License To Be Funny - Interview with Rhys Nicholson

Before taking a stand-up hour that is importantly specifically not about the pandemic on a tour of the UK, I had a light-hearted interview with Rhys Nicholson about the role of comedians in society, audience behaviour, what doing a stand-up show after the Queen’s death was like and most importantly their show, Rhys! Rhys! Rhys!.

My favourite thing is being relentless. That’s what you can expect from the show, just me relentlessly talking too quickly.

Apart from making people laugh, what do you think a comedian’s role is

I flip-flop with this. I think if I wanted to be very deep about it, I’d go, “oh we’re the court jesters of the world and we make comments about blah and through that we hope to shape the world,” but I think it depends on the kind of comedian you are. There are definitely comedians out there trying to change the world, and some of those people are my best friends. I am not one of those people, at least I don’t think I’m trying to do that. I reckon it depends on what’s happening, at the moment a comedian’s main role is a little bit of reprieve. If you are the type of comedian that can provide support for a community, like within the queer community as at the moment we’re at a point again where it’s a bit of a fucking nightmare. I watched this incredible speech last night that Myra Dubois did at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London after Lily Savage had passed away and talked about how important these types of people are, people like Lily Savage and these icons in our community because even just by existing and by spitting in the face of the higher ups and not necessarily being political openly, you are automatically a political force. We’re a political force without meaning to be.

In Shakespeare, the role of the fool and the king are very distinct, with the idea that a fool can’t be a king and a king can’t be a fool. Do you think that maybe we’re at the point where the fools are kings and vice versa?

What I don’t like - and you see it more in the straight, white, male fraternity of comedians- are the ones that act like they’re philosophers. One of my best friends in the entire world is Daniel Sloss and he seems to be able to do this quite incredible thing of keeping jokes per minute up - which I think is the main job of a comedian- but he’s also able to do these quite insane sweeping moments in a show. More than I am, he’s from the point of view that a comedian’s job is to stir the pot a little bit and make people leave perhaps feeling different or questioning views that they’ve had already, and I think the license that we have of being funny gives us a bit more space to say stuff that might rub people the wrong way. I don’t think a comedian should tell anyone what to do, I think the world will end the moment that comedians have any actual power. The world will end because we all have ADHD, it’s all undiagnosed and we just shouldn’t be in charge of powerful buttons.

What is the line between funny and offensive?

Context. Context and intent. Anyone who becomes deeply defensive right afterwards, to me that’s just a warning sign. I think the line is intent and you can tell when someone intends on trying to offend someone, and depending on where they are, that’s the context. I’ve got plenty of jokes that wouldn’t work at 4 o’clock in the afternoon at a charity event, but I’m not going to do those jokes at that place; it doesn’t mean that I mean them less, it doesn’t mean that I mean them more, it’s understanding that in this scenario this would be deemed stupid and inappropriate. In a similar way, Melbourne Comedy Festival launched the other day, and I hosted the launch. It was like an 11 o’clock in the morning show and I’m not going to say ‘fuck’ at that thing because the word ‘fuck’ at 11 o’clock in the morning in broad daylight is just ‘ooh Jesus, why are you doing that?!” While in the middle of the night I could probably get away with a lot more.

What is Rhys! Rhys! Rhys! about?

I named it Rhys! Rhys! Rhys! Because we always have to name them about six months before we’ve even put our fingers near a keyboard to start writing the show and I just figured it would probably be about me. It’s an hour of jokes with almost no reference to the pandemic – that was my main aim. Last year when I toured this show originally round Australia and I did Edinburgh with it, I just knew we just got to the point where we were just done thinking about it- we were still in it but to the point where you want to go to a stand-up show and not hear about how their lockdown was because everybody doesn’t want to think about the lockdown anymore. It’s me banging on about myself for about an hour. It’s just about me and it’s the happiest I’ve ever been with a show I think, which sounds a bit arrogant, but I really worked hard on jokes per minute, and wanting it to be pretty relentless. My favourite thing is being relentless. That’s what you can expect from the show, just me relentlessly talking too quickly.

What are you looking forward to the most on your tour?

