Molly Stewart

Nick Helm interview

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Nick Helm has just come to the end of an insanely busy year, with two television shows, ‘a greatest hits’ Edinburgh show and, finally, a two-week run of a new Christmas show in London – all bookended by two Best Breakthrough awards. After a fantastic, if difficult, show on Black Eye Friday, I asked him some questions which he answered at unexpected length.

Hi Nick. You’ve just had a crazy busy year…

Yeah. It’s been a busy year… From this time last year, I was working on my Heavy Entertainment series.

And that’s out in… March?

March. So we were just doing that. And that’s basically taken so much time to get right. So we did that between December and… September. So it was long. I wrote it over the first six months or whatever, then we filmed it in July. June, July.

How many episodes is it?

Six episodes. And they’re sort of kind of like, trying to translate what I do live. Like tonight. Or like one of my Edinburgh shows; trying to translate that onto telly. So we did a pilot, which I thought was fine as a pilot. It was fine. But I didn’t think it translated what I did live. I felt it was like they’d taken me, and put me in a glossy, glitzy… television show.

And what I wanted to do was do something that wasn’t ‘let’s try and make comedy as big as possible’, like Live At The Apollo or something like that; ‘let’s try and fit it in as big a room as possible, get as big an audience as possible, let’s just do comedy in the broadest way that we can.’

I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to do it like… let’s do it like my experience of comedy. Which is I do rooms above pubs, and, you know. And a bit dangerous, or whatever, so you know what I mean? Like what a club would be like. (Not as hardcore as tonight, but you know what I mean.) But like an Edinburgh crowd.

So we spent the first three to four months trying to work out exactly what the show was we wanted to make. Really think from the ground up. I started writing loads of material, and took that up to Machynlleth [Comedy Festival] which is a little Welsh festival that Henry Widdicombe runs.

Because I had six episodes to write for Heavy Entertainment, I wrote an hour for each one. New material. And then I did an extra two, just in case one of the hours didn’t work. So I ended up with eight hours of new material. I took that to Machynlleth and we worked out what bits we liked the best. And then we made some TV shows out of them.

So was that an enjoyable thing? Did you enjoy making Heavy Entertainment?

I’d say 90% of it was lovely, and fantastic. This year I’ve worked fucking hard. And I don’t mean well done me. I mean that this is the hardest I’ve ever worked. It’s almost like, you know… I used to say… Like the first time I did Latitude, I did the tent at Latitude. And I can’t remember what it is, I think it’s about a thousand-seater.

And the first time I did that, it’s like ‘well, that’s the new hardest thing I’ve ever done’. And then when I did Russell Howard’s Good News, that was the new hardest thing I’d ever done. And every time in comedy, you progress a level.

And then you do that, and you look back at Latitude and you go ‘oh, well, of course I can do Latitude’, do you know what I mean? This Christmas run that I’m ending the year with is an 140-seater. And I’m doing two weeks, in London. It’s not Edinburgh. And we’ve sold it out. And it’s kind of like, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that a year ago. And I’m actually taking this in my stride this year, because of everything that’s happened in the last couple of years. It’s not a thousand-seater at Latitude.

You go back to it, and you go ‘oh right, okay’. And now, what I absolutely love more than anything is like a forty-seater pub, where you go in with the level of stand-up that you want to get to and you don’t have the nerves. You can just go on, it’s a comedy-literate audience…

Anyway, I loved doing Heavy Entertainment. I loved it. It’s odd because I didn’t want to do it, in the first place. I’d done Live At The Electric, in 2012; and i didn’t enjoy the process of doing live stuff on telly.

Why was that?

It was partly that you weren’t in control. I thought there was lots of good stuff in Live At The Electric, but I also felt like you weren’t in control of the overall quality. And you’re only responsible for your last five minutes at the end (well, we were on at the end. We were only responsible for that).

And when we would go on – because we were the band they put us on last – when we would go on and everyone in the audience – I mean, there’s no reason why they should have, but no one had ever heard of me; so everyone in the audience got up and left. And we were performing for a TV record while people were streaming out to get the last tubes, because they were really long records. And it was the music, so no one was paying attention.

So when we did Live At The Electric it was heart-breaking, because you’ve waited all day to do it and then people are streaming out. And we’d record the songs maybe two or three times, in a row. The same song over and over again, so it was kind of like… It was tough. And I didn’t enjoy that, I wanted to write a sitcom.

