“You’ve just got to not be a dick”

interviews comedian Nick Helm about dealing with “all sorts of fucking people” and making them laugh

Image courtesy of Nick Helm.co.uk

Image courtesy of Nick Helm.co.uk

Unlike his character in new BB3 comedy, Uncle, comedian Nick Helm is a very busy guy. As he calls a wrap on his latest venture into television, he is spending his days writing and his nights experimenting with material for a new project with the BBC.

In Uncle, Nick’s character Andy – a suicidal, thirty-something, failing musician who forms an unlikely friendship with his nephew, Errol – suits Helm perfectly. The part wasn’t written for him, although he says it feels like it was.

Nick is used to writing his own parts, finding his feet in stand-up, where his infusion of music and comedy found him championing at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and appearing on programmes like 8 Out Of Ten Cats and Russell Howard’s Good News.

When filming for television, Nick tells me that it is really exciting to get up in the morning and do something different – “It was a really nice contrast” – but he does cherish the live audience that comes with stand-up. “When you’ve got a live audience, and you do something funny, they all laugh, and you know that it’s working”. In front of a camera “you’ve no idea if it’s working or not”.

When I ask what it’s like working with other comedians, he explains that its all about finding a balance and a mutual respect for each other. “It’s quite straightforward really” he tells me, “you’ve just got to not be a dick”. The bigger challenge, he thinks, is working on a programme like 8 Out of Ten Cats, where “you’ve got quite a lot of personalities all at once” and “you’ve got to find your place within something that already exists”.

The challenge is obviously worth it for Nick, “I love comedy and I love comedians and I like working with people”. Most importantly he loves working with his band. “One of the reasons I started working with a band is because you get to work with your friends”, because “even if it goes badly, you’ve all been through that”.

Nick doesn’t appear to be put off by a bad show, he’s just a guy looking for a laugh. Luckily, he’s good at making other people laugh too.

Nick describes his stage persona as “very loud and abrasive and domineering”, which protects him from heckles, but in reality he is relaxed, friendly and very gracious. “It’s all acting, I’m just a normal human being”.

Yet Helm is so casually comic when he chats to me that I’m surprised when he tells me that stand-up wasn’t his first port-of-call when he started performing. “I only started it as a hobby really, I just wanted to get out of the house, I didn’t think it would take me anywhere”. But in comparison to the play writing which he’d already tried, comedy seemed like “more of a definite career goal or more of a definite plan”.

“I always used to make people laugh in the pub”, where he used to work as a barman, dealing “with all sorts of fucking people”, putting punters in their places with his dry sense of humour and sarcasm. Of course, he didn’t just think, “oh great, I’m a brilliant bar man, I’d be fantastic on stage”. Instead, comedy came as a natural progression from the sketches and dark comedies which he started taking up to Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2001.

In fact, the light bulb moment came in 2007, as the time-consuming process of play writing (“it took up your life”) and not really going anywhere with it, spurred Nick to try his hand at stand-up. “I just tried stand-up once and it was like “oh, this is fun. And it was quick”. Helm jokes that if no one’s going to come and see your show, better that it took you five minutes to write a few jokes than three years to write a play. In a business where so many are fighting for the spotlight, he has a point.

“It is quite a slow process and that does put a lot of people off”, but the work has certainly paid off. With a year that has begun with the success of Uncle and a nomination for the Times breakthrough award – Nick Helm is certainly a comedian to look out for.

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