Rhys Nicholson Laughs At The Funny Things Dogs Do Just Like You

19 April 2019 | 5:10 pm | Hannah Story

'Gagging For It' is an attempt to pick apart the things that make people laugh, because everybody does it. This week Hannah Story speaks to Rhys Nicholson.

More Rhys Nicholson More Rhys Nicholson

Melbourne-based comic Rhys Nicholson gets on the phone to The Music during that period of the morning where he is up and about, but he probably hasn’t spoken to anyone yet. He’s three-quarters of the way through his MICF run for Nice People Nice Things Nice Situations, ahead of stints in Wollongong, Perth, Sydney and his hometown of Newcastle.

His years growing up in Newcastle helped form what Nicholson finds funny to this day. He describes both his sister and parents as people who make him laugh and always have. 

“My dad doing kind of bits always really got me – my dad does voices and stuff, and is a very dry man, and he kind of taught me timing, I think.

“I did a bit in the Gala this year about my dad who does this one joke every morning where, as he puts on his glasses, he looks at my mum and goes 'Ugh.' She says, 'Oh fuck off, Sean.' And every morning they've done that for 30 years and that really makes me laugh. That's a commitment to a joke on both their sides.

“My sister and I are probably the two people that even if we're standing at the back of a funeral really upset about something, my sister could whisper something to me and make me laugh.”


Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

Nicholson also thinks watching the Gala – especially between the years of 2000 and 2005 – definitely influenced his decision to go into stand-up as a career. He, like many of us, watched and rewatched VHS tapes of an entire generation of comics coming up, from internationals like Arj Barker and Daniel Kitson to Australians like Wil Anderson and Sarah Kendall.  

“I still have in my family home – my parents have – VHSes of all of those taped, and the Montreal specials and that kind of stuff that used to be on Channel 10. From probably the age of 12, [I remember] just being like 'Well, I think that's what I'm gonna do,' and then when I finished school I saved five grand and moved to Sydney. 

“And I wasn't even that funny. I'm one of those sad stories of all I wanted to do was be the class clown but I absolutely was not. I think I was just really fucking annoying.” 

Nicholson says he still can quote bits from those Gala shows “verbatim”. “I watched them so many times. My parents probably thought I wasn't right. Probably once a week I would watch them all through. Having said that I also watched First Wives Club about once a week, so clearly there was something going on.”

He reckons that same kind of generational push he remembers from the early ‘00s is happening again now, pointing to the likes of Anne Edmonds and Tommy Little and others that performed at the Oxfam Gala last month as part of that changing of the guard. 

“The Gala the other night at the start of the festival, the Oxfam Gala, there were seven people doing their first Galas, and Tom Gleeson was the only older statesperson of comedy on. I remember looking at the line-up and going 'Oh this is the new generation.' I'm not including myself in that. There was such a clear push forward for, 'Look at this new group that are coming through.' Hopefully television agrees!”

While seeing comics like Maria Bamford in the Gala in 2004 made teenage Nicholson think ‘Oh, I wanna do that,’ it’s his peers that are making him laugh so much now – people like Anne Edmonds, who Nicholson reckons needs her own vehicle stat. 

“Anne Edmonds is the funniest person in the country, both personally and professionally. Even talking to her and she's angry about something or going off on something, she's just the funniest person in the world. I reckon I could watch Anne Edmonds walk somewhere and I'd think it was comedy genius.”  

Still, what makes Nicholson finds funny he dismisses as “dumb stuff”. “This is gonna really probably cancel me out as a voice in Australian comedy,” he warns, before saying that one of the more recent things to make him a laugh a lot were pictures of dogs that had eaten bees. 

“Yesterday I looked at a bunch of pictures of dogs that had eaten bees and their faces were all puffed up and I really laughed for a long, long time. It's so dumb.” 

“Yesterday I looked at a bunch of pictures of dogs that had eaten bees and their faces were all puffed up and I really laughed for a long, long time."

He also appreciates people that “are really happy to be grotesque, does that make sense?” like Amy Sedaris, who he says he’s “obsessed” with: “If I was to be able to have any career it would be Amy Sedaris', strangely, even though we do very different things.”

He concludes that what he means is that he likes “anybody that's happy to really embarrass themselves to a degree”. Can he pinpoint why that appeals to him?  

“The wanky way to look at is comedy is something off. Comedy is noticing something isn't quite right. Looking at a dog with its face all puffed up, and there's an admission of guilt on its face: 'Sorry, I just wanna eat the bee…' I don't know what it is. 

“Now I'm gonna have a mental breakdown over the course of the day, it's like 'Why am I doing comedy?' Do people find me funny? Oh God.' I think with Amy it's I really love people that put a lot of work into something quite dumb. I think that is so funny to me. It's the same reason people like Sam Campbell and stuff is effort in stupidity, and I think that's what I find funny.” 

People “putting a lot of work into something quite dumb” could be a way to describe some of the artistry behind Monty Python, who are responsible for one of Nicholson’s early memories of laughing until his sides hurt. 

“This is such a cliché answer; probably my parents showed me Monty Python when I was really [young], even though I didn't understand it. I remember watching The Meaning Of Life and having the guy vomit and just being like 'That's really funny, I don't know why it's funny, but it is.' And then you look back on it now and it's like, 'Oh, it's kind of a comment on gluttony...' But at the time it was like 'That man's fat and he's vomiting, that's funny.'”

It’s also not so far away from what Nicolson says interests him about stand-up now, which is a kind of style – not just good writing or a strong performance, but where every element “is pointing you towards the show that you’re gonna watch”, like Edmonds’ and Campbell’s shows. 

“The reason I loved Maria's show the other night is there was like – I don't know how to explain this – there's a style that I like now which is just someone goes out and starts talking and then at the end of the show you just realise it's the end of the show. You don't realise it's been 55 minutes, just that chat kind of thing. I think the main thing is that I like, if this makes sense, style in comedy now.”

Comedy, for Nicholson, has helped him get through tough times “like every fucking day of my life, every living moment”: “I was very badly bullied in high school and holding resentment to everyone that was involved in that, and really my whole career could be considered a 'Fuck you' to them.”

Still, that’s not the only reason Nicholson pursued stand-up as a career: “There's probably some deep-seated issues of needing validation that I could probably go deep into, talk to someone professionally about. 

“From the outside, it seems really easy, and then when you get in you realise it's not. It just seems like a really nice life. There's no way I would've worked at anything other than the arts just because I'm lazy.”

Over and over we seem to return to a couple of themes when talking about what makes Rhys Nicholson laugh: “I feel like what has come across with me in this is just like dogs and women. Dogs and strong women.

“I walked my dog the other day, she was off the lead, and I said, 'Ok, let's go,' and I was about to put the lead on her, and she made eye contact with me and then looked at a lake, and then looked back at me, and then ran into the lake. I was quite annoyed but it also really made me laugh. I know she didn't actually mean to, but the comedy of it was like something in a movie, where she looked at me, looked at the lake and then looked back at me, and then just ran. The timing of it was pretty impeccable.” 

Rhys Nicholson is on tour now.