Oh, okay!

I did some Blaps for Channel Four, and that was like a try-out. And Channel Four said ‘hey, cool! Why don’t you write us a sitcom’. So I was going to do writing for that. And then the BBC came along and said ‘we haven’t done any comedy on Radio 1 since Chris Morris’. I was like, wow, yeah, sure.

Radio is lovely. You can read your jokes off a piece of paper, and you can say a load of stuff that you know is going to come out in the edit. And it’s not a live gig, but it is a live gig. And it was lovely. So we did the Christmas thing for the radio and it was an hour.

I enjoyed that pretty much as much as I’ve enjoyed anything. I loved it. And it was similar to what I did tonight, the Christmas show. But nobody listened to it; it aired on Boxing Day so nobody listened to it. But it was lovely making it. And then, I think, when we got to 2013 they said ‘do you want to make a TV version of that?’ and I said no. And they said ‘well, we’ve got this money to make a TV show pilot, and we want it to be live. We want it to be in front of a live audience. Do you want to do it?’ And I said I really don’t want to do it. And they said ‘go on!’. And so I thought about it, and I thought about it in terms of… I’m very lucky to be in this position. I don’t consider myself… Hm.

I do a very specific thing, but there are lots of good comedians that don’t get the opportunity. And it’s a bit like looking a gift horse in the mouse. In the mouse? In the mouth. And I just felt like I kind of… There’s other people who would have killed for that opportunity, and I was kind of treating it a bit lightly. And I just thought, you know what: if you do it, you might not enjoy it. But then you don’t have to do it again.

At least you have done it.

Same thing with 8 Out Of 10 Cats. Or any other panel show. You try it, if you don’t like it you don’t do it again. And I liked doing it. I get nervous when I do 8 Out Of 10 Cats, but I like it.

It’s fun. It pays well, it’s fun, it’s exposure – you do 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown and you can sell out an Edinburgh run. And that’s what you’re really doing it for, you know? And, yeah, I really enjoy doing that sort of stuff.

So I tried it, I did the half hour and it was fine. It wasn’t really exactly what I wanted to achieve out of it, but we had five weeks to do that. We had five weeks to do the pilot. We had to do it before the end of the tax year. So they said in January ‘do you want to do it?’ and I’d said alright; and then we had five weeks, from beginning to end, to put a live show together. A pilot. And most comedians, or most people, that would be their dream; and they’ll have thought of that, they’ll have thought about that opportunity all of their careers. And for me, I didn’t want to do it in the first place.

You didn’t have a plan…

I didn’t have an overall plan. So I just thought, well, why don’t I try and do an Edinburgh show in half an hour. With a BBC budget. We did that: it was a shiny floor, glitzy, dancing girls and all that. And I thought it was fine. But it felt like they’d plonked me into a light entertainment show.

So it wasn’t quite what you would have wanted it to be?

The fact that we did it in five weeks, the fact that I had to make split decisions: it was exactly what I wanted it to be. But without having had the forethought to be putting that together in my head for years and years, it was kind of like, oh right. That’s what a pilot is for, though. A pilot is exactly there so that you can make something, hate it and then get it right.

Yeah, and know what you don’t want to do the next time…

Yeah, and that’s what previews are for as well. I’ve never made telly before, so it’s fine. So I just think that when we got to do it… And then I did Uncle… And I think when we got to do the series for Heavy Entertainment it was just kind of like, oh! – you can do anything you want. You can start from scratch.

So I started from scratch. And I think it’s more in-keeping with who I am. And I think it’s the sort of thing, like if you do 8 Out Of 10 Cats and you get a specific audience. And you do something that’s all glitzy and light entertainment and you get a specific audience. And I think that this is the sort of show that the people who like it, they’ll see it and they’ll come and see me. If they don’t like it, they’ll go ‘oh, that’s what he does live’ and they won’t. And you’re not facing a problem like tonight, where people think you’re a thing and when they get there you’re not a thing.

It was weird though because I felt, the whole run that we’ve done has been more of an Uncle audience. People have been coming expecting me to be the guy out of Uncle. So I try and address it right at the beginning, and, you know: ‘if you’re here for Uncle, you can fuck off.’

