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Rhys Nicholson on Ru Paul, Netflix and I’m A Celebrity

There’s a very funny sketch in the Netflix special about Zoom sex, or attempts at the same. Together for a decade, the couple had planned to marry in the past two years but a certain flu had other ideas.

“We love each other deeply… it’s very satisfying to know you can still go out and lose six or seven hours with your partner, we can go to dinner and just talk and not run out of things to say,” he says. “We’re a pretty solid, no-bullshitty couple, neither of us like drama – ironically, as I’m a pretty dramatic person.”

The dry aged Muscovy duck breast with witlof and sunrise plum at Gimlet.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascuí

In November 2019, Nicholson filmed what would become his hour-long Netflix show at the Athenaeum “before we even knew the word Wuhan, there probably wasn’t even a bat at the wet market”. The original plan was to sell it locally but the pandemic hit and six months later the streaming giant wanted it.

There’s a lot of movement in his performances, almost as though his body is responding to the jokes. “My agent always says I throw out my punchlines — it always looks like you’re going to the back of the stage to pick another one up. I’m not doing that on purpose,” he says. “I like to move – it creates punctuation as well. My act relies on my voice going up and down. Written down, it doesn’t work – it seems like a threat.”

While he’s thrilled to be touring again, he’s also “pretty f—ing terrified; the last live show I did was filming that special”. He broke that drought at Adelaide Fringe Festival last month with a run of small shows called This is my new stuff. Do not refund. The Fringe is often a testing ground for comedians, he says, and playing there helped him finesse his current show Rhys! Rhys! Rhys!

We meet on the eve of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, when Nicholson is gearing up to host the Comedy Gala, which was the catalyst to him doing stand-up. Growing up, he recorded it religiously each year and would watch it over and over. He reckons we’re living in a golden age of comedy, similar to the 1980s. The only problem with that, to his mind, is everyone thinks they can “do” comedy, so every pub with a back room and not enough customers on a Tuesday puts on a night.

Gimlet's King George whiting with Portarlington mussels, baby leeks and sauce bercy.

Gimlet’s King George whiting with Portarlington mussels, baby leeks and sauce bercy.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascuí

Comedy Republic, the CBD venue he co-owns with Wheatley and Alex Dyson (“I’m the loudest silent partner”) is the realization of a seven-year-old idea. The 145-seater has a dedicated comedy space, with shows Thursdays to Saturdays, a backstage area for performers and a nice bar for the punters. Lots of comedy venues in Melbourne have the audience standing up, and the comics have to make their way through the crowd to get to the stage.

”I thought, Judith Lucy doesn’t need to stand at the back of the room,” he says. “The ethos behind it was there was nowhere for established comedians to try their material, to stretch their legs a bit — you pay $25 to go and see a good show. It’s not like a show that’s in the back of a bar and it’s free but you have to pay to get out.”

Jokes falling flat are no longer the anxiety-inducing nightmare they once were. In America in 2019, ahead of appearing on Conan O’Brien, Nicholson did some stand-up and bombed for a full week. “It was like old-school bombing — LA people looking at me and staring, wondering why this poor, mentally ill man has wandered up on stage.”

“There is a strange thing, you can kind of sit inside of it and think, ‘wow, they hate me’, and it’s not even like it’s out of anger; they just do not understand what I’m saying.”

Many audiences clearly love him, though, hence the Netflix special and the Ru Paul gig. News of the latter came four years after it was first mooted, during which time Nicholson and “a coven of gay comedians” would quiz each other to see if anyone had heard anything about the show. When phoning to say he was on the longlist, his agent added “do n’t hold your breath”. A month went by and then early on a Sunday morning, she called and said “he picked you!”

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Within six weeks, they were filming the umpteenth franchise of the hit reality TV show in which drag queens vie for a cash prize of $30,000. “It’s the most fun and almost no work, for someone in my position. I turn up, I get to watch people do the thing they do best at the peak of their powers. The hardest bit is being a judge… that sounds so dumb. It took me a while to learn how to look at someone in the eye and say ‘this was not great’. I call myself the Paula Abdul [known as the nice judge on American Idol]. I’m not there to slam them.”

For the record, “Ru is someone who really likes to laugh; there’s this idea about him that he is kind of stoic or very serious. He’s a man in his early 60s who convincingly plays a 30-year-old woman, he’s got to have a sense of humor to do that.”

Kylie and Dannii Minogue and Taika Waititi were special guests in the first season and competitor Karen From Finance deserves an honorable mention. A second season of the show, filmed in Auckland, is out on Stan in June/July. Nicholson got a tattoo with fellow judge Michelle Visage last year; he has another of a ghost and one that looks like “The King and I Yul Brynner.” “I get a tattoo any time I’m in a place with a per diem. Most tattoos are cash only,” he says. “I’ll get bored, I’m in another city, I don’t have Kyran to say ‘what are you doing!?’”

Receipt for lunch with Rhys Nicholson

Receipt for lunch with Rhys Nicholson

The book, with publisher and release date yet to be announced, will be a series of funny essays. A big fan of David Sedaris, he is slightly terrified about committing words to print. “Reading some of his early books by him, it’s like woah, that is an opinion to have, I’m not sure we have that opinion any more.”

A few years ago, Nicholson came close to doing a certain reality TV show “that may or may not have been set in the jungle.” Part of the attraction was the pay (“it was the most money I had ever seen”) so he signed up, had the immunizations and was ready to go. Two weeks out, they bumped him. “I’d kept it a secret for six months. You start to spend the money in your head, you start to think your profile is going to change from this one show and I was pretty grumpy about it. Then, two weeks later, I got booked for Conan,” he says, which was a nice moment of serendipity. “But f—, was I furious at the time. In retrospect, I am very glad I didn’t.”

I wonder what’s next in store for Nicholson. Definitely stand-up comedy, marriage and a book before long; hopefully cooking, which he’s mad for and would love to study.

More dramatic acting? Not likely. “You know some people say ‘I just love to be out of my element’. Absolutely not! Actors are always going, ‘I like to be uncomfortable’. Why would you say that? I’m so uncomfortable in my regular life — why would you want that in your work life!”

Rhys! Rhys! Rhys! is at the Forum until April 24. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs until April 24.

The bill, please

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