Nick Helm interview
That quite brash persona you have on stage – how much have you changed from when you started?
You don’t just jump into calling someone on the front row a cunt. That is trial and error. But I think… I didn’t always want to do comedy. I wrote music long before I did comedy and things like that. But when I found comedy in 2006, everything just clicked and I was like, oh, this is what… Comedy was always something other people did.
I’ve always loved stand-up: Jack Dee was always my hero. And I thought that it was a thing that I could do. But, you know, I had to get a job – I worked in an office, I worked in a pub, you know? I had to get a job, I had to get money. You couldn’t make money from stand-up comedy unless you’re Lee Mack, or something like that. Or you know, Jimny Carr. That’s what a comedian is.
And then all of a sudden you just give it a go, and then you go oh, I can do it. I’m not very good at it, but I can do it. And then you go oh, do you know what? I love it. You just do it, and then it’s your whole life. And then you go oh, well, lucky me! – because I used to write theatre.
I’ve got all of these years where I was writing songs and plays and poems, and all of this stuff. And you go hang on a minute: I’ve got eight years-worth of writing I can put into this. And whenever I start a new show I go through all of my old stuff and say: well, I’ve got a preview tonight, what have I got? And you just put it together. You construct it and then you add to it.
It’s nice to have that arsenal.
It’s amazing. You’ve got this back catalogue of stuff that you wrote that you didn’t think was – and also, the best thing about it is I’m a lot older now, but every time I look back at all my old stuff it’s all teenage angst stuff, and you go oh, well that’s perfect. ‘Why do they hate me?!’
So I didn’t always know I was going to be shouty and aggressive like that, but when I first did stand-up, I did think: wouldn’t it be funny to do an act that’s like, he’s just got on stage and he’s got to entertain everyone, but he’s just found out some awful news. He’s just been dumped just before he’s gone on stage, basically, and he’s still got to put on a show. And that’s kind of where it started.
And then when I started doing that, my club twenty I thought was… I was really proud of my club twenty. And then you just expand that. I didn’t expand my material – I kept my club twenty separate from my hours, because I wanted to be in Edinburgh and I wanted people to see me do twenty minutes; and then I wanted them to go ‘oh we like him, we’ll see his hour’ and it’s a different hour. And I think that was the right thing to do. But you expand on that formula, or on that idea, to turn it into an hour.
In the early days I was much more heartbroken. And then I did heartbreak in 2009 (it was called Bad Things Happen In Trees) and then Keep Hold Of The Gold I was very, like – I’ve written my shows so that if you watch them all back to back, or if I was ever to perform them all back to back, it would tell some sort of emotional story.
There’s a progression. Each year my persona has aged a year, or there’s a new thing. So, with Keep Hold Of The Gold I was very… sad. With Dare To Dream I was very bitter. Bitter and angry, and it was a scary show. Then with This Means War, I’d got over that and I was showing every one that I was fine with it, you know? I was showing everyone that I’d got over this girl who’s left me and I’m fine. Dare To Dream I was sorting out daddy issues as well, but there was always this girlfriend thing: this girlfriend who’s left me.
With One Man Mega Myth it was just like: I’m going to show you how alright I am. I’m going to go out and I’m going to wear the nicest clothes and I’m going to… you know… but I’m broken inside, I’m absolutely destroyed.
All of my shows, it’s almost like the five stages of getting over a break-up, but done by a person without the emotional complexity to be able to convey that. So you end up just shouting. I don’t know if anyone else thinks that stuff, as much as that. But that’s what I know. And it’s a framework to use.
And also you’re not repeating yourself; there’s basic things like structure you’re repeating, but you’re using that as a formula in order to do new material. I’ve never repeated jokes, do you know what I mean? It’s always a brand new show.
I got that when I did This Mean War and people were like ‘oh, it’s very similar to your last show’ and it’s like, well, the last show is the show that you all knew me from. But it’s very similar to the show before that and the show before that. But only in terms of style and structure. But also, I’m the only person that’s doing it. I’m allowed to repeat that as much as possible, it’s mine. You wouldn’t go to a Jimmy Carr gig and go, oh, one-liners again is it? It’s my thing.
So you said that you didn’t initially want to do comedy. What I was going to ask was did you do comedy first and then your music came into it?