So with the 8 Out Of 10 Cats thing, we haven’t had an 8 Out Of 10 Cats audience so far; so that was a bit like… Oh. It’s weird though, because I’ve done stand-up for seven or eight years and you go out there expecting them to know who you are. But not everyone does.

Congratulations on your Comedy Award. I don’t want to say did you think you were going to win?, because that sounds awful. But did you feel like this year, lots of big things were happening? So you had Uncle, and Heavy Entertainment and your big show in Edinburgh (only two nights, but it was spectacular) – did it feel like a big year?

I mean, as I’ve said, I’ve never worked as hard as I’ve worked… I didn’t have to do an Edinburgh show. I did Edinburgh in the middle of editing Heavy Entertainment. So it was like… Editing Heavy Entertainment, we had a few weeks to do it. And they were long days.

When we booked in the Edinburgh show, it was meant to be like a greatest hits celebration. But in actual fact… I mean, we would have costume changes, and pyrotechnics and a band, and it would like… It was supposed to be like: hey, I can’t do Edinburgh this year – I’ve done Edinburgh, I’ve written a show for Edinburgh almost every year since 2001. And I’ve written, in that space, about twenty, twenty-five shows. And I was gutted that I couldn’t do Edinburgh, because I was editing. But, I thought, two days, that’ll be nice.

What I didn’t anticipate was that if you do a show for two days, even if it’s old material, I had to rehearse with the band, we had to get projections, films made for the intro and the walk on and everything like that. We had to organise the pyrotechnics, we had to organise guests that were coming in. I had to do a bit of publicity for it. So it was the same effort.

It’s the same effort to do a show for two days as it is to do a show for a month. The same amount of time and effort has to do into putting that show together; because once the show is made, you can do it once or you can do it three hundred times, do you know what I mean? You’re not putting that effort in every time you do it.

But it’s the same prep…

It’s the same prep to it. And I didn’t think of it like that. And when we got to Edinburgh it was just like, oh God. But it was really meant to be a big thank you to everyone. And also: I’ve done Uncle, and I’ve done – when I did Live At The Electric we sold out that year’s Edinburgh.

My show was This Means War that year, and we sold that out. Effortlessly. Every day was a sell-out, and it was a lovely gig – because we’d done Live At The Electric. When I did 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, every day for One Man Mega Myth was a sell-out. And it was lovely. And so, when I did Uncle, I went to the biggest venue [Pleasance Grand]; and you get a new audience every time you do something.

A different audience for that thing.

So every show you do needs to be an entry level show, where people come along and they go ‘oh! This is who you are’. But you’re also doing a new show for the people who have come back. So it’s a juggling act. You’ve got to introduce new people to who you are, and keep your older fans happy. And this show was sort of like a thank you to everyone who had supported me, in Edinburgh all these years. And also it’s for newer people.

I haven’t ever performed… I’ve never toured, so I’ve never performed a lot of the songs from older shows in front of an audience. So it was a really lovely opportunity. And, in the early days I never had a band. It’s the first time I’ve performed He Makes You Look Fat with a band. And it’s the first time I’ve performed it in front of a new audience.

So this year… It’s been one of those things, I mean, it’s been so much work. And then, I’ve just finished filming Uncle series two. So, you get to the end of the year, and then I won the Southbank Award at the beginning of the year for Best Breakthrough. So I won Best Breakthrough in January, and then again in December.

So, eleven months later: Best Breakthrough. And, um… I didn’t think I was going to win. But I didn’t prepare a speech in January. And that… I wouldn’t… I’ve never done Edinburgh because I think I’m going to get a Perrier. Oh, a Fosters.

I do it because I love doing Edinburgh. I love performing, I love writing shows, I love having an audience. I love entertaining people. I work fucking hard on stage; I sweat, that’s not fake, do you know what I mean. And at the end of it, I go out and meet people. I love it. I love it. I’m not doing it for any other reason. But, then, success and awards is a by-product of doing something well. And it’s nice that I’m getting recognition. I would never expect that.

I was up against Matt Berry, Harry Peacock and Joe Wilkinson. And Matt Berry’s amazing. But I didn’t think that he would win, because he was up for a lot of other awards and I feel like he broke through a while ago. And I think people know that. In the industry, I think people would think it was an odd choice for that category. He was up for best actor. So, you know. And that’s no offence to Matt Berry, he’s amazing.

