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Rhys Nicholson performs at the Sydney Comedy Festival Gala
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Comedy Festival

Rhys Nicholson's wildest dreams have come true, so what comes next?

The Aussie comedian has a Netflix special, shares the judging panel with RuPaul, and an acting role in the works – but hosting the MICF Comedy Gala is the gig that really ticked a box for their childhood self

Alannah Maher
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Alannah Maher
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Rhys Nicholson has been rather busy since landing a Netflix stand-up special (Rhys Nicholson Live at the Athenaeum) during the year we dare not name. The Aussie comedian – easily recognisable by the vibrant red coiffed hair, always flamboyantly on-brand suits and a comedy style that is equal parts gross-out humour and insightful takeaways – suddenly finds themself at the difficult second album phase, more than 12 years in the making.

Nicholson had been writing and performing a solo show every year for ten years up until the point where he pooled in with his agents to film his last show. Their biggest ambitions were to sell it locally, maybe make the money back over a few years. However everything changed when Nicholson’s producer got chatting with someone from Netflix during a virtual mingling event for the Cannes Film Festival. “The biggest moment in my career at that time was because a very nice lady in Singapore thought I was funny,” says Nicholson. 

The exposure from that special led to a place on the judging panel of RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under, and an acting role on the upcoming Netflix sci-fi comedy series The Imperfects, filmed in Canada. Currently, there is a book of essays and recipes in the works, and on the eve of prolonged lockdowns, Nicholson opened up a dedicated comedy venue in Melbourne, Comedy Republic, with fiancé and fellow comedian Kyran Wheatley. 

...it was a little bit scary. Like, what if I got my big shot? And that's kind of just what I got?

“I have a kind of weird survivor's guilt,” says Nicholson. “We've all kind of had existential thoughts over the last few years.” Stand-up was one of the first things to come to a halt in lockdowns. Nicholson even briefly considered going back to uni. But when the call for Drag Race came, they knew things were going to be OK. 

But to borrow the catch cry from Nichsolson’s new show: “Anyway, let’s not talk about it.” 

“I think that's how our conversations are right now. Inevitably, every day, you find yourself in a conversation with someone talking about it [the pandemic]. And then someone will go “Anyways!...” It's this constant in our lives, this inescapable thing floating – literally floating – around, but at the same time, we just don't want to bring it up.”

The new show, Rhys! Rhys! Rhys!, is the first time Nicholson has returned to the stage in three years, and since the success of the eponymous Netflix special. There was definitely some trepidation.

“I was having a conversation with someone the other day about how terrifying show business is. And this is way too existential sounding – but no one really tells you when you're done. People just kind of decide and they stop going to your shows. I'm always obsessed with the idea that one day, your rooms keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and then one day, they start getting smaller and smaller and smaller – and you're not in charge of that. Even though I'm only 31, it was a little bit scary. Like, what if I got my big shot? And that's kind of just what I got?”

Rhys NicholsonPhotograph: Supplied/Rhys Nicholson

The nerves were misplaced. Nichsolson is heading to Sydney Comedy Festival off the back of rave reviews and winning Most Outstanding Show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. But the highest high of the festival for Nicholson, was being invited to host the Melbourne Comedy Festival Gala:

“I always forget that the galas don't mean that much to everyone. But like, I used to watch them when I was little and that was my favourite time of the year, that was my favourite thing. I used to tape them and watch them over and over and over and over again. And the moment just before I walked out to host was genuinely the most scared I've ever been in my whole life. But then I didn't do a shit job. And that, to me, is like, wow, that's wild! I think that's how I feel about everything. I'm genuinely getting to live my dream for the moment – and it's not lost on me how rare that is.”

This first PN (post-Netflix) show is a new era for Nicholson’s comedy in more ways than one, it’s also a coming out of sorts. This is the first time that they’ve talked publicly about identifying as non-binary and using both ‘they/them’ and ‘he/him’ pronouns. 

“I’ve talked about it a little bit, like, in the special I said I identified as a ‘fun aunt’,” says Nicholson. “With this show, I didn't want to use it. If I was to over-dramatise, that doesn't help anyone. That doesn't help me. It doesn't help the work. But I think because my shows are usually pretty personal, I wouldn't feel right if I didn't talk about it… But seeing the written press and reviews use ‘they’ for the first time, it's more satisfying than I thought it would be.” 

I do think gender is the new frontier – in ways that even I am still learning to understand

It seems that the upwards trajectory of Nicholson’s career has been running in tandem with the refinement of their craft, and leaning into their own authenticity and queer identity: “[One of the things] I grapple with on a pretty constant basis is that I want my work to be accessible to everyone. I'm just one of those types of comedians. When I was younger, no queer people came to my shows, because I was pretty aggressively gay and for straight people. Eventually I threw out all that material and started again. The new show starts pretty broad on purpose, and slowly becomes more and more conversationally queer… and then suddenly we're talking about, like, the politics of gender and straight male privilege.” 

“There's a joke in my show where I talk about how I think that when we got marriage equality, everyone kind of thought that ‘We're done now, right?’ And it's like, oh, no, we've not even put out the hors d'oeuvres! And I think that is a conversation that I'm really interested in. I do think gender is the new frontier – in ways that even I, as a 31-year-old and a member of the community, am still learning to understand… [My gender] is something I’m still coming to terms with, but hopefully, we're getting to a point where things like this are exciting as opposed to terrifying.” 

Coming back to Sydney for the festival circuit is a homecoming of sorts for Nicholson, it was the first big smoke they shipped off to when leaving the little smoke, his hometown of Newcastle. So where will they be going out? The first port of call is usually meeting up with old friends and snaffling a plate of steak tartare at Continental Deli (210 Australia St, Newtown) in their old stomping ground, Camperdown. And next door at 212 Blu (212 Australia St, Newtown) they serve what Nicholson considers the best sandwich in the world – “It’s just a tuna sandwich. And its so fucking good, I dream about it.” 

And it sounds like with any luck, that tuna sambo won’t be the only foodie venture in Nicholson’s future: “I want to be in the food world. I very openly love food. My dream would be to have one of those TV shows where people sit around at nice restaurants talking to each other.”

Rhys! Rhys! Rhys! plays at the Enmore Theatre on May 6 and May 21 as part of the 2022 Sydney Comedy Festival.

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