Nick Helm and I are sitting in an over air-conditioned bar that could only exist at the Edinburgh Fringe. Most people here are by themselves, on laptops, with lager substituting coffee for the month of the year where mild alcoholism is encouraged. There’s a beerless bloke leaning against the bar, talking with the bartender – presumably his girlfriend – causing constant confusion that neither he, nor his lady-friend, seem aware of: everybody who arrives to order a drink presumes the aforementioned suitor is ahead of them in the queue, and it isn’t until two minutes later that he realises there’s someone behind him and waves them through, revealing, shamelessly, he really is standing there for no reason. Time and again. Remarkable.
It almost feels staged, like a performance, the barmaid in on the joke. The curtains and the sofas and the carefully placed potted plants must all be wheeled out at the beginning of August, and then left, for a month, while this corner of the Pleasance Dome masquerades as a public house and Prince Charming conducts his social experiment into the patience of thirsty festival-goers.
“This is Brookes Bar,” Nick Helm tells me. “When we all started out doing stand up comedy about 15 years ago, this is where we’d go every single night. Where we’d drink all night, and where we’d smoke out on the balcony. And then the sun would rise and then five hours after that, we’d all think about going home. And then we’d go home, and then we’d do terrible shows, and then we’d do it every day for 30 days.”
A lot has changed since those first pilgrimages north. Most notably, Helm himself. He’s sober, for one, and he’s in bed by midnight (most nights). His audience has grown, he’s starred on television, he’s got a girlfriend (I suppose he might have had a girlfriend then, too, but this one’s new and he seems to really like her) and he’s “allowed in a lot more places now than he was then.”
Then there’s what he hopes to achieve from the Fringe. The motivations behind this year’s offering, What Have We Become? are different to those in years gone by: “The whole point of doing this show this year,” Helm explains, “was to not find it stressful and to not build a show that I found overwhelming.”
Helm is now something of a Fringe veteran, making it inevitable that his show will serve different purposes to creations from his early days. Still, the stress-free experience seems to contradict What Have We Become? ’s description, which previews “a show so insightful, so honest, so legitimate that it will fix all of society’s problems and lead the way to a new plane of existence.” I put this to him.
“I wrote that last September. I had to write something and by fluke, that’s what my show has ended up doing. If I hadn’t written it down, maybe I’d have written a different show. But the way it happened, I’ve come back and I’ve done exactly what I said I’d do. I didn’t do it deliberately. I’m just gifted, I suppose.”
Nick Helm’s releasing a new Film Quiz Podcast, later this month. The preview to that is out now! Listen here.
Helm first came and performed here in Edinburgh in 1997, taking part in school productions of Shakespeare, before moving into comedy and writing his own shows starting in 2001. It worked. Critical and commercial success during August in Scotland opened doors for Helm during the other 11 months of the year in England. The Fringe launched a career in comedy and it’s clear that Helm’s belief in this festival remains steadfast, while his enjoyment of it seems to have increased.
“In many ways I’ve changed, but the Fringe hasn’t really. It still does what it does. New people keep coming every year, doing it and seeing stuff. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant.
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“I’m still friends with Mercutio and Romeo,” he reveals, 25 years on from his little known Fringe debut. “I’m still friends with some of the Juliets.” (There was a Greek Chorus of 12 Juliets in the 1997 adaptation.) “I was the prince. He’s the guy that shouts at everyone in the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. ‘You men, You beasts, That quench the fire of your pernicious rage, With purple fountains issuing from your veins…’ I remember that. Then at the end, he says, ‘For never was a story of more woe, Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.’ That’s him. That’s the prince. That’s who I was. Now I’m a comedian.”
Interviewing a comedian is different to interviewing almost anyone else. Usually, the challenge is to try and get away from the cool media exterior and eke out the more personal stories underneath. With Helm, it’s the opposite. He’s such a gifted raconteur that the challenge becomes separating the person from the stand up; or realising there’s really very little difference at all.
