You can imagine how the prospect of turning 40 was particularly problematic for Simon Amstell. The film-maker and comedian, who started as a stand-up at 13 and was presenter of the cultish Popworld at 21, has always projected brilliant boyishness. When the dread birthday approached in 2019, he responded, he says, in entirely cliched fashion: he dyed his trademark mop of black curly hair blond and ran away to New York for a last-ditch adventure. When that didn’t work he resorted to the only thing that had properly helped him with depression in his 20s: he returned to Peru, where he had once taken the plant-based hallucinogen ayahuasca. There, over the course of a 10-day series of shamanic ceremonies in the rainforest, he found the answer to his anxieties.
“Well,” he says, frequently punctuating his account with his wickedly high-pitched laugh, “during this one particular ceremony, I found that I excavated all the shame I’ve been carrying in my body by taking off all my clothes – unexpectedly. And then my finger, beyond my control, made its way towards my perineum [that generally unexplored no man’s land between anus and scrotum]. I had,” he recalls, with remembered delight, “a vision of the perineum becoming a new hole that you could enter. And when I poked my finger in, I started making loud orgasm sounds. I thought I could get away with it, because everyone else in the circle was having their own experience – crying and throwing up and so on – but eventually, near the end of the ceremony, everyone else was pretty much done. The chanting had all stopped. And the only sound was me having an orgasm.”
He giggles at the memory. “The question I was being asked by the medicine was,” he says, “what is more important to you: shame or pleasure? I leaned deeply into the shame – and chose the pleasure.”
Amstell is recounting this story in the back corner of The Sun and 13 Cantons, a pub in London’s Soho, which is hosting his favourite vegan kitchen, Tendril, as a pop-up. As his 2017 memoir Help revealed, he long ago developed a high-risk strategy for staying sane: he would expose all his deepest fears on stage, the place he always felt safest, and trust that people might laugh. The ayahuasca ceremony forms the basis of his latest standup tour, which was interrupted by the pandemic but will resume in May.
Did what happened in Peru make equal sense back in London?
“I arrived home with this feeling of tremendous excitement about the future,” he recalls. “And then, because of lockdown, the future paused. Luckily, somebody I met on the retreat was able to send me magic mushrooms. And so the healing was able to continue.”
Did it not seem quite an extreme strategy against midlife fears?
“I certainly didn’t see it that way. The really big risk to me was remaining depressed,” he says. He is confident the darkness is now behind him. One lasting habit is the need to dance every morning when he wakes up. “I’ve found it’s quite difficult to retain depression if you’re jumping around every morning like a lunatic.”
The burst of creative looseness has been useful in different ways. Amstell has written two film scripts in the past couple of years, the first of which will go into production in September. “I realised during this pandemic that I love writing because it actually allows me to be somewhere else. I got to be in Miami losing my virginity, which was great.”
Those scripts follow on from Amstell’s two previous films which, in different ways, showed he was far more than the wisecracking host of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the role he perhaps remains best known for. The most recent of his movies, Benjamin, was a tender, clever romcom in which a cripplingly awkward alter ego, played by Colin Morgan, gets eventually to find love. The other, Carnage, made for the BBC in 2017, employed perfectly pitched Chris Morris-style satire to examine the systemic cruelties of our diet. Carnage is set in the year 2067 and features a cast of older characters in group therapy as they try to come to terms with their horrific carnivorous pasts.
With our table suitably crowded with fabulous plates of smoked aubergine, and celeriac terrine and roasted cauliflower from Tendril’s kitchen, he evangelises his own journey to that particular awakening. He grew up in a Jewish family in Gants Hill in Essex where “meat eating was compulsory”. He can’t recall meeting a single vegetarian in his childhood. When he was about 25, he went to Thailand and came across a book about Buddhism called Taming the Monkey Mind. Though he suggests he was probably drunk when he read it, he was nevertheless persuaded to give up both meat and alcohol for good. A few years after that he watched the documentary Earthlings, about the innumerable ways that humans exploit animals. “I wasn’t really aware of the full horror of the dairy industry, for example,” he says. “And I decided it probably wasn’t that difficult to have milk – soya milk or oat milk – that hasn’t come out of the breast of a cow that has been forcibly impregnated and then repeatedly had her children stolen from her and killed.”
His original plan for Carnage was to make it like a war crimes tribunal for cheese-eaters. But then he decided it would be more persuasive if it was more compassionate to those “ashamed of their former barbarity”.
Did he get the response he wanted?
“From lots of people,” he says. “Although the night after the film was released, my boyfriend and I went to a dinner party. These friends told us how much they had loved the film and then served up the broken legs of a chicken.”
Amstell welcomes the fact he now has many more vegan allies. As well as his own film, he recommends that waverers watch The Game Changers which, among other things, argues that men who have a plant-based diet enjoy far better erections.
Chatting with him is a bit like being in his audience. He is irresistibly confessional, and winningly eager to take you along for the ride. He learned that therapeutic trick at around the time of his bar mitzvah when, undone by his parents’ messy divorce and confused about his sexuality, (“I thought fear of being gay could be responsible for overpowering gay feelings”), he first walked out alone on to a stage. That impulse has evolved in his writing to something like continuous catharsis.
His standup shows have, in part, been voyages around his relationship with his father (“He ejaculated and I’m alive, what more do I want?”) who found religion after he left the family home, and suggested therapy when Amstell told him he was gay. Happily, that is another aspect of Amstell’s life that appears to have evolved. For a long time, his father refused to watch him perform, saying it “wasn’t his thing”, but he did come along to the Palladium on the current tour. “He hadn’t been to see me for maybe seven or eight years,” says Amstell. “I don’t know if he laughed, but he seemed very happy and proud afterwards.”
The onstage therapy appears to have worked in surprising ways. “I think what changes is your perspective on the other person,” he says. “If you’re feeling rage towards someone, it’s quite difficult to have a nice time. But if you can do some work with your therapist, or your shaman, you might let go of the rage. And then they show up as somebody else, not delightful maybe, but quite amenable.”
When the lunch table is being cleared, we talk a bit about that very British mistrust of joy, which Amstell believes he might finally have conquered. “I remember being around 25, at this incredible party in someone’s very beautiful garden in Highgate,” he says, “and paper lanterns were being lit and everyone was dancing and it was all very cinematic. And the actual thought in my head was: ‘Everyone here is going to age and die.’” He laughs. “What was wrong with me? Well, depression, I guess.”
If his experience in Peru has taught him anything, he says, it’s that life can also be lived in the affirmative. His film Benjamin was supposed to end with his character unable to commit to a future with his lover – but in the final scene the actor took over, and said “yes” where Amstell’s script had left him hanging. In the editing room he feared the payoff might be too cheesy but was persuaded to go with it. The fact is, he suggests, “we have these voices telling us that what is most true is the miserable part of our lives – but dancing around and having a nice time can be just as real”.
Simon Amstell is on tour from 5 May