“I was kinda worried about doing this about mental health – in case you thought, if anyone thought I was taking the piss out of mental illness…” He says this just as we’re finished talking and I’ve switched the recorder off, and I can see from his face that he’s being genuine. That’s the thing about Nick Helm – no matter where you’ve encountered him before, be it Uncle, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Heavy Entertainment, Elephant or his stand-up shows, you’re going to be familiar with his brash, aggressive persona more so than the man who’s sat across from me in Soho Theatre Bar. He was concerned when I told him that I came from Birmingham down to London today just for this meeting, he also gave me the biscotti that came with his coffee.
I asked him over Twitter a few weeks before this meeting if I could interview him about mental health, and he reacted in very Helm-eque fashion – which rubbed me up the wrong way thanks to my BPD. I spent the whole night thinking he hated me, that I looked really desperate reaching out to him for such a thing, but it was for nothing. After a very reassuring tweet back from him and an email, I made my way on my own to London to commence said interview.
(If you’d told me this time last year that I’d be doing this, I’d have accused you of being drunk.)
Anyway. He notices me sat in the booth as soon as he walks into Soho Theatre Bar, pulling me straight into a hug before asking if I want a drink before grabbing himself a coffee. Today, Nick is wearing his favourite jumper – it has a hole in it – and he’s still got scribblings from a recent show on his hand. Even after meeting him last year after a show in Harrogate, I’m still floored by just how opposing his real life self is to the man up on stage who screams in people’s faces and serenades awkward audience members with his shirt off. I tell him that I’m nervous and he assures me that there’s nothing to be nervous about because he’s ‘just another person’.
I start rambling about my BPD and Nick asks me more about my condition.
“I have very intense emotions that change very quickly, and it makes things pretty difficult… Wait, isn’t this supposed to be me interviewing you?”
He shrugs before tapping my voice recorder, “Why don’t you switch that on and we’ll take it from there?” I do as I’m told. He doesn’t hold back. “So how did you get yourself checked out then? Who did you go to?” I take a deep breath and started talking.
“Well, I was self-harming, I was drinking a lot, did a lot of things I’m not proud of, and I was with my now husband but we were engaged at the time and he said, ‘Look, we need to find out what the fuck is wrong with you – because this isn’t just depression, this has to be something else.’ So, we went to the doctor and they saw the cuts and took it from there.”
“What kind of doctor? A GP?” Nick interjects, looking genuinely interested before sniggering softly, “I was going to say ‘which doctor’… y’know, ‘witch doctor’?” I laughed, and followed up by telling him that I was referred to a psychiatrist.
“…I basically told him my whole, sad life story. And within twenty minutes he had a diagnosis.” Nick seemed really surprised by this, raising his eyebrows slightly.
“That’s amazing though, because you were living with that for years and in twenty minutes he understands… Wow. So, by psychiatrist, that’s someone you go to, to talk to and get help from?” I nod and carry on. We chat a little longer about my BPD and the stigma around it, I tell Nick that people usually give me a wide berth due to believing that I’m a psycho thanks to misrepresentation of the disorder. “It’s because people don’t really understand,” he says quite thoughtfully. After we’re done talking about me (which I wasn’t expecting), he tells me that I can ask him anything I want to. I did have a load of notes in front of me that I had made over the week – adding to it while on the train to London – but I wasn’t expecting just how much Nick had to say.
“So, you said on Twitter that you’d been asked to do a few interviews about mental health…” Without saying another word, Nick immediately holds his hands up, “I was joking, I was joking! It does come up a lot actually but yeah,” I swear I catch him blushing as he smiles, “It was a joke, I put it all in capitals, and loads of question marks…” I laughed and remarked on how easily things are lost through social media – Twitter in particular, as you only have 140 characters to convey a whole message, to which he tells me that he doesn’t use Twitter ‘to be himself’ but ‘to take the piss’. “It’s a good place to try out one-liners, and it’s a good place to promote stuff but anything other than that… you can’t take Twitter too seriously.”
