Half an hour in the company of Norway’s foremost comedian and cat impressionist is the unusual way Simon Amstell chooses to warm up his audience.
But when Daniel Simonsen asks whether the crowd is excited to see the main act, the polite, sedate response seems to surprise him slightly.
Introducing himself as Norway’s most popular comedian, Simonsen has a few tricks up his sleeve (cat impressions among them) and, most of the time, gets enough laughs to keep his 30-minute warm-up set going at a reasonable pace.
A couple of moments of slightly awkward, silent expectation from the audience seem to throw him slightly, but once he returns to the topic of social anxiety he is back on top form.
It is a theme which runs throughout the evening, with Amstell neatly picking up the thread and describing, with real honesty, just how awkward a man can feel when surrounded by other people. It’s an odd thing for a comedian to tell a packed house at Harrogate Theatre but, says Amstell, his aim is to make his audience feel as uncomfortable as he does. “Then I can relax.”
Unlike many mainstream comics who reel off jokes and stories in which someone else is the punchline, Amstell always comes off worst in his tales. Much of his life seems to be built around aiming to create a certain impression (“travelling genius” or “great poet”), but falling spectacularly short of that.
People who know Amstell from Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks may be expecting more sharp, vicious views on the world of culture and celebrity, and there is a hint of that – at one point when a man in the front row gets up to go to the bathroom, Simon shouts: “Where are you going, bitch?!”
But the Amstell on stage is much more akin, unsurprisingly, to the Amstell in Grandma’s House, the self-penned, slow-burning BBC2 sitcom based on a version of his own life. And that is no criticism, because he is charming, vulnerable and, most importantly, absolutely hilarious.
Like Simonsen before him, Amstell at times appears slightly perplexed by what he sees as Harrogate’s luke-warm response (at one point he describes the town as “a weird, comfortable place – it looks nice and green and like nothing’s ever happened”). But from the stalls, it feels as though there is never any let-up in the laughter.
He concludes sensibly by complimenting Harrogate: “I enjoyed your water earlier, it was wonderful. You should be very proud.” Then, claiming he doesn’t know how to leave the stage, he throws in something odd: “I ate an apple earlier. Do you know what I mean?” – and he’s gone.
The only disappointment was the absence of an encore, but with every other part of his set hitting all the right notes, he’ll be forgiven for being a little bit shy in the end.