Seeing bits of the UK that I haven’t really gotten to go to. It’s two weeks of proper shows all over the place. I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK over the years and I usually spend about 3 months of my year there, but it’s usually just London and Edinburgh. As an Australian it’s quite wild; the cities and spaces that I’m covering in two weeks are so impossible in Australia, just to be hopping on a train and two hours later being in a completely different part of the country. You guys have a lot of people squeezed into quite a small island. I’m really looking forward to seeing parts of the UK and meeting people, I love hanging out in the bar afterwards and meeting people and getting the vibe of different areas.

I can’t wait to come over there, genuinely, it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while and we’ve been trying to make it happen for a long time and just to be able to bring this show around is very exciting.

How does comedy in Australia compare to Britain?

It’s pretty similar. When I started going to Edinburgh, I didn’t have too much of a hassle. We definitely live under the same shape of a show and how we enjoy comedy, but what we don’t have here – and I hope that it changes soon – is just the opportunities. The TV opportunities and the way comedians are treated and put on things in the UK is so different to how it is here. We have about 3 panel shows, and the same people have been on those panel shows for about 20 years. We don’t have a mechanism for stand-up that you guys have, whether it be Live at the Apollo, or the several thousand panel shows that seem to be on. There’s a bit more of a respect for the art form if you like in the UK.

When I saw Rhys! Rhys! Rhys! last year, I remember noticing that some of the audience had taken your jokes to be about the Queen's death. What was going through your mind at that moment?

That was wild. Those nights there were a few jokes that weren’t even meant to be about that, they were jokes that were just in the show about ageing or something and people took them as jokes about the Queen. I’m not a Frankie Boyle style comedian that would rumble shit and so as jokes were coming out, I realised people were taking them to be about the Queen. The night before when the Queen hadn’t died, I was at a performance of Cabaret on the West End and my partner and I had gotten the tickets and then were going to a restaurant afterwards. At interval we got a voicemail from the restaurant saying that out of respect they were closing; I don’t know in Australia if our Prime Minister died that we would close restaurants. At the end of Cabaret, they take bows and everything and then they played God Save the Queen, and everyone stood and cried. I get it, I totally get it, but it was also strange. And then the idea of doing a stand-up show the next night was wild. I felt like I was a bit rudderless because I didn’t know what the right or the wrong thing to say was because I didn’t have a point of view in the same kind of way. It was like someone had told a joke before I got there at my expense, and I didn’t know what the joke was. I was like “why are people laughing or groaning at that, I don’t get it.” Nish Kumar, Ed Gamble and a few other people were there that night and we had dinner afterwards and they were just laughing at how I didn’t know what was going on the whole time.

Worsening audience behaviour at shows is currently a hot topic of discussion. Is this something that you’ve personally experienced?

They’re getting better now, there was a minute where audiences were a bit strange. I think in the way that we all were. At the comedy club I own here, Comedy Republic, our first few show due to distancing, we’d have like 25 people. At the same time, when you haven’t performed in a year and then suddenly, you’re performing in a big room to 20 people who don’t remember how to be an audience, it was quite strange. I’ve not seen any bad behaviour, I’ve just seen – even in Edinburgh – just people forgetting what rhetorical questions are. I babble a lot onstage any time I’ll be like, “you know what I’m saying?” and then a drunk lady will just be like, “yeah because my friend Denise-“and you’re like “ooh no, no.” In like 10 years, they’ll release some proper report of the long-term effects of what the pandemic did to us, and I think it’s going to be way more severe than we think it was. I think we all had a mental breakdown, and we had no idea.

Many of your anecdotes come from things you’ve experienced in your 30s. What should I GenZ audience member know before coming to see your show?

Because I talk about my life so much that by the time I got into my 30s I’d used all of the stuff from my 20s. I started doing stand-up when I was 16, almost 17, and I used to be the kind of young gun comedian and now watching a 20 year old in the audience, still enjoying it but kind of being perplexed, while talking about things like MSN or references that I think are completely fine and then just realising there’s a 13 to 15 years difference now. Young people, deeply young people come to this show, and can witness my life, so you don’t make the same mistakes. That’s what young people should take from it, a cautionary tale.

Related Listings

Rhys Nicholson - Rhys! Rhys! Rhys!

Rhys Nicholson - Rhys! Rhys! Rhys!

Rhys Nicholson must have been pushing down the material in Rhys! Rhys! Rhys! for a long time, for this show is certainly a diamond. 

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