“I suppose, the problem for humanity is…”
This is the intriguing way British comedian Simon Amstell kicks off his new Netflix special, Set Free. Over the next 50 minutes, he covers a lot of ground – most of which is deeply personal, reeling off various emotional shackles and social restrictions that he’s been bound by in his adult life, and the ways in which he eventually managed to relinquish them (we’ll not spoil that bit for you, but a lot of it was helped along by MDMA and ayahuasca).
Or, as he puts it “it’s about finding a way to set yourself free of all the mind-forged manacles that stop you from being in the moment with another human being”.
Understandably, he goes to some quite dark places and back again in a short amount of time, but despite that rather bleak opening, there’s still more than a glimmer of hope at the end.
“I think I must be an optimist,” he tells HuffPost UK in the lead-up to Set Free’s release. “Hmmm, I’m definitely not a pessimist. I think there has to be hope. And, like, what am I up there on stage doing if I’m not attempting to make things better? For myself, and then possibly other people?”
As well as wider themes like systemic misogyny and mental health, Set Free sees Simon exploring his connection with those around him, which includes detailing his – at times, fraught – relationship with his dad, who he explains missed his last few stand-up tours because they weren’t really “his sort of thing” (“I wasn’t brave enough to ask, what? Comedy or me?”).
“They’re quite used to it now,” he explains, when asked how his family feel about him including such personal stories in his stand-up. “I tend to make myself out to be the biggest idiot in all these stories.
“So the story isn’t generally, ‘my dad did this and I’m furious’, it’s ‘my perception of my father is this, and what I’ve realised is that I can’t do anything about what happened, but I can do something about the story that I’ve created about what happened… and look! I’ve let that go now!’. And so I don’t know if my dad would mind too much… if he had Netflix. Which he doesn’t.”
Simon’s stand-up has long been centred around things that are personal to him, and Set Free is probably the biggest example of that. But while the prospect of sharing such private feelings and worries could be a daunting one, Simon insists that it’s “much easier” than “holding onto all the stuff and letting it eat you up inside”.
“Obviously, it’s very difficult,” he says. “Obviously there’s a risk, always. But I don’t think it’s worth saying anything if there isn’t a risk in saying it out loud.
“What tends to happen is I feel deeply ashamed of myself, I feel really embarrassed, I feel really awkward, I think I can’t ever say this particular thing out loud to anyone, because if I say it out loud, that’ll be it for me. I’ll have to leave the country. My life will be over.
“And then I will allow myself to say the thing that I’m embarrassed about out loud, and it turns out it’s not such a big deal.”
The difference between Set Free and anything Simon’s done before, of course, is that this is on a global scale, and once it starts streaming, people in almost 200 countries will be able to tune in to hear him share his innermost feelings.
Fortunately, that’s not a thought he’s especially hung up on.
Simon explains: “I haven’t really thought about how many people it could potentially reach, because that stuff is all to do with the results of what I’m up to, rather than the thing that I’m actually up to. And if I focus too much on the results then my mind goes insane.
“My thing was just to make the show good. Make the show funny. Find a shirt that looks nice. So whatever happens now… it’s nothing to do with me, how many people watch it.”
One of the many things that stands out about Set Free is that it feels like the most explicitly gay thing that Simon has ever done.
Throughout his time in the public eye, Simon’s sexuality is not something he’s ever hidden; it was there during his “gay-off” with John Barrowman on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, it was there in his semi-autobiographical sitcom Grandma’s House and it’s there in Benjamin, the first feature-length film he directed last year, which centres around a love story between two men.
And yet, there’s something in Simon sharing his experiences as a young gay person during Set Free that feels new, particularly as he discloses the effects of having been closeted as a young man on his mental health.
“It took me a long time to realise that it wasn’t nothing to have to pretend to be another person between the ages of 13 and 21,” he says. “As a way of transcending the label, or any label, I had acted as if it wasn’t a big deal. As if it hadn’t caused me to bend myself into something other than my authentic true self. And, of course, it did. Of course it did.