I tell you what, I had fifteen minutes of comedy and I had to do twenty minutes. And I didn’t have twenty minutes, so I did a song.
It was I Love You, You Love Me, that I did on Russell Howard’s Good News. And I wrote that for a show I did called Love Life in 2004, which was a play. And I had to do a song. It went really well, in the stand-up. You know, you’ve brought a guitar all this way, you might as well use it.
What’s the best way to do a show? Open with a song, close with a song, maybe put a song in the middle. What are you going to do? You do three minutes, five minutes of material; let’s tell a story, let’s have an emotional ark.
How do we get their attention right at the beginning? I’ll just tell some one-liners at the front. And also, these one-liners are bad, so let’s sell them like they’re amazing. And then, actually they’re not that bad, but you’re selling them like they’re bad but you’re trying to sell them like they’re good, you know? It’s theatrical. You’re taking that theatrical element and you’re putting it into stand-up.
And you’re not coming on and going ‘yes, thank you very much everybody, oh, so, I was walking down the road one day…’ You’re not taking a thing, you’re making it a thing. When I did my twenty, when I first started, I thought I’ll make my twenty minutes a show in itself. So, it doesn’t matter who’s on before me, it doesn’t matter who’s on after me, it’s doesn’t matter who’s compering me; I’m going to do a show that’s got a beginning, a middle and an end.
End on a song, people clap that. And it wasn’t cynical, it wasn’t like that, it was just like: who are you going to put on after that? And then you’re a headliner.
But that’s very interesting that you were treating your club twenty as a show. As a piece, rather than just a bit…
I come from a theatrical background. And I’m not something that’s gone oh, I’m in the pub and I make my mates laugh. I’ve written my feelings down on a piece of paper and I want to direct a little play about it.
Making people laugh is so much more enjoyable, but you just take that ethic and you put it to stand-up and it’s… good. It’s fun. I mean, I’m talking about it in quite a serious context, but at the end of the day, you’re meant to make people laugh.
And with theatre, you can make people hate you. You can have any reaction: people can hate what you’ve written, people can love what you’ve written, people can cry and laugh, or be angry or scared. And there are so many different reactions to theatre, and none of them are wrong.
But with comedy if they don’t laugh, you’re fucked. But also with comedy, why can’t you make people scared? Why can’t you make people have other emotions other than ‘oh, that was nice’. The problem with tonight is people were like ‘where’s my nice time?’ – you’ll get there, but I’m going to bombard you all with ‘let’s have a nice time’; you’ve got to do some of the work, you’ve got to go through it. And when you get and intelligent audience it works out like that. It’s not just a sweaty man saying ‘cunt’.
So you mentioned before that you wanted to write your own sitcom; is that something you’re still wanting to do?
Yeah, I’m doing it in February. I tell you what, though: it’s cheeky, because Channel Four offered it to me after I did my Blaps in 2012, and then since then I did Uncle.
And Channel Four were really good to me. And then… I don’t know if I should say this… My agent had a meeting with the BBC, and they said ‘why does Nick never work at the BBC?’ and she said ‘because they’ve never offered him anything’. Channel Four have always looked after me. And since then the BBC have just given me loads of stuff.
I want to write my own thing. I’ve got an idea, I’m going to do it. But I’ve been busy with the BBC for such a long time, now. They keep giving me stuff, and, you know, you go: yeah, alright. I went along with it at first. But do you know what, if I don’t do it now I’m not going to do it. So I’m writing that in February. I’m doing another thing for the BBC in January and then in February I’m doing that.
Are you writing the sitcom just off the bat, or are you writing for the BBC or Channel Four?
We’re going to write a pilot, show it to Channel Four, and if they want to make it they can make it. And if they don’t want to make it we’ll shop it around. I guess that’s how it works. But this thing I’m doing for the BBC is for the BBC. They’ve got the money for it, and they want to do it. It’s only a short thing; it’ll take a couple of weeks to put together and then we’ll film it.
Is it a live show, or is it –
It’s a short. It’s a short film that I’m directing, and I’m in it. It’s a season they’ve got coming up for Valentine’s Day. And yeah, then I’ll get on with my thing. Then Uncle will be on while I’m writing my pilot, then my TV show comes out in March. And we’ll see what people think of that. It’s agony, because we finished that in September, and you’re just waiting to find out if people like it or think it’s shit.
