A trademark of his shows is his aggressive delivery and regular walk-outs, but Nick Helm isn’t all bad, finds Jay Richardson
2011 was a barricade-storming, breakthrough year for Nick Helm – he secured a Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination and significant television exposure, and grabbed a prize for the funniest joke of the Fringe. And yet his festival ambition is still merely “to do a show where the whole front row doesn’t walk out”.
Strong reviews notwithstanding, last year was a battle of attrition for the confrontational stand-up, who violently marries self-pitying verse, raucous pub rock, one-liners punctuated with lunging groin thrusts and upfront, in-your-face audience interaction. Those across-the-board four glowing stars, pinned like medals to posters for Dare To Dream’s intense, lo-fi assault lured unsuspecting punters in to be belligerently roared at, hectored and aggressively romanced into nervous, submissive laughter.
Did any of those poor souls he dragged from their seats, and locked in a perspiration-soaked embrace, guess he was suffering from a debilitating virus? “When I wasn’t on stage I was dead on my feet,” he recalls. “I honestly thought I’d overdone it.”
Somehow, his bellowing ox’s larynx survived the entire run of that “difficult” hour – some of which he was still putting together as the Fringe began. “It was,” he suspects, “only as angry as it was because I’d had some really, really challenging audiences in my previews before Edinburgh.”
More thoughtful than his bullish, onstage persona suggests, Helm says all his material “is developed in chunks on stage, then I put the songs in. It’s a slow, horrible process.”
Now he’s back, with a “mission statement” of a show that’s still being drilled and smashed into shape as the festival gets underway. Threat-levels have now escalated, the St Albans-born comic indulging in death or glory histrionics.
As with all dictators, the performance only works, he says, if “I’m the biggest c*** in the room”. He’s hoping that critical raves, coupled with his versatile group The Helmettes’ stint as the house band on BBC Three’s sketch showcase Live at the Electric, will mean that more audiences know what they’re getting into.
“I’m not an offensive comedian,” he states firmly. “The worst thing I do is shout. I’m a very angry man who shouldn’t be on stage but is sympathetic really. I’m not shouting at anyone specifically, just the world.”
From his opening blasts of bombast, through all the ignominious suffering, towards his triumphant resurgence, he says: “It’s kind of cathartic, the phoenix rising from the ashes. It’s a variety show, a singing and dancing variety show with love poems in it, performed by a man so emotionally unstable he can’t get through it without having a breakdown. If I was doing the show properly, it would be a joyous event. But because my character’s incapable, it becomes a trial that’s often horrific to watch.”
Helm began bringing plays to the festival in 2001, “with three people coming to see me or me cancelling half the run because no-one turned up”. Frustrated, he became a stand-up six years later – with, perhaps somewhat formatively, his ex-girlfriend in his first gig’s front row.
Until now, consistent walkouts were “a seal of approval”, he suggests doubtfully. But, he adds: “Where in the rulebook does it say that every comedian has to be likeable and nice? I’m a play on that, the opposite. By the end, there’s a glint in my eye that lets the audience know it’s all part of the joke.” If you’re brave enough to make a break for the toilet, though, he’ll snarl: “Deserter!” at you.
In Helm’s over-the-top military finery and authoritative swagger, you can identify more than the camouflage of his insecurities. A huge heavy metal fan, he says: “Every time I go to a concert, I make mental notes about what I want. I collect the DVDs. And to be honest, that’s where most of the persona comes from. ”
As for the relationship between himself and his alter-ego (“I’d have created a stage name if I’d thought about it”), he’s appropriated his hero’s strategy. “I was trying to do Alice Cooper shows before I even began stand-up. He’s probably my biggest inspiration outside of comedy. Here’s a 64-year-old man who goes on stage and gets his head cut off every night, sneers at the audience and is horrible. Yet he’s a Christian, a teetotaller and a golfer. Plus, he’s incredibly funny. Every play I’ve ever written has been a variation on his stuff.”
Endearingly, winning last year’s competition to find the Funniest Joke of the Fringe in a poll conducted by the television channel Dave (“I needed a password with eight characters – so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”), has ensured he never overlooks his own ridiculousness.
“In an hour, my show featured five one-liners,” he explains. “And the one that was voted the best of 2011 was the little bit of the show that my dad wrote. I can’t take that seriously, so he’s got the award.”
As with last year’s crudely fashioned vest that he sported like armour, his name emblazoned in tiny red lights like some bargain-basement Elvis, several of the props for his current campaign were built by his father. But his parents have given him much more besides.
“They’ve supported me all the way through,” he reflects. “When I haven’t been able to afford clothes or shoes or anything like that, as Edinburgh sucked up all my money, they’ve looked after me.
“For them, it’s been lovely to be able to say, ‘Oh, he’s not as much of a fuck up as we thought. Just as well we didn’t make him get a proper job.’”
• Nick Helm will perform at The Scotsman Best of the Fest, Assembly George Square, Monday 13 August, 2:15pm. Nick Helm: This Means War!, Pleasance Dome, until 27 August. Today 5:30pm.