Today Is A Good Day - Talking comedy with Nick Helm

Nick Helm in interview

A man walks into a bar… arrives on stage pint in hand, and proceeds to berate the compere for failing to set up the stage correctly. Having stormed off the stage demanding a reset, he returns, shouting down an inebriated and somewhat rowdy female in the front row. What followed was twenty minutes of nerve shredding aggression and adrenaline, except one thing was strange; the man was falling apart before our eyes. One minute unashamedly arrogant, the next a broken victim protecting himself from crippling insecurity by making his problems our’s. He is dishevelled, unkempt and wild eyed. Six months later, another man walks into another bar, orders a black coffee and apologises for being late… He is a fresh faced, softly spoken chap; tall, friendly and understated, quietly confident and refreshingly honest. If you hadn't realised already, these men are one and the same. He has been called everything from ‘loud and aggressive’ to a ‘big pussycat’, and such is the mystery of Nick Helm. The initially confusing contrast between what audiences see on stage and the friendly chap sitting down to be interviewed makes the title of his 2013 Edinburgh show “One Man Mega Myth” rather apt, but Helm says, “There can be negative sides to it when people genuinely think I'm a c***, come up to me after gigs and give me a piece of advice; people that think I am exactly what I am on stage and that there's not sort of like a performance or any thought gone into it, but that hasn't really happened in a long time.” It is very clear he has left the persona at home. Amongst other things, we discuss everything from the creation of his stand-up and how he feels about the audience’s response to it, to the advantages of having several strings to his bow and how that has allowed him to express himself creatively.

My first question centred around my view that when compared with theatre, comedy really doesn't seem to get the publicity it deserves. Aside from the larger events, such as Udderbelly and prominent comedy clubs like The Comedy Store, it has always seemed to me that if you want to find good comedy, you have to do some digging. From what Helm says, there is a certain casual attitude to the comedy network. “If you’re not looking for it, you ignore it, and suddenly you'll be sat in a pub and they'll be a thing saying comedy night. Then you realise it's actually everywhere. If you're not tuned into it, then you can miss it. I don't know how you advertise it, I don't know how people find out about gigs. I mean sometimes I'll find out I'm doing a gig from someone tweeting me, including me in a Facebook post and I'll be like “oh right, I'm gonna be there that night.” I've always found the most frustrating element to booking gigs lies in the lack of notice. The amount of times I've booked for various comedy venues, without knowing the line-up, or booked to see a specific act doing a short slot, only to discover a week later that they are headlining somewhere much more local. It has its pros and cons though; you end up seeing new acts, whilst still catching your favourites in the process. In addition to which, the cost of a ticket which guarantees an evening full of laughter is a treat compared to the extortionate prices of theatre these days. Promotion of comedy is not a topic we stay with for long, especially when Helm confesses he doesn't “know why people come to gigs. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, and you do some gigs that are just absolutely rammed, but I still do gigs where 4 people show up.” It’s hard to believe this is the case, and as the flow of our conversation moves away from publicity, I can't help but take the opportunity to talk comedy with the ‘actual’ Nick Helm, rather than the baffling emotional rollercoaster that comedy goers are familiar with.