That’s going to be another thing that, if you do a show in Edinburgh next year, you’ll have a Heavy Entertainment audience.
Yeah, and hopefully… you’re not constantly having to explain to people from the beginning who you are and what you do. I just – I’m not interested in performing to drunk people who have got no manners or concept of what a show is.
People in the audience tonight were like ‘oh, so we’re not allowed to talk now are we?’ You can hear them from the stage going ‘oh, you want me to be quiet, do you? We’re not allowed to chat to each other while the show’s going on? Ugh!’ And it’s like, well, of course not! It’s a show! And it’s like, why should I have to deal with that? Why should I be bothered dealing with that?
But that’s part of being a comedian. And it’s part of being well-known, and you’ve got to deal with that. And this is the first show I’ve done since Uncle, so this is the first time I’ve had to deal with people who know me for something… ‘Oh, come and see Nick Helm, he’s that guy in Uncle’; and then they come and see it, and they’re going…
This is not Uncle.
But this is what I’ve been doing for seven years, and this is what other people like.
Do you find having the on-stage persona that you do – is that a useful tool for dealing with difficult audiences?
It’s great, because you can say on stage how much you’re not enjoying it and whatever. You can pretty much get away with saying anything. You don’t have to be nice, I can just say it. Or like, if there’s a technical problem you can just go ‘that’s meant to be a lighting cue, isn’t it?’ and it doesn’t hurt the show. In actual fact sometimes it adds to the show, do you know what I mean? There’s a shabbiness and a shambolic-ness. It is a line you can cross where it just becomes shit. But the shambles is part of the charm, and I like leaving all that stuff in. I like there being an element of: is this part of the show or it this not part of the show? And it can be a day where everything just falls apart. But it… I forgot the question.
About dealing with difficult audience members…
Oh, oh, I think it’s good. I think using that persona is fine. I have the worst stage fright, I am so nervous.
I’m a nice person. I’m a nice person, do you know what I mean? I think where the shouting came from originally maybe…I get really nervous, and I get really scared about going on stage. I used to die all the time on stage, like all the time. There was years of it. I’d go up to Edinburgh and, oh no.
I think what happened is, in 2009 I did an hour. I stopped writing material, it was like I’m not going to write any more material, I’ve got enough material – and I worked out how to perform the material that I’ve got. Which is a different skill.
It’s not like, let’s keep writing and writing and throwing all this material on the bonfire. It’s, let’s just stop writing and spend this year working out – I spent one year learning how to compere. I did Edinburgh and I learnt how to compere that year.
I spent 2009 learning how to perform my material. I did that in that month and it was great. I think part of the shouting comes from the fact that you come out and you go ‘do you like jokes?! Do you like jokes?! Do you like jokes?!’ – and it’s an energy thing, and you’re shouting yourself through the nerves, and through all that fear. And then the audience laugh, and you get your first joke and then you’re alright.
It’s not being on stage that’s awful, it’s waiting to go on stage that’s awful. And I think once you get on there it gives you kind of like a kick in the arse and you just do it. But yeah, I think that’s a little bit of where that comes from. But also from all of the other stuff that we’ve talked about.
Do you remember a point, or a specific gig or a moment where you felt you had found what – that you’d become the comedian you wanted to be?
I’m not. I’m still not. I don’t think you ever feel like that. There’s no end to it. It’s life: as soon as you’ve had your best gig, you have another gig. And what happens at that gig? It’s awful. But you can’t stop. It’s a never-ending thing.
You want to end on a high, but I just don’t think… I don’t want to be… I think my act has evolved over the past five years. I’ve worked really hard on my TV show. I thought what was wrong with the pilot was that it was half an hour of shouting; and I watched it and found it painful to watch. I didn’t enjoy it.
And in some respects that is true to who I am. But in other respects it’s one-dimensional. I don’t want to take what I do – I think what’s great about what I do is that it’s three-dimensional.
I don’t write observational material, I tend to write material that’s emotionally honest and observant. It’s emotionally observant. It doesn’t matter what I’m talking about because it’s the emotional journey that I’m taking. And I felt that was lacking in the pilot.
