Rhys Nicholson on keeping the Aussie comedy scene progressive

A few months ago, Rhys Nicholson’s manager called and asked if he was sitting down. Nicholson knew the tone of voice well: “It means one of two things,” the Newcastle-born, Melbourne-based comic explains. “Either something incredible’s about to happen, or something absolutely terrible.”

Fortunately, it was the latter: Alongside Becky Lucas and Steen Raskopoulos, Nicholson had been selected as the opening act for Conan O’Brien’s show at Sydney’s State Theatre.

“It was one of those shows that was so good, I kept expecting it to get cancelled,” says Nicholson as he reflects on the lead-up. “It was all so secretive – no-one knew what he was coming out for, no-one knew he was filming for [Netflix series] Conan Without Borders. The only way I can describe it is odd.” 

Anyone who saw Nicholson perform that night can attest to the fact that he certifiably killed, although an external element of the performance was doing his head in as an inevitable prized meeting was provoking the butterflies. 

“It’s a beautiful theatre, but on-stage I can just get out there and know exactly what to say,” says Nicholson. “What I was most worried about was being off-stage and being back-stage – I mean, that’s where Conan is, and I was terrified of saying the wrong thing. I’m so glad I got to do it with Steen [Raskopoulos] and with Becky [Lukas] – they’re two of my closest friends in comedy, and I’ve toured with both of them. We all ended up huddled in the same dressing room together, just trying to talk about anything that wasn’t the show.”

With his fellow quiffed redhead in the rearview, Nicholson now draws his attention to his festival show for 2019. It’s entitled Nice People Nice Things Nice Situations – and, despite the cheery title, its origins are somewhat dark. In July of last year, Nicholson received a message to his Facebook page about how his recent hour-long special filmed for ABC’s Comedy Next Gen was – among other things – “obnoxious” and “sad”.

“In a world where it is difficult to be accepted as gay,” it reads, “you as a public example of a gay [sic] makes me ashamed.” It ends with a suggestion that Nicholson, instead of mentioning such unmentionables as s-e-x in his stand-up, focus his attention on... well, the title of the show. Needless to say, this critique from the woman known only as “Carol” proved quite the shake-up. “It’s more sad than funny to me now,” says Nicholson of the negative aspects that come with his public perception. 

“Really early on, when I was doing my first show, I saw a review of my show in one of the gay presses where it essentially said that I was setting back the community 30 years. Don’t get me wrong – I look back on that show now and know it was a bad show, mainly because I was still trying to be a shock comic more than anything. At the time, though, I was furious about it. I tweeted about it for days. These days, if something like that was to happen, I feel like I’d try and act upon it a little more responsibly. Maybe I’d try and see where they were coming from, or I’d just laugh it off.”

Nicholson pauses for a moment, before reflecting further. “I guess that’s what this show is about, in a way,” he continues. “When you’re part of any kind of minority, it’s easy to forget how responsible you are held for certain things. If you’re a white, cis and straight male comedian, your fruit is allowed to rot considerably – and people will still come out to see you at RSLs in droves. It’s different for minority comedians, though – if you’re not staying current, and you’re not killing all the time, you just disappear.”

Having just performed Nice People as a part of both the Adelaide Fringe and the Brisbane Comedy Festival, Nicholson’s next stop will be the Victoria Hotel on Little Collins Street, which will essentially serve as his home-base for the next month as a part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. 

As much as Nicholson is looking forward to touring the show – including a night at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre, a venue in which he used to work at the box office – he’s also weighing up the pros and cons of skipping festival season entirely next year.

“I love stand-up, but it’s all that I’ve done for a decade straight,” he says. “I want to think about the other things that I can do. I know how to write a stand-up show, but I don’t know – just as an example – how to format a script. 

“My fiancee Kyran [Wheatley] is running a pop-up bar with Alex Dyson this festival, and that’s something I’m trying to get more involved with as well. I still want to do gigs, but I feel like I would rather present people something new with the four months I’d normally just spend on me talking for 55 minutes.” Nicholson, exasperatedly, laughs: “Anyway, something to think about, isn’t it.”


Venue: The Victoria Hotel – Banquet Room
Dates: Now until Sunday April 21 (bar Mondays)
Cost: $25 – $33