Nick Helm’s career began with taking his own plays to the Edinburgh fringe, soon making the cross over into stand-up comedy. When you are an artist with passion and aspiration, taking plays to the festival doesn't always result in a step up at the end of it. Edinburgh is a challenging process and, when starting out, there is a great deal to learn from it. Back then, Nick was making costumes and painting set in his parent’s garden for the plays he was writing and directing. He remembers it was “a lot of energy spent orchestrating other people and organising things; and also you do it for a month, and you're lucky if you get to do that play ever again.”  Once he found stand-up, his quirky persona and versatile skill set quickly led to regular TV comedy show appearances; his own variety series, ‘Heavy Entertainment’, the leading man in ‘Uncle’ also for BBC3, not to mention a BAFTA nomination for a short film he wrote, directed and starred in, but we’ll come back to all that! “I think there's two sorts of careers” he says, “those where people are just saying ‘oh we've got to get this guy, or girl’ and put you in the Pleasance Grand, and you sell out overnight; or someone like me who no-one’s ever really given them anything, and you just have to push your luck.” With his catalogue of work over the past 10 years, there is clearly a lot to be gained from pushing your luck. The implication appears to be that when putting on plays, the reward did not justify the effort that was required, but as with his stand-up, it's not that simple. It seems learning, developing and moving forward are extremely important to Helm. Whilst reflecting on the point at which he took the step away from plays and into stand-up, he refers to comedy as “one of the only things I could do instantly, that required no help from anyone else.” The immediacy of stand-up appealed to Nick, not because he shied away from hard work, but because the routine of having gigs pending ensured more regular opportunities to develop and experiment with his material. He talks about how one gig leads to another, and so on; and how a comedian builds his reputation with each appearance. “All of a sudden you've got something positive out of it. So it confirms itself, and also I felt like all of my artistic aspirations were fulfilled through stand up comedy.” A great deal of what he says seems to suggest an artist who looks for evidence of progress at every turn, which was recognised when he won Southbank Sky Arts Times Breakthrough Award in 2014.

Helm has high expectations of himself. From being determined enough not to rely on others to creating an act so full of fire; there's a fiercely determined artist inside who is not afraid to experiment and take risks. We spoke at length about his development process, and his positive, passionate attitude towards his work is refreshing, not least because he remains humble about his success. “You try and forge your own path. We're only around for a certain amount of time on the planet, and you might as well do something that you want to do. When people who don't do comedy tell you how to do it, you just think ‘Honestly, you can do whatever you want to do, how you want to do it. You can say that you enjoy it, or don't enjoy it, but you can't tell me how to do it.’ I wouldn't do that to you. I think it's just mutual respect.” Of course this is punctuated with a quip from his stage persona... “says the man who calls his front row c***s every night!” 

Nick Helm at O2 Forum
Photograph courtesy of Edward Moore.

As a relatively newbie (of around 2 years) in a comedy audience, I mentioned how interesting it is to discover each comedian’s different approach to their act. Nick produces work with a deep sense of emotional impact, he has a distinct style; using stand-up, music and poetry to shape his act. I mention this, using his recent album launch as an example, and it becomes clear there has always been a theatrical core to his process. If you watch one of Nick’s larger shows, they have obviously been approached as structured, epic productions; with a definite sense of concept. “I see it from the point of view that I am a performer; I am Nick, and I'm normal, and thoughtful and quite quiet, but I'm also creative so I used to paint and draw, write poems and songs, and was in bands. I liked acting, and doing theatre. I see stand-up as giving the audience an experience. It’s great to make everyone laugh, but if you can make people feel other things within the context of comedy, like scared, happy or sad, and take them through a range of emotions; if you can do that still under the umbrella of comedy, then it’s really exciting I think.” 

At this point I started to understand how his theatre background influences the emotional context of Nick’s material. Despite the brash on-stage persona, this is a performer who focuses on the insecurities and emotional vulnerability present within all of us which is why, if you pay attention to the motivation behind the exterior presented on stage, it's easy to develop a fondness for the character before you. Interestingly, there are also those who don't stay long enough to find out, but Helm is fine with that, feeling that if they have missed the point that's their prerogative. The crafting of both the character, and the consideration of the wider context of his material made me wonder if Nick consciously approaches his work like a director. “If I was writing an Edinburgh show, the first thing I'd think about is how I wanted the audience to feel by the end. I always want them to feel elated or a sense of catharsis. You've got to bring them right down and back up again, so towards the end you're always right on the edge of having a breakdown, and in the end, everyone enters into the sunlight again singing. It's definitely theatre.” As Nick reflects on his previous Edinburgh shows, we come to his 2010 show ‘Keep Hold Of The Gold’ and he explains the structuring of his shows and the importance of a strong beginning, middle and end, interspersed with songs or poems based around a theme. The plan is always to tell some kind of story which resonates with the audience, and Helm felt with ‘Keep Hold…’ that he “crossed that gap where it was more than stand up and ‘funnier’ than theatre. A theatrical experience that wasn't theatre.” With shows like ‘Dare To Dream’ and ‘One Man Mega Myth’ the approach was of a larger scale. “I try to give every show a different mood, a different theme, a different look. I always think about what I look like and what I'm wearing on a very superficial level, and then try and tie it all into the main theme, so every bit of material relates to something, whether the audience realise it or not.” The whole approach harks back to the young man who started out in theatre, designing his own flyers, sets, costumes and props. The theatrical creativity apparent in his early efforts has indeed carried over to his stand-up. 