Joe Wilkinson I think is great. Anyone could have won it, but I just prepared a speech because… I didn’t prepare a big speech, just bullet points. Just in case. Because it’s better to go up with something, than just be so modest that you fuck yourself, do you know what I mean?

So yeah, but it’s huge. It means loads to me. I mean, it’s not in Edinburgh. Do you know what I mean? This isn’t Edinburgh related. I’m using to getting good reviews in Edinburgh, people liking my shows in Edinburgh, walking around Edinburgh and people saying hello. It’s nice, you know? I’ve been nominated for two Fosters awards. I’m used to all that.

But outside Edinburgh, when I do club gigs people don’t know who I am. And that’s fine. But this is an award I got outside of Edinburgh for my own achievements, not, well, I’ve done an hour and people like my hour. You know, my hour had more gimmicks and more… whatever. But: for Uncle, for my body of work, people went ‘yeah’. You know, that’s lovely. But it could have been anyone.

It’s well-deserved, though…

I think it is well-deserved, but I also think it would have been well-deserved if Joe had won it. Or even Harry. But you know, it’s just luck of the draw. It’s all just luck. At the end of the day, it means loads to me. I’m not going to be, kind of like, [not sure how to describe this: dismissive grumbling, perhaps].

I remember Julian Clary on the Comedy Awards, back in like ’92 or something. He came on and went ‘I’ve just been fisting Norman Lamont’. And it was on live TV, and it was a huge thing. I was ten, or eleven or something, and I remember that. I’ve always watched it, it’s an iconic thing. And it was lovely to be included in that long tradition of stuff.

The comedy that you do is very well-suited to arena-style shows. Your persona is very big, and you do a lot of songs; and when you’re doing a show like you did this year – with the fireworks and all that kind of stuff – how different is that from when you first started stand-up?

Oh, it’s always been the goal, to do big shows. But the joke originally was to do a massive, like Def Leppard concert in a cabin. So you do a huge show, on a budget.

I’ve always loved comedy. But all of my performance instincts come from heavy metal gigs. So I’m a massive Alice Cooper fan, and he always comes out and does a show. And he’s got set pieces: he sings a song, he gets his head cut off, you know; he beats up a nurse. He comes back from the dead.

It’s a show, he’s doing a show. He’s got props and costume changes, and it’s just like: wow. And I love it, it’s the most entertaining – and also, he’s a bad guy. He’s a villain. And you just go, well, why would you want to be the nice guy? Why would you want to come out in a t-shirt and go ‘oh, hey, isn’t this lovely?’

I call people cunts and they still love me. I mean, it’s a joke, it’s all a bit of fun. And I think most people are intelligent enough to differentiate. It’s an act. It’s actually all about a very vulnerable man, who is broken inside. But there’s all this bravado, and angst and anger and all that. But all that stuff kind of comes from rock music.

So when I was doing Dare To Dream in 2011, when I did Keep Hold Of The Gold in 2010… I think 2010 was probably the first time it all cemented together. And you come out and you go: I’m going to put on a show, I’m going to do it on a budget; and it’ll be a tiny show, but the aim – the ambition is big. And then the joke kind of gets a little bit lost when you do arena show.

But then I think that’s what is really great about my act: it’s like a vehicle for me to do lots and lots of different things. So I can do poetry, I could do an hour of poetry, and that wouldn’t be out of character. I can do an hour of straight stand-up, and I do that; and that is not out of character. I could do two hours of songs with the band, in a 750-seater in Edinburgh, and treat it like it’s a concert. That’s not out of character.

You can mix all that stuff together, and do that in a portacabin, and that’s fine. And I’m very lucky to have clicked onto that.

You’ve created that platform for yourself…

Yeah, and it caters to all of my interests. And all of the things that I love doing, and all of my passions. You know, it’s like: hey, I’ve written a poem, that can go in. I’m not stuck going, ‘yeah, but I really wanted to be a painter‘, do you know what I mean? Because if I wanted to I could add stuff like that to it. So I’m kind of lucky in that way that I’m not restricted.

And I’ve got ultimate respect for stand-up comedians that come up there, and they’ve just got a microphone. What I do is almost like a distraction. It’s like you’re going ‘I’m doing this, I’m doing that’… Because you’re like a babysitter, you’re constantly entertaining the audience. And they can’t think about the fact that they’re bored. And then an hour goes by and they come out and they’re like ‘whoa! That was alright!’ But it’s a different skill.

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