“Of course, lying for that many years, constantly, and to everyone that you know and love, is going to cause you a lot of trouble. And I hadn’t acknowledged that. And then, when I did, it felt necessary to express some of that stuff in the show. Because if I hadn’t, I’d have still been bending myself into something more acceptable.”
This part of the show is one that many LGBTQ people will be able to relate to, even if it’s an aspect of queer life that isn’t given that much attention, a prospect which Simon says feels “intensely satisfying”.
“My fear in talking about it was that everyone had heard about this sort of thing before,” he admits. “And it feels like I’ve allowed something out of me that I resisted for a long time and, in allowing it, it hasn’t just healed me, but there are bits of healing outside of my particular body as well.
“And I think that’s what the whole show is about, really. Making this connection where both I and the audience realise almost at the same time, often, that we’re not alone and we’re not separate and we’re going through the same stuff.”
Simon continues: “I think when I started doing stand-up properly, at 21, I had a feeling like… I wanted to be a comedian before I wanted to be a ‘gay comedian’. And so, the way you do that is you avoid giving people too much material that would suggest you are the ‘gay comedian’.
“Even in this moment, talking about it now, and knowing it will be on the internet, part of me is thinking ’ugh, talking about this is going to make me a “gay comedian”’.
“I would just resist anything that felt like it was going to marginalise me. Because then I’m limited to a particular genre of human being rather than being a human being.”
“Maybe even at 21 I just wanted everyone to love me, and not just some people,” he muses. “But there was something that needed to be addressed in that thinking, that I think needed to be addressed in this show.”
He notes he’s “definitely” more comfortable having these conversations now, having overcome a lot of “internalised homophobia”, adding: “It would have made me very tense in the past. In my 20s, it would have made me very tense. And now I’m only slightly tense.”
This progress is something Simon puts down to “a lot of therapy”, “ayahuasca” and “being in love”. His relationship is something that also gets plenty of attention in Set Free, mainly because of the things Simon has learned from it.
“It’s a really amazing relationship, where we get to talk to each other about what’s really going on for us,” he says. “Relationships I’ve been in in the past haven’t been that way, and so not only did it feel fairly impossible to talk about those relationships on stage, it felt difficult to talk about those relationships with the people I was in the relationships with! So, yeah.
“But it’s actually more traditional than I give the impression of it being on stage. The most radical thing about this relationship, for me, is that I don’t feel like he’s going to reject me if he realises who I actually am.”
One other overarching theme in Set Free is mental health, something which Simon points out he’s “always” spoken about, even “before people started saying ‘mental health’”.
“Numb was about depression,” he says of his previous stand-up special in 2012. “Before it was fashionable!”
Simon agrees that the conversations in recent years surrounding mental health are a force for good, but is hesitant to say that this is what motivates him to be so candid about his own experiences.
“I’m not actually motivated by trying to help anyone or make other people go to therapy,” he says. “My only aim is that people experience joy, and to be as funny as possible, by telling the truth. Anything else is a result that I’m fine with. And I’m really pleased with! But it would be a lie to say I’m motivated by healing the world.”
With the Netflix special now ready to be streamed to screens all over the world, and Simon having been – as the show suggests – set free of the things weighing him down, at least to some extent, has already begun turning his attention to what’s next.
“I’ve started doing new material, but it’s not like I have ideas yet,” he explains.
“What happens is, I go out and it’s like the way you would sit with a therapist: what’s happening for you right now? What’s this week been like? Why was this challenging?
“Why do you feel sad about this? This was a different thing that happened, this felt strange, why does it feel strange? Why am I finding this person difficult? Why do I feel angry about this?
“And then at the end, you look at it, and look at it, and then, you’re healed.”
He pauses. “And then you have a stand-up show.”
Simon Amstell: Set Free begins streaming on Netflix on 20 August.