In addition to his Edinburgh stand-up shows, this creative layering can’t be missed in romantic subtext of his BAFTA short ‘Elephant’(co-written with Esther Smith), or in the moments of silence, filled with expression in his performance as Andy in ‘Uncle’. ‘Elephant’ came about when Helm approached the BBC with an idea for a sitcom. He explains that he wasn't give the go ahead on that, but he was given the opportunity to create a 10 minute Valentines short. Going back to this idea of pushing your luck, he asked to direct the piece. “To want to direct your own work is quite standard, but to ask to do it is a different thing.” It is surprising that despite his extensive list of achievements over the last decade, Nick still seems surprised when reflecting on such opportunities. On this occasion he implies that he asked because he felt they would be most likely to let him as the film was to appear online as opposed to mainstream TV. Having the opportunity to direct the piece allowed Helm to work exactly how he wanted to, using a scripted framework to improvise around, thus having the freedom to throw away material if something even better materialised in process. The Director of Photography was evidently superb at his job, leaving Nick to focus on creating the most effective fusion of script and improvisation. The end result is a heart-warming and gut wrenching piece of work, beautiful in its simplicity yet complex in its subtext. The outcome seems to run alongside his current attitude towards his stand-up, “These days I'm not necessarily that concerned about being funny all the time; the space in between comedy, in between the laughs where you play around with levels and expectations is interesting.” 

Nick Helm and Esther Smith in Elephant
Image source: www.bbc.co.uk

He is currently immersing himself in the work in progress element of the process, rather than structuring a full show. This year, aside from the album launch, the majority of gigs I've seen Nick do have been ‘in progress’, and I like the element of freedom at its core. Back in April I went to Machynlleth Comedy Festival where I saw Nick in action a few times. This year marked the seventh year of the festival, which has gradually grown from five rooms to the taking over of the village which now occurs. The freedom of a work in progress atmosphere, coupled with the special atmosphere of this particular festival made the whole experience, as an audience member, seem especially entertaining. Nick has an explanation for this: “There is a sort of unspoken agreement. The acts go and try stuff out, and the audience go and they're alright with that. You don't really get that anywhere else. MachFest is what comedy should be, which is that nobody is taking it too seriously; and because of that, you can end up with something that's of a very high standard. It's just comedy and we’re meant to be enjoying ourselves and just playing with each other. It's a playground, that's what Mach is, it's amazing.” The element of community at the festival encourages experimentation, and I am surprised to hear that Nick had done some last minute shuffling of his material for the three shows he performed over the weekend. “Friday I was going to do my work in progress show, and spend Saturday putting together a bits and pieces show, but I realised the Friday was a 50 seater venue and Saturday was a 120. I felt more confident with the Friday show, so I moved it to the Saturday. This meant not having the Saturday to write my bits and pieces, so I did that on the Friday and put it together in 20 minutes. I think it showed slightly, but it was fine and it got the ball rolling. If I had got to the Saturday knowing that the show I was more confident with, I'd already done, then I would've panicked but in actual fact, I got the hard one out the way early.” Having the guts to be bold enough to jump right in and experiment with material in that way goes some way to explaining the diversity of Helm’s work. 

