There's a lot going on in Simon Amstell's first ever hour-long Netflix special: he's gay, he's British, he's depressed, he's vegan, he doesn't drink, and he went on a life-course-altering ayahuasca retreat in Peru which changed everything. But since he's only done a handful of North American tours, the standup comic is still a relative unknown this side of the pond. Viewers tuning into his dark Netflix special Set Free — which taps into themes like mental health, masculinity, and self-acceptance — may be wondering about who Simon Amstell is. So here's more on what he's done, where he's been, and how he got to Netflix.
Amstell's first TV appearance was as a tween on the '90s British gameshow GamesMaster, according to his IMDb bio. He began performing standup around age 13 and, in 1998, became a presenter on British Nickelodeon. He was ultimately fired for being "sarcastic and mean to children," according to a 2006 The Guardian profile, but Amstell quickly moved on to another pop culture series called Popworld, successfully serving as co-host there from 2000-2006. An archived version of his website joked:
He started his TV career at Nickelodeon where he was fired for making pop stars uncomfortable. He then began presenting the Channel 4 show, Popworld — where he gained a huge following for his groundbreaking work in making pop stars uncomfortable.
Needless to say, Amstell had a firm grasp of snark from an early age.
Popworld, as that Guardian profile put it, "acquired a cult following by asking pop stars impertinent questions." In other words, Amstell had a knack for making people laugh by ruffling famous feathers. In 2006, he left the show, replaced by Alex Zane and Alexa Chung, and went on to host a British comedy panel game about pop music called Never Mind the Buzzcocks. The show earned a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Entertainment Performance in 2008, and Amstell stayed on until 2009. In that time, he also co-wrote an episode on the first series of the iconic British teen drama Skins, titled "Maxxie and Anwar."
Amstell announced he'd be leaving Never Mind the Buzzcocks to focus on standup and touring, after several years of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, including sold out runs there. He's been mounting tours and standalone productions ever since, including 2010's Do Nothing, which was filmed in Dublin and aired on BBC3, and 2012's Numb, which toured in The UK, Ireland, and New York, and was recorded for the BBC.
From 2010-2012, Amstell co-created, wrote, and starred in a short-lived BBC Two sitcom called Grandma's House. He later wrote and directed two films. One, a mockumentary called Carnage, came out in 2017 and imagined a vegan future looking back on the omnivorous present day. The other was a feature-length dramedy called Benjamin, which premiered on the film festival circuit in 2018. Amstell also has a book of annotated standup scripts and related stories out called Help.
His first Netflix special Set Free is now streaming on Netflix.