This year, Nick Helm is celebrating 20 years at the Fringe with his new work-in-progress show, Masterworks In Progress ’17.
Nick’s had a brilliant year so far with the final series of Uncle on BBC Three, Loaded on Channel 4 and the recently announces and soon to air Eat Your Heart Out with Nick Helm on Dave.
I recently caught up with Nick for an extensive chat about his TV projects, the future of Uncle and of course his twenty years at the Fringe and what audiences can expect this year when they come to see him perform live.
Here’s what he had to say…
You’re celebrating 20 years of doing Edinburgh…
Yes, I did my first stand-up show in 2007 and my very first Edinburgh in 1997. So it’s my twentieth anniversary of doing Edinburgh but also my tenth anniversary of doing stand-up in Edinburgh.
When I first started doing it, it gave you a deadline. Whereas I used to write theatre and it used to be ongoing and then as soon as you booked a date in it meant that you had to write it. That was your deadline. It was a really good way of motivating yourself.
When I first started doing stand-up at the end of 2006, there were much fewer clubs in London and everywhere I suppose, so I’d probably gig every two weeks.
So you’d learn some things at your gig but because you had to wait another two weeks you’d forget everything that you learnt and you’d just get nervous again.
A very different experience to Edinburgh then?
Absolutely. Officially in 2008 I was compering a show, I was in a double-act, I was doing solo stuff and I’d written a play. And that was just what was in the Fringe guide. There’d be other gigs on top of that if you wanted them so I could maybe do up to six shows a day.
You could get a years worth of gigs within a month. So in the early days when I did Edinburgh you’d come back having taken a big step up in terms of your abilities and your experience. You’d learn so much from just gigging, and not just the good gigs, the bad ones as well.
You’d come back having learnt so much that you’re much more capable to deal with things.
What’s been the biggest thing you’ve learnt over your many years at the Fringe?
Just to be yourself really. There is a temptation amongst some comedians when they’re starting out to try and look at what everyone else is up to and try and do what’s popular.
But if you look at the comedians that are really successful, they’re the ones that have really stuck to their guns and tried to be unique. I never felt like I was in competition with anyone because what I was doing felt different to what everyone else was doing.
You only need one Jimmy Carr, you only need one Eddie Izzard… and there were lots of people when we were starting out that were trying to be like Stewart Lee and Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding and you’d go “We’ve already got that” and as much as everyone wants to be Stewart Lee, a respected individual comedian that’s intelligent, he already exists.
If you’re going to do that again you’re only ever going to be compared to him so you really need to find your niche. And that’s what I did. I tried to find something really unique in what I did and really go for that.
When would you say your breakthrough moment was?
2010 was my real breakthrough year.
It was the year that everyone started to pay attention to me and after that I go Russell Howard’s Good News, I started headlining gigs and then the year after that I got nominated which led to the Heavy Entertainment pilot and Uncle.
So what’s the show that you’re bringing to Edinburgh this year all about?
Basically, I’ve been filming for a year and I’m warming up to put together a tour from September to November all around the country.
My last full Edinburgh show was in 2013. So for the last couple of years I’ve done work-in-progress gigs. So this year I’m taking all the material from the work-in-progress gigs I’ve done in the last couple of years and putting it all together in one show.
I’m writing some songs and some poems and finding some old stuff too. I’m trying to put together some stuff that no one has ever really seen me perform live as well as some greatest hits.
Hopefully it will please new fans, my stand-up fans and Uncle fans. Hopefully everyone will get something out of it.
You touched on it there. Do you feel like you have two different live audiences now? Those that know you for your stand-up and those that know you because of your TV work?
I’ve got a core fan following from stand-up that love to come and watch me do stand-up and they also watch all my TV stuff. On the flip side of that, you have people who come and see you after watching you on TV and they’re confused because it’s so different.
It’s education. You have to basically keep doing what you’re doing, filter out the people who don’t get it and the way I see it, is that I’ll always have stand-up. I’ve been doing it for about 11 years and TV for about 4/5 years. TV will come and go, you can’t sit there waiting for the phone to ring. It’s such crazy industry that you can spend years working on something that won’t happen.
On TV I’ve done shows like 8 Out of 10 Cats, Live At The Electric, Heavy Entertainment, Uncle and more recently Loaded.
So a mix of things but I guess the thing I’m most known for is Uncle which is me acting in a sitcom. There are parts of me in it because I write the music and I interpreted the character, but it isn’t me. That isn’t my stage persona. I’m acting in a thing.
But also, my stage persona as a stand-up isn’t me. That’s like an extension of me. It’s all performance.