On the subject of Twitter, the conversation steers towards the events at the BAFTAs which saw the legendary Stephen Fry leave Twitter after a number of people were offended by his ‘bag lady’ remark towards his friend, costume designer Jenny Beavan. “It would never occur to me to contact someone directly to hurl abuse like that,” he says, “And after everything Stephen Fry’s been through, I find it depressing because you realise that there are people like that out there. I was in the room when he said it, everyone in the room laughed and then they went ‘ooooh’ but everybody laughed! Steven Spielberg was in the room, Tom Cruise was in the room, Leonardo DiCaprio was in the room – I was in the room – Cate Blanchett was in the room…”
“I like how you sandwich yourself between Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett,” I giggle.
“Well, you know… why not?” He grins before continuing, “The joke was that she was a costume designer and she was wearing jeans and a leather jacket (at the BAFTAs) and that was it. And then all of a sudden, everyone on Twitter decides that they’re morally right so they gang up on someone who’s publicly acknowledged that he has bipolar disorder, and they make him leave Twitter. And he’s even come out and apologised for what he said! It was a witch hunt. And you see stuff like that and you think of the scum who do that to people online…”
Nick then tells me about how a recent repeat of Live at The Apollo sent an amount of Twitter vitriol his way after viewers didn’t seem to get one of his more visual gags. “For a start – if writing on the back of my hand is what I did, then I’m entitled to do that. I can do what I want to do! The amazing thing about stand-up is no-one can tell you how to do it – if it’s funny, it’s funny. The only thing that matters is making people laugh.” He doesn’t even stop for breath as he continues, “And so you think, at what point do you think I ‘accidentally’ wrote on the back of my hand – it was so deliberate, the way I was doing it, surely they should’ve known it was an act? I was on television, I could’ve had an autocue, I could’ve had notes on the stage right? And that whole thing was part of an act where I take my clothes off which I didn’t want to do on Live at The Apollo because of the abuse I’d get. I went through all of my material to see what was a good introduction to a mainstream audience, because you’ve got to try everything once.”
He tells me that he once swore that he would never do an advert (he ended up doing a few, most recently for Virgin Media) and that he’d never do a panel show (his appearances on 8 Out of 10 Cats/Does Countdown are very well-known beyond his stand-up) before saying that he doesn’t believe in ‘dying in the gutter for his art.’ Nick tells me about the work he has put in since before he came into the mainstream, with the goal at the time being to make an album. Before that, as he started out, he says that stand-up was ‘an expensive hobby’ where he would work in the day at whatever job he had at the time before pouring his money into travelling round the country to gigs in the hope that he could get five minutes at the mic before going back home and waking the next day for work. “The most accurate representation of comedy is the film Inside Llewyn Davis – if you swap folk music for comedy, that’s exactly what it’s like.”
One day he tells me he wants to be able to buy a house, but he knows that’s something very much in the future. After telling me about his appearance on Russell Howard’s Good News where he caught the eye of some Very Important People, he then tells me that he gave up smoking by not telling people about his intentions – relating it back to Stephen Fry’s very public announcement to leave Twitter, and his earlier comment about not doing panel shows. “I kept a packet of cigarettes on me, told myself I didn’t have to smoke them and I haven’t smoked since. It’s been three years. But yeah… why are we talking about this?”
“I don’t know, you just kinda went off on a tangent and…” I shrug, “I didn’t want to stop you. I like it because it’s something I do…” (this is true, as my blog readers and friends will attest to). It comes to him as he takes a sip of coffee.
“It was Stephen Fry, wasn’t it?”
“It was Stephen Fry, yeah.”
