I’ve only been to Bush Hall once before, that was for a gig and standing. So arriving tonight, way to early than necessary as I always seem to do, with unreserved seating, the big question was, where do we sit?
The first row is certainly out, too risky with Nick Helm, he isn’t a comedian to stand on the stage all night telling his jokes, he does like to involve his audience. Clearly the two young lads already there when we arrived had the same thought, placing themselves on the second row, looking smug that they had possibly the best seats going, close but with a row ahead of them for protection. Or so they thought.
After some careful analysis of the situation, we decided the third row would be safest, although centre aisle seats nearly caught us out later.
The more I see of Nick Helm, the more I believe he has watched a lot of Stewart Lee. Like Lee, he isn’t a joke teller, he doesn’t do the observational stuff, he tells stories and uses the trick of repetition to drum home the laugh. While saying something once may not be funny, there is an art in saying the same awful line ten times that suddenly does make it funny. It just shouldn’t work, and in the wrong hands it would be awful, thankfully Nick Helm is fast becoming a master of his trade.
“Do you like jokes, do you like jokes, do you like jokes, do you like jokes?” he shouts as he jumps into the centre aisle and targets the man ahead of us in the second row (phew that was close was our thoughts as we watched him just in front of us, I knew the third row was the right place to be). Repetition, the line means nothing, it’s in his handling of the words.
Satisfied that yes we do like jokes, he declares he has five and then proceeds to tell them one after the other, revealing them as just bad puns, but done in a style where it’s not the joke that is important, rather it’s the act around the telling that we laugh at. As if to prove that point, they are the very same jokes he has used almost weekly on his BBC3 show. After each corny punch line its met with a comment from Helm of how great it is, or how well he told it. “Back of the net” met with a pelvic thrust.
And also like Stewart Lee, he is a master of melancholy. He starts positive, believing he is the best thing to have set foot on a stage, then slowly he drifts into self-pity, disappointment that what he tells us is his best joke is wasted on us. But whereas Lee’s act is in explaining why we missed the greatness of the joke, Helm’s trick is to repeat it over and over, refusing to move on until we laugh loud enough. Of course when we do laugh, it isn’t good enough, it’s in the wrong place (you can’t help but laugh even before the punch line after about the third time of hearing it) or the laughter is too fake. By the time he rolls around to fifth, sixth, even seventh telling, he begins to be disheartened, the eagerness of the start gone, and this is when Helm becomes the angry madman that you either love or hate.
As Helm hits full angry flight, he is in the crowd, clambering across the empty chair in the front row, and in the face of one of the young lads who had felt safe in the second row, that empty chair perfect for Helm to stand on and screech down into the startled but laughing lad’s face. “What sound does a bell make?” he screams inches from the speechless lad. “What sound does a bell make?” he asks again, shoving the microphone at the lad, still unable to answer. Repetition, over and over, until he answers his own question, “ding a ding a ding a ling” Helm finally tells him, then asks once more. “ding ding” replies the lad nervously. “Put some fucking effort into it, everyone else is,” he screams in the laughing lad’s face, “now, what noise does the bell make?” This goes on and on, all for a joke that when he finally hits the punch line is so poor it isn’t even worth a groan, but it’s not the joke that has our jaws aching with laughter, it’s Helm’s anger that we aren’t taking part enough, we aren’t worthy of his time and effort. “I could have been at home watching myself on TV you know” he tells us, then under his breath, “thank fuck for iplayer.” A slight plug for his BBC3 show maybe?
And the night ends with Helm singing, something that is a forte of his, a failed rock star clearly as he struts and swaggers across the stage, good enough that he could possibly sing all night and make it a night to remember, but then again, we would have missed his anger and misery, so maybe one song was enough.
Helm is clearly growing in stature, and well worthy of that. And while I may see Stewart Lee’s influence in so much of what he does, that really doesn’t matter, he does it in his own way enough to make his act different. And like Lee, you either love or hate him, there really isn’t much middle ground.
Should add, this was a “Show and Tell” event, not a name I knew but now will be keeping an eye out for (http://www.showandtelluk.com/). It included great supporting performances from Greg Ellis as compare, Phil Nichols and the great Kevin Eldon, someone who actually leads back to more Stewart Lee connections, having worked with Lee many years ago, I’d recommend all three of these if you get a chance to see them anytime.