06th Sep2019

‘Simon Amstell: Set Free’ Stand-up Special Review (Netflix)

by Chris Cummings


Like many Brits probably do, I know Simon Amstell for his run as one of the hosts of the BBC 2 late-night music-quiz comedy show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He was a nerdy, sarcastic comedian who was often very funny with his interactions with the guests on the show. Aside from that, though, I haven’t seen a lot of him. He has worked on television shows, such as Grandma’s House, but I didn’t catch that, and has toured various stand-up sets, but I only caught one of those. I watched his 2010 stand-up special, Do Nothing, which was a revealing and pretty funny one and I enjoyed it. That was the last time I watched him, so I was pleased to see a new show pop up this year.

His new live special, Set Free, landed on Netflix exclusively this month, and so I was interested to check it out. Nine years after is previous live special, this one is not unlike the other, with Amstell telling personal stories about his life, his feelings and his thoughts on the world we live in. There’s a tone to his comedy that often feels dark and revealing, but when things are getting a little sad he pulls it back and gives a good laugh. Amstell is a self-aware comic, able to steer his set away from feeling too angsty, and that’s a definite positive. His self-deprecation bringing a relatability to what he has to say.

Stand-up comedy is subjective much of the time. Some people will find one thing funny that I personally won’t, and that’s how it works. Amstell’s set, like his previous, won’t be for everyone. His style won’t work for everyone, but personally I found a charm here and a sense of humanity amidst jokes related to his parents, difficulties with intimacy and mental health. I do feel like modern stand-up follows these formulas, going down similar routes when it pertains to themes and subjects. It can all blend together a little, and you begin to hear jokes you’ve heard before but just written in a slightly different way. Amstell wriggles away from that here though, with plenty of original ideas and anecdotes that are unique to him and his somewhat cold and closed-off energy.

You often feel like you’re watching a man going through self-therapy, in a manner of speaking, and as he wanders through his tales and queries of sex, love, bewilderment and anxiety, you also find a hopeful tint to things as he concludes often with a more optimistic answer to his concerns. Amstell, unlike many of the stand-up sets I’ve watched in the last few years, is a very personal comedian. Not revolving his work around political humour, one-liners or surrealism, he instead goes the route of a confession about his experience as a human being. It’s both cynical and uplifting, tender and darkly hilarious, and yes… there’s a lot to laugh at here. I’m a fan of stories, and hearing these stories told in the way Amstell tells them is extremely funny but also interesting too. I often switch off when comedians begin an anecdote with “so this is true” and then proceeds to create an elaborate yet quite-obviously fabricated yarn about some ridiculously obscene situation all for the sake of a typical and over-used punchline. This isn’t present with Simon Amstell’s new special, and I was pleased about that.

Set Free is very similar to his Do Nothing show, and I imagine all of his other stand-ups too, but that’s fine. He has a style that works for him. The blend of heartache, sadness, confusion, laughter and hope work well together, weirdly enough, and in the world we live in, where we are all pretty messed-up, where people are more and more open about mental health and their problems, it’s not strange to hear revealing personal tales from a comedian on stage, but instead gives this sense of “yeah, I get that”. A funny and personal set that avoids stand-up cliche for much of the time and finds joy behind the troublesome errors of life, Simon Amstell nails it.

**** 4/5

Simon Amstell: Set Free is available on Netflix now.


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