I was first introduced to Nick Helm and his stand-up when I watched Live at The Electric on BBC Three. “I remember turning round to my boyfriend at the time and saying, ‘I like him’, and when he asked why I said ‘Because he’s shouting a lot.” Nick laughs as I point out just how different his onstage persona is to his real-life self, commenting just how floored I was when I met him last November. Not only was he incredibly friendly, but he took the time to chat to me despite running late, gave me loads of hugs and took from me the weirdest piece of art he’s probably ever had from a fan. Wizard’s hat – that’s all I’ll say about that. “Do you ever feel like shouty half-naked Nick is maybe…” I stall, worried that he’s about to think I’m a massive idiot for asking this, “Is it a defence mechanism, maybe?”
“No, it’s a character,” he replies in a very blunt, matter-of-fact way, “It’s meant to be funny. When you first start out in stand-up, you have no fucking idea what you’re doing so you just scrabble everything you’ve got together – grab a bit of everything.” He says that a friend pondered the idea of telling a terrible joke then saying ‘wallop’ afterwards. “I did that for a little while, and what I do now came from that. It’s a good way of getting a few early laughs and setting up the story you want to tell.” Nick then goes a little further into describing his live character, “This is a man who… received some very bad news before going on stage and they’re trying to be as professional as they can, yet, they’re not psychologically topped up enough to pull it off.”
Funnily enough, his raging, semi-abusive self came from a gig where the comedians before him were all trying to be just like comic legend Stewart Lee – young, handsome guys all trying to be downbeat and deadpan, which would be a problem for Nick as he would come out to a very bored crowd after experiencing so much of the same throughout the gig. “We’d be dying,” he tells me, “And you’re sixth or seventh on the bill, everyone would be tired and I would end up ‘taking one for the team’ – I wanted to be Stewart Lee but instead I’d come out being really high energy and nice, almost like Justin Lee Collins, before…” We give each other the look that says ‘oh yeah, he fucked up’, Nick remarking how people used to come up to him and note how similar he was to Collins, even down to the slight West Country accent he adopted from old housemates despite being from North London himself. It turned out of course that Nick’s real self was much nicer than his onstage character, and as for Justin Lee Collins…
The character that we know as Nick Helm now came from a particularly bad gig in Edinburgh when the crowd weren’t giving the acts any recognition. “I just went out and said, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you even here? You’re not enjoying it, I’m not enjoying it, I don’t want to be here!’ I said that to the audience and the other acts were laughing, and even though the audience weren’t impressed, the other guys were – people found it funny. And I took it from there, adding more jokes, longer stories. What I like about my act is that it’s more than one thing – I can do poems, I can do songs, one-liners, I can get away with all of that.”
“My angry act, my shouty act, it is probably a little bit cathartic yeah,” Nick ponders, bringing the conversation back to my original question, “I mean with heckling, I don’t get it because we’re in it together you know? We’re all here trying to have a good time. Whatever you see on that stage is just a performance, I’m not like that when I’m off the stage you know? There are some truths in what I do, I write about my life because it’s a brilliant way to express yourself and it’s easier than just making stuff up. And you’re framing it all in a way that’s entertaining to an audience. I’m not going out there to punish them, I don’t want to be mean to anyone – the worst thing about it is when people come away from it, thinking that I’m a bully because that is the opposite of what I’m doing.” Nick has already made it very clear from his earlier point about Stephen Fry that he abhors bullies of any kind.
Once again, he brings it back to my question to him. “My character is an extension of me, it’s more layered than that. It can be sad, it can be aggressive, it can be sympathetic, it can be funny – the thing about comedy is that it’s subjective. You can have a good gig and a bad gig at the same time where half the audience is laughing and the other half isn’t. But I’m not doing it for the people who don’t like it – I’m doing it for the people that do.”
To be continued…
See Nick in his upcoming show All Killer, Some Filler in London on April 14th! Buy tickets here.
Nick’s Hot N’ Heavy album is played a lot in my house. Buy it here.
Also, buy Nick Helm’s Heavy Entertainment, because there’s a fuckload of content on there that wasn’t shown on TV! Get it on Amazon.