News: Nick Helm & Others Getting Their TV Breaks Via The Web

Nick Helm

From virals of the posh and dozy Gap Yah guy to The Fast Show shorts, online comedy has been a bubbling phenomenon in recent years. A cheap and cheerful way of screening new sketches and sitcoms, it also provides instant feedback for video uploaders who can track views and monitor comments.

Now the big players are turning to the internet for trial runs. BBC3 tested the water for new talent last year with its cheekily titled Feed My Funny series of one-off, web-only shows. They were such a hit — more than a million views over the first 10 days they were monitored — that the channel has just launched its second batch of eight pilots (each at around 20 minutes) under its Comedy Feeds umbrella. The most watched, talked and tweeted about will be considered for a full-length series on television.

Two of last year’s testers were commissioned as series. Hidden-camera show Impractical Jokers has already been shown and recommissioned for a second six-part series and People Just Do Nothing, a mockumentary set in a pirate radio station, will be broadcast later this year.

So, what about this year’s hopefuls? Are there any hits? The most interesting and experimental of the batch is Fuzzbox by up-and-coming film-maker Peter Snelling. While most of the try-outs have been cherry picked from the stand-up circuit, Fuzzbox comes from a very different place. It combines real recorded conversations with (anonymous) troubled teenagers and actors in masks. It’s something like a cross between the West End puppetry hit Avenue Q and the Creature Comforts adverts — but with a social conscience.

There are no gags, yet Fuzzbox is funny, honest and touching. It goes behind the bravado of adolescence, capturing the engagingly crude and snickering banter and backchat. The spongy puppets sing on the bus, snog by the bins and wrestle with the etiquette of trying to be romantic by text; the stuff of typical teenage turmoil. More of Fuzzbox would definitely be welcome, though it might be more of a critics’ choice.

Some pilots tread more familiar territory. C Bomb features an Alan Partridge-style hapless rapper, The Committee Meeting has echoes of a Welsh Vic Reeves and Going Native is a Borat-ish mockumentary about recently arrived immigrants.

Bamboo, written by Harry and Jack Williams (Full English, Roman’s Empire), could prove to be the biggest success. Executive producer Ash Atalla (who cut his teeth on a little sitcom called The Office) has cast Tom Stourton and Tom Palmer (aka rising sketch duo Totally Tom) as wannabe hipsters who dream of opening their own super club.

As is required in Sitcomworld, things don’t go quite to plan. It doesn’t help that Scott (Stourton) is one mini-umbrella short of a cocktail. The dialogue is snappy and Stourton is a great physical comic; part Mr Bean, part-early Stephen Fry.

Stourton also crops up in The Cariad Show, a vehicle for Edinburgh Fringe favourite Cariad Lloyd. There has not been a truly laugh-out-loud solo female sketch series since The Catherine Tate Show but there are two on offer here. One from Lloyd and another pilot, Kerry, starring Kerry Howard, who is best known as sour-faced bigot Laura in Him & Her.

Lloyd’s one-off edges it though, with sketches that range from the smart and subtle to the instantly accessible. There is a brilliant swipe at TV’s fondness for kooky women with her dorky creation Joey “nose wrinkle” Bechamel, while her stroppy Lady Gaga-ish diva deliciously skewers the pop world’s excesses. She also cross-dresses as a creepy “cockernee” gangster — like a distant relative of Catherine Tate’s Nan but with a darker vibe. A hit series in the making.

Some pilots work better as one-offs. Indeed, Nick Helm’s Heavy Entertainment is its own tough act to follow. Helm (who you may know from musical stand-up slots on Live at the Electric or Russell Howard’s Good News) is on a “one-man mission to bring back entertainment”.

The 28-minute rollercoaster ride starts with him arriving onstage in the boot of a car and ends with him stripped to his undies and having a nervous breakdown. His blend of pathos and in-your-face menace is so unnerving you think he might reach out of the screen and grab you by the throat.

Even if Heavy Entertainment doesn’t get the thumbs up this time, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Nick Helm. He has also made a pilot for Channel 4’s online version of Comedy Feeds, Comedy Blaps, and stars in an upcoming BBC3 sitcom, Uncle, as an out of work singer-songwriter who forges an unlikely alliance with his 11-year-old nephew. Guess how that came about? A pilot episode of Uncle was broadcast online last December as part of a series of four 30-minute internet pilots by Channel 4 (called Four Funnies). BBC3 jumped in and took the show under its wing.

The net now looks like the essential proving ground for TV sitcoms and sketch shows. If viewers of online comedy are already sharing and liking web teasers via social media, broadcasters know they are on to a good thing. No doubt more stations will be following in the footsteps of BBC3 and Channel 4 and using this lower-cost, lower-risk trial-and-error tactic.

This story first ran in the Evening Standard in July 2013. All the Comedy Feeds are currently available on iPlayer

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