And what we’ve done with the TV series is we’ve tried to balance it. It starts off very gentle and it shows different sides to me: I’m very gentle, I’m very kind, I’m romantic; I’m very shouty, I’m very aggressive, I have a breakdown. You know, there’s all of this stuff. It’s not one note, there’s a bit of everything. That’s all in the same episodes. But it’s not just – we worked hard balancing it so that it’s not just… dah-nah! Do you know what I mean? I think the series is a fair representation of what I am.
And it’s how you wanted it to be?
I got a lot of control. It’s my first TV show; I learnt to love the process. It was very difficult. And it’s not 100% what I wanted, but it’s the first thing that I’ve done. I’m very proud of it. It was very hard to get made.
Not because they didn’t want it, it was just hard to get it made the way I wanted it to get made. I had to work with the right people. We’ve got to the end of it and you look at it, and I look at it and I look at the flaws. And I look at how it’s not what I wanted…that’s not how I wanted…the sound isn’t quite right there, you know; that edit is a bit harsh.
But then what you’ve got to do is look at all the stuff you got right. We’ve got so much right in the show, that I’m happy with, that you’ve just got to allow the stuff and pretty much hope that people… People aren’t going to ever look at it the same way that I look at it. I’m coming to it from the point of view that I care.
You’re not a viewer…
I’m not a viewer. I made it, I care so much about it, every single aspect of it. And it may just be the fact that it’s on in the background on someone’s telly; or they’re watching on their phone on a train journey, and someone’s shouting on the train and it doesn’t even register. It could be anything, you don’t know. You could have done it, and I’ll be so happy with it, and everyone hates it. And we never get another shot.
I think that if I got another series, I’d learn from the mistakes and make new mistakes. But that’s what being creative is. And it’s also taking a chance on something that might not work. And that’s what comedy is.
Because you take a chance on something that might not work, and then it does work, and then you keep that and get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work, you know, and that’s how you develop a routine.
Live At The Electric wasn’t my show, I wasn’t the only act on it. And that’s a very hard thing to do, to let go of all of that control. And I’ll tell you, when we finished Heavy Entertainment in September and I went into Uncle in October, that was really hard. Because I went from being the sole creative force on Heavy Entertainment to being an actor.
And I’m not writing it (I did the music, but I mean, I’m not writing it), I’m just in it. And I’m not directing it, I’m not in control of it; and that’s a very difficult switch to go from complete control to knowing when to talk and when not to talk, you know? When to speak out. I wasn’t told to shut up all the time, but you know what I mean.
So when to chip in, and when your input is valid and when it’s not. Because it’s somebody else’s creation, and you’ve got to respect that. You’ve got to respect that it’s somebody else’s ideas and concepts. And you’re there to help them to tell that story. That’s the deal. So yeah, that was difficult. But not unenjoyable.
I’ve just got one more question, which is if you have any recommendations of comedians or comedy acts that you think other people might not know about, what might they be?
I really love Jamie Demetriou. I know John Kearns has won two awards and stuff but you can’t not mention him, he’s brilliant. I love Gemma Whelan. And Pat Cahill. I mean, if you ever get the opportunity to see Pat Cahill and John Kearns on stage together, like a double act… That is one of the best things I’ve seen – I like it more than seeing them separately. It’s so fun. They’re brilliant. They love each other, they’re just amazing friends. Also Paul F Taylor. We were in a double act together.
Yes. And you did a sketch show, the online sketch show…
Yes, which Stuart Laws did. He did it in a weekend with no money. You look at it and you go, well, that wasn’t 100% successful. But then you also go, yeah , we did it with no money over Easter weekend.
What’s funny about that is it was me, Paul, Stuart Laws, Bobby Carroll and we all went, right: we need to find a weekend where we’re all free. And we were like, hey look! We’re all free on this weekend, that’s weird. And it turned out it’s Easter weekend, that’s why we’re free. Because no one’s doing anything because it’s a fucking religious holiday.
And we really fucked it; we spent the whole weekend being really cold, and I have that cream all in my beard. And it’s was absolutely miserable, and me and Paul were just convinced it was going to be complete pile of shit and we were just like oh, we’ve just wasted Bobby Carroll’s weekend.
And then Stuart sent this thing over and we watched it and I laughed, I thought it was brilliant, I loved it. But you know, it was good.
The second series of Uncle will air on BBC Three in February, and Nick Helm’s Heavy Entertainment series is out in March. You can find out more about Nick’s live shows on his website. Molly Stewart blogs at komodie.wordpress.com.
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