Critics have described him as ‘confrontational’, ‘edgy’ and ‘Johnny Vegas reborn as the roadie for an AC/DC tribute band’. But I’ve yet to read a more accurate description of Nick Helm’s act than his own: ‘The human car crash of light entertainment’.
The 30-year-old St Albans-raised stand-up is genuinely unlike any act currently on the comedy circuit. Far from being a safe observationalist, he’s loud, aggressive, rude and thrillingly unpredictable. It’s all a stage persona, of course, but as an audience member you can’t help but feel you’re in the presence of a genuinely unhinged man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. ‘One guy said that coming out of my show was like coming off the “Saw” ride at Thorpe Park,’ he says, with a smirk, when we meet in a Soho cafe. ‘I’m not pandering to people; if they like it they like it, if they don’t they don’t. But at the end of the day, it’s a fucking joke.’
Indeed, those who take Helm’s shouty outbursts, dismal one-liners and ‘dad rock’-style anthems at face value are missing the punchline: Helm himself. Behind the crude, abusive persona the gruff-voiced comic is always the victim. ‘If you listen to anything I say, it’s not actually offensive,’ he tells me. ‘It’s not like I’m a controversial comedian; I am the joke. A lot of people go, “Argh, it’s just shouting!” That’s the act! I am the worst possible public speaker that you could book for a comedy gig. I’m awful: I come out and I shout and I swear and I’m rude to people, and at the same time expect them to just sit there and take it. That’s the joke!’
While most comedians, above all else, want an audience to like them, Helm’s developed a persona that takes the opposite route. But he hasn’t always been as loud and angry onstage, previously he was more low-key, ‘which was much more like me,’ he says. ‘But I just got really irritated with audiences and I ended up shouting at them.’ So what was it about the shouty character that he thought had legs? ‘I found the idea of trying to do light entertainment – but taking either yourself or the situation incredibly seriously – funny. Being self-loathing and taking it out on other people. I find it interesting that you can make people scared and you can make people sad and you can make people confused and overwhelmed: you can do all of these different things and still call it comedy.’
Helm’s refreshingly different style has grabbed the attention of the comedy industry too. At the Edinburgh Fringe, where the shambolic comic has performed two solo shows, his performances have gained him five-star reviews, sell-out shows and a nomination for the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award. Did he ever expect the success? ‘Firstly, anyone who goes up to Edinburgh expecting to be nominated for the award is a prick,’ he states. ‘I just wanted the show to not be an embarrassment.’ At circuit gigs, however, he says roughly 50 per cent of audiences get on board, so occasionally gigs can be tough. ‘I did an Edinburgh preview in Shoreditch with an audience of 60, and 47 people walked out,’ he recalls. ‘A fucking preview, where you get up on stage and say “I’m just trying out a bit of new material”. Forty-seven people got up – not as a group, individually – went “fuck this” and slammed the door. That’s where the stage persona comes from; “I don’t mind if you fucking leave, but leave fucking quietly! I’m doing a fucking poem!” ’
At a Nick Helm gig, as well as being shouted at, you will bullied, sweated upon and almost certainly called a ‘prick’, but his shows come with a surprisingly uplifting message. In his 2010 solo outing, ‘Keep Hold of the Gold’, Helm called his entire audience on stage and forcefully instructed them to pay each other compliments, and his latest show, ‘Dare to Dream’, begins with a fist-pumping rock number with the chorus ‘never stop dreaming’. ‘The shows were always intended to be cathartic,’ he says, ‘but you’re not doing that by going “isn’t everything great!” you’re doing that by going “isn’t everything fucking awful, but there is a sliver of hope out there”.’
So, with a character that’s an acquired taste, where can he take the onstage Nick Helm persona from here? ‘I could do anything with the character, really. I could do something that’s totally stripped down, or I could do a Broadway-type musical, or I could do a magic show; I’d just have to learn magic. I can do an angry show, a sad show, a silly show or just something stupid, and it’s all in keeping within the character. I think that’s what’s good about it. If you took my shows apart you’d go “well that’s just some songs, poems and jokes put together.” But when it’s all together, something happens that makes it all work. That’s on a good day. On a bad day, it’s just a man shouting, in his pants.’