Then with Loaded, that’s different again. Every time I do something I try and do something that’s different from the last thing I did.
So is that very much a conscious decision you’re making?
Otherwise you pigeon hole yourself. When I was doing stand-up people thought “Oh, he’s just shouting and swearing.” and when I did Uncle they went “Oh. He’s a stoner.”
Then when I did my short film Elephant people were like “Oh. He can do gentle and romantic.” Then when I did Loaded they were like “Oh. He’s vulnerable.”
If you don’t go out of your way to do something that’s different from the last thing you did then everyone will just pigeon hole you. After I did Uncle I got a load of scripts that were all basically repeats of the same character.
It’d be very easy to take all those jobs because it’s more exposure but basically, I got everything I wanted out of Uncle and unless it’s as good as Uncle, or better, I’m happy to turn stuff down.
When Loaded came along it was really exciting because it was a different dynamic. I wasn’t the lead, I was a co-lead. I didn’t have to carry the whole show. It was more of a drama than a straight comedy and a different character.
You’re lucky to get any job really so everything I do I try to make it different and interesting so that I learn something from it, I get something out of it and I present myself differently.
You must have been pleased to the reaction the end of Uncle got?
It was phenomenal. Everyone’s gutted that it’s over and I absolutely love it. It’s a really good show that I’m always going to be proud of.
I’ll always be the one pushing them to write another one because it was just so much fun.
Do you think Uncle ever will come back?
Part of me suspects that all they really needed was a bit of a break because they’d worked on it solidly for four years. And they’re writers, directors and creative people so they wanted to do something else.
But I also think that we never really had a big budget. For the last series, I was writing songs for free so that we would have more variety. When we did the No Survivors video, I could either have one costume or the other costume so I hired one of the costumes myself.
Whenever we had a guest star, they’d be doing it because they like it rather than the money. So Uncle has always been a massive arbour of love so for Oli and Lilah they’d always have ideas for what they wanted to do but it was always very restrictive with budget which I think was very frustrating.
So maybe they just need a break for a couple of years and then come back to it. I’m taking it that it’s over and it was a lovely ending so part of me thinks it’s nice to leave whilst it’s good.
Let’s talk about your next TV project then, Eat Your Heart Out with Nick Helm for Dave. What’s that about?
That show sort of came out of nowhere. We did a pilot two years ago and I sort of forgot about it. Then whilst I was working on other stuff, they’d taken it around and it found a home at Dave.
I turned it down at first because I don’t want to be a presenter and I didn’t want to present a food show. My interests aren’t in being a TV personality, I’ll turn work down. I want to be an actor and a comedian and then they asked me if I wanted to do 16 episodes and I’m always unsure about doing 16 episodes of anything.
But we sat down, talked about what I wanted to do and what they wanted to do and we met in the middle and created something new that was different from the pilot and got to a place where I was happy.
We finished filming it a few weeks ago and now we’re in the edit and it’s turning out brilliantly. We take the food seriously because it is a food show but at the same time it’s a comedy show with lots of guests and it’s almost like a travelogue.
I meet people from my past and some of my heroes. It’s really funny and there’s a little sitcom element to it where there’s a narrative that runs through it. It’s familiar, but it’s new.
Essentially it’s new, interesting, sweet and funny. From what we’ve done so far, I’m really proud of it.
What are you most looking forward to about the Fringe this year?
I’m looking forward to seeing all my friends. I’ve done TV for a long time and you’re always very isolated so it’ll be good to going back and seeing my old stand-up friends as well as the new up-and-coming acts.
I wasn’t going to the Fringe at all last year, I was going to pretend that it wasn’t happening. I was filming Uncle and I was bored at the weekends. So I went up on the Friday, did the gig on the Saturday, came home on the Sunday and went back to filming Uncle on the Monday.
This year I’ve got a two-week run and what I’m looking forward to is going home and rewriting it. Doing something different every day and working out what works and doesn’t work.
Also, Edinburgh audiences tend to be some of the nicest audiences you can ever get.
And are you looking forward to the tour in September?
Oh yes, I can’t wait. I love doing TV but without the balance of being able to do live stuff, it’s restrictive.
The dream world in terms of work would be to have live stuff, TV stuff and music stuff on plates spinning. So when you get bored of one bit, you can move over and do something else. It keeps everything fresh.
Finally, how would you sum up this year’s show in just five words?
Life changing. Life changing. Life.
Nick Helm: Masterworks in Progress ‘17 runs from Monday 14th August to Sunday 27th August at 5:20pm at the Pleasance Courtyard. Book tickets here.