Having reflected earlier on the development of his Edinburgh shows, we come to some thoughts about the festival itself.  The Fringe is known as ‘the’ Arts festival, on this occasion we are considering the comedy element of it. Most acts will do a run for the entire month, perhaps taking one day off, so when Nick talks about the repetitive nature of it, I completely see his point. “Edinburgh is there as a showcase and market stall for acts that are doing well, and for journalists. All the acts are trying to impress the journalists because basically if they have a good Edinburgh, it's going to help them out for the rest of the year.” It's easy to see why for the most part Nick has enjoyed his Edinburgh experiences. You can't knock nominations in 2011 and 2013 for Best Show, and winning funniest joke of the Fringe also in 2011. Despite this success and the more recent TV and film nods (nominations for Best Comedy Performance at the RTS Awards, Best Scripted Online Short at the Broadcast Digital Awards, not to mention the BAFTA nomination, all this year alone), it's clear it means a lot to him and is not taken lightly. As far as Edinburgh is concerned, “I've just been well liked by audiences and critics, but that’s not a given, so really there's a lot of pressure for the acts. If you're a comedian, that is where you know it's your job the most.” Despite the recognition, he still claims “No-one has like banged down my door and said “Can you do this?”, and somehow you can help but feel like that time must be imminent based on the story so far.

In a few weeks filming for the third series of “Uncle” begins for 8 weeks. The first two seasons have been really well received by audiences, and the nature of the relationships in the show have brought a new set of fans; teenage boys and their dads, and uncles and nephews. Helm says he loves acting and enjoys the filming process, much like he enjoys the process of producing an album. “There's an end goal in that, you get an album out of it or you get a film or TV out of it”, but Nick points out he gets a great deal out of live performance and misses it if he takes too much time away. I found this really interesting as earlier we had talked about the act of getting up on stage for stand-up, and he revealed that he suffers from stage fright. “I find performing excruciating and nerve wracking. I'm fine as soon as I get on stage but the build up to getting on stage is just awful. I try and deal with it the best way I can which is to try and harness all your imperfections and make an asset of that. I've got a bad memory and no matter how slick I try and make things they always f*** up and it's like right, well I can either go ‘oh no, the shows a disaster’, or make the most out of whatever situation I'm in.” I wonder about the last time I saw Nick on stage, when he spent a chunk of the set delivering a hilarious routine from off stage. Was this a way of harnessing his nerves? I'll never know but his honesty during this interview has certainly made me think about the ways in which a comedian can either overcome their fears, or make use of them. With Helm, his on stage persona is not a form of protection, but surely for a comedian whose act allows him a certain element of control over the goings on of his set, it must help. Interestingly though, Nick enjoys banter when it's at the right time. “Leeds on Saturday was one of the nicest gigs I've had in a long time, you just come out and basically you’re just teasing them, and winding them up. When everyone is on the same page, then it's just brilliant.”

Photograph from Uncle
Image source: www.bbc.co.uk

Whilst on the subject of his stage persona, Nick mentions again the pros and cons of the assumption that he is the same person ‘off stage’ that he is ‘on’. “It's kind of frustrating that everyone takes it at face value and they don't acknowledge it’s a performance. In a way I think a lot of comedians feel like that, where audience members come up to you afterwards and think you're just talking off the top of your head. I think it's because they think that comedians come off stage and are just the funniest people, when in actual fact it's years and years of trial and error. So I think comedians get pissed off when people don't see the craft that's involved, but the flip side of that is that it's also a massive compliment that you’re giving a performance that’s so convincing that people assume you're just chatting to them so in another way, it's actually a positive.” I say I’ve been to gigs when he's been very aggressive, and others where there's a sly smile. It's a persona which, on first meeting, is rather startling but you begin to realise that he's trying to share something with you, (the audience) and I'd say recently there's a shared sense of fun between this performer and his audience. But Nick will admit that even now sometimes he can misjudge it and go in a bit strong. Based on the fact that he wants to create an experience, something which takes his audiences on a journey; there is a boldness to Nick’s act that is both dangerous and admirable. “The act is meant to be what you're not meant to do as a professional comedian; you’re not meant to come on and call the audiences c***s, read off your hand, have notebooks and do all that stuff, but that's what makes it work for most people. There are some that will see the writing on the hand and they can't get past that and that's fine.” It's just that now he has the experience to fix that with a smile that lets you in on the joke and “when everything clicks it works really well”.