“I think it changed all of our lives,” he continues about the early Shakespeare. “If it didn’t make [you] a stand up comedian, it changed your confidence. School is very P.E centric and I was shit. I hated it. And then I found something that I liked doing and my teacher encouraged us.
“You never know what’s going to happen if you say the right thing to the right person at the right time.” He doesn’t say it with any particular emphasis but, pieced together with the content of his show and everything else laid out in our interview, this nugget of wisdom seems to be one of Helm’s guiding principles. You see it shape much of his attitude now.
For What Have We Become? is an often agonising recollection of every little regret and do-over that plagued Helm’s conscience for the first 39-odd years of his life, followed by some of the ways these anxieties were alleviated. It’s funny, don’t get me wrong, but it’s vulnerable and sincere and, at times, it’s tough going.
Crucially, though, it never gets preachy. Any lessons or cautionary tales appear anecdotally, because they’re part of the story Helm’s written, and not to harangue the audience.
“I’m never giving advice. I’m just saying this is what I had. I tried these pills, I tried these pills and I tried these pills. And there might be someone in the audience that goes, ‘I’m on antidepressants and they make me feel worse. My doctor has told me to ride it out for six months and I’m actually suicidal.’ There are other options. You talk to your GP, you change the pills, you try different things. It’s not an exact science. You have to shop around a little bit and work out what’s best for you.”
Helm is, of course, not the first comedian to struggle with mental health and What Have We Become? is not the first time that he’s referenced it on stage. It’s fascinating, however, to hear him talk about the sadness present in professional funny people, especially with the reflection afforded over the last two years.
“I think there’s a high proportion of stand up comedians that suffer from depression,” he explains, “but I think there’s a high proportion of people [that suffer from depression] and a high proportion of people that haven’t been diagnosed with stuff. I wouldn’t say comedians are any more special than anyone else. I think it’s just the fact that we’re on stage talking about stuff, and you have to mine and cannibalise your life in order to get material out of it.
“The pandemic has meant that now that we’re coming back to doing stuff, you have to decide what you carry over from before, and what you leave out.” For pretty much the first time in our conversation Helm fumbles for words. “I think the temptation is to just pick it up where you left off, but if you’d take a breather moment and go, ‘Actually, the way that I was operating was… was appalling. I was putting myself through all these extra levels of anxiety that I didn’t need in my life.
“Over the pandemic, I ended up finding some different antidepressants. That changed my life night and day, really. I couldn’t do anything and then I took these pills and I’m operating on all cylinders now. Then not drinking and being able to get up. I don’t think about my show until I have to do it. I do it. I love it. And then I leave. Then I just try to go and see as many people’s shows as I can, and then write something nice about them. So that, hopefully, they’ll get some audience members.”
For the new generation of comedians, it is an admittedly murky career to walk into. Since the Fringe last took place in its full capacity in 2019, jokes and stand up comedy have been put under a microscope.
“You’ve got three years of comedians that haven’t done live gigs. If they have done gigs, they’ve done zoom gigs, but that’s not a fair representation of what a gig is. It’s exciting, because you’ve got all these new acts doing stuff and, obviously, everything has changed, on a social level, on a political level. But I think anything that introduces an environment where there’s less room for hate speech, and less room for bullying, it should be a no-brainer. So the fact people get labelled as ‘woke’ or whatever… you’re just trying to create an environment where everyone is welcome, where everyone is equal. That’s obviously not a bad thing.
“I started doing comedy just when it became a viable career, but just before everyone could be a millionaire on telly. It was in that middle bit where we were still going out drinking every night and enjoying ourselves, and then a couple of years later, everyone was going home early and rewriting their shows.”
And then what of the old crowd – the crowd that drank until five hours after sunrise here in Brooke’s Bar – are they still going?
“I’m the only survivor,” Helm reveals. “They’re all dead now. We had 30 keys made and you put them all together and they formed one mega key. And that unlocks the crypt with all the money in it. So I’ve got to go do that after this interview.”
And Nick Helm was never seen or heard from again.