. Over a period of six years Amstell braved asking Britney if she’d “gone a bit nuts recently”, taunted Kooks Lead singer Luke over his past relationship with Katie Melua, likened a Backstreet Boy to a garden gnome and asked a Community-Service bound Cheryl Tweedy if she could risk entering a public loo without scaring other inhabitants. Watching Popworld became a platform into the idea of pop-celebrity and its thinly veiled constructions; Amstell had turned Sunday Mornings into geek-chic cult viewing.
However, the geek got the girl…or should I say proved that making Britney cry fully equips you for elevation into the big-leagues: the Prime-time panel-show. A British TV institution, Amstell jested: “New set, new titles, new host. I guess what I’m trying to say is…welcome to the last series of Never Mind the Buzzcocks” – could a sprightly, skinny, near-school boy survive with 18 past seasons of Buzzcocks battling against him? I’m going to be daring. I’m going to say that the institution of Buzzcocks had turned stale – for me, Simon Amstell resuscitated a near-comedy corpse, albeit with the help of fellow panelists Bill Bailey and Phil Jupitus. From Preston’s walk-off to statements of ridiculous brilliance (“East 17 were more like car-thieves, Five could have killed”), to staging a mock-intervention for Amy Winehouse; Buzzcocks became a stage for the Amstell deflation of celebrity ego.
So, imagine my surprise when my comedy deity decided to give up his platform. My favorite comedian stopped deflating celebrity but instead deflated himself, his fans and his appeal. My summer was marred with an Amstell-based dilemma. His newly penned sitcom Grandma’s House…starring Simon Amstell, as Simon Amstell (Should I be calling someone about copyright? Larry David perhaps?), regardless I watched feeling more nervous than a parent praying her toddler refrains from wetting his pants in the school Nativity.
Amstell permits life to imitate art – playing a newly unemployed presenter looking for something more meaningful, and less mocking, to do with his life. There has always been something endlessly appealing about Jewish humor – the playfully self-deprecating, socially awkward, neurotic kind – but Amstell’s attempts are obscured by his sometimes atrocious acting. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm works precisely because David is the ultimate caricature – himself – played with a style and precision that exaggerates his character flaws into that of a loveable victim of circumstance. Amstell instead seems preoccupied with his pop-star bullying image – the amusing moments of Grandma’s House are tragically stifled by his own discomfort – I almost want to reach into my TV, hug his skinny body and scream “Go back to bullying Anthony Costa, please!”
I feel as though my own subconscious is writing a comedy obituary. ‘Meaningful’ is a vacant word: and Amstell’s sitcom epitomizes the subjectivity of value. I’ll admit it: I value watching Alan Partridge getting flattened by a dead cow more than I value Amstell’s ‘intellectual’ comedic reflections on what it means to exist. Quitting Buzzcocks may not have cost this comedian his self-worth, but in my opinion it may just cost him a prolific career.