Whilst revisiting the impact that his persona has on an audience, somehow we find ourselves discussing being part of an audience generally. Nick has some interesting things to say which when I think about it, go a long way to explaining the way I feel about having to leave during a comedy gig. This has only happened to me once, it was at a gig of Nick’s, and I found myself telling him how disrespectful I had felt it was at the time, and apologised profusely. His response? “When I go to see theatre, I get very claustrophobic, like I'm not allowed to go for a drink, or I'm not allowed to go the toilet and all that stuff, and I panic. I much prefer performing and writing theatre than I do watching it. I don't want my audiences to feel like that.” He is proud that his audiences are so diverse, that his act is accessible to both sexes, and it seems a wide age range. Having established that his work does have its theatrical origins, but avoids being pretentious in any way, Nick says “it's very satisfying when you have someone who's interested in the arts, like yourself, to have a conversation which stems from that, and also to have that same appeal to people that are out for 5 pints with their mates wanting to see some comedy.” I love going to see comedy, despite my fear of interruption; perhaps being brought up with so much traditional theatre, where it isn't appropriate to pop out during the performance initially prevented me from relaxing in a comedy club. These days it's an environment I feel completely comfortable with, yet I still find some solace in having apologised to Nick for leaving the room that one time!

As for Nick’s perception of himself and what he does? He pauses for a moment, focusing on the pencil he's been twisting for the best part of an hour, but seems quite deep in thought. “I think I am a comedian, but I think that every comedian, every artist changes over time. If you pigeonhole yourself, that’s the end.” Then continues, still lost in his thoughts, “My dad is a painter. He paints and he’s retired, and he has a very distinct style with watercolours but he’s started painting with acrylics. Every artist evolves. I think I’ve sorted out my career, in a way that is like if I want to do a music gig, I could do that, if I want to do a poetry show, I could do that, and if I want to do a film like ‘Elephant’. I wanted to direct and write a short film, so I did that, and not only did I do that, they’re kind of critically acclaimed, well-liked things, and stand up is also one of those things.” In this final thought, Nick, of course is making a big statement with complete simplicity. He is aware of his achievements, but without saying so directly, he clearly has so much more in his head and up his sleeve. In thinking this, I laugh a little as I'm reminded of something he said on stage back in Machynlleth. He referred to himself as ‘the guy on the stage with all his notebooks and writing on his hand, who comes on stage like a wizard. He's been outside working up his magic spells, like the wizard’ and finally decides that is what he will be calling himself. The man I'm sitting opposite also seems to have all the tricks in the world up his sleeve, not to mention writing from last night's gig still scrawled on his hand! I’m genuinely relieved at the complete lack of ego over the past two hours. One doesn't necessarily expect it, but with any performer there is always the chance that side of someone’s personality can creep in. The absence of any arrogance makes perfect sense when I think back to something Nick said earlier. “It takes 10 years to maybe work out who you are, and I still haven't really. Steve Martin always said, you find what you're good at, and play to your strengths. I always had a lack of confidence in my writing; in my standup writing. The actual...what most comedians call, comedy! I think I’m going through a phase in my career where I’m sort of working out what I’m doing now. I’ve been like ‘right, what do I want to do and be now?’ I'm becoming the comedian that I want to be.” This phase of becoming the comedian he wants to be seems such a hopeful note to end on, and just as I acknowledge that, Nick says, “S*** sorry, I broke your pencil.”