Over the course of our three nights at the Melbourne Comedy Festival we saw three acts in three very different venues. The first of these was Rhys Nicholson’s “I’m Fine,” which was held upstairs at the Melbourne Town Hall – a mid-scale venue that struck the perfect balance between producing intimacy and mitigating the kinds of discomfort that can occur when the crowd is too small or too sparse. That’s not to say, of course, that Nicholson’s act wasn’t about consciously generating discomfort, but that the ambit and ambience of the space allowed him to luxuriate in that discomfort more than might have been possible in either a smaller or larger venue.
You can’t ultimately attribute the brilliance of the show to the venue, however, since it was immediately clear that we were watching a really talented comedian – the most talented that we saw at the Festival, if not necessarily the highest profiled at this point in his career. While I’m not massively au fait with stand-up as a medium, my sense is that there are two distinct kinds of stand-up comedians (or at least two distinct kinds of successful stand-up comedians). On the one hand, there are comedians who happen to have good material and can deliver a joke, punchline or anecdote quite well (I put Key and Peele in this category). On the other hand, there are comedians who have mastered their material but who are also just inherently funny in themselves, managing to garner applause and laughter through the turn of a phrase, the timing of a pause, or the inflection of an aside (I put Amy Schumer in this category).
For me, Nicholson was this second kind of comedian. Above and beyond his material, he had an inherent knack for delivery, enunciation and intonation that ensured that the connective tissue of his act was just as hilarious as the major set pieces. Speaking of connective tissue, this was also the most elegantly and deftly structured stand-up routine we saw at the Festival, with Nicholson building a series of riffs and refrains that culminated in the terrific final tableaux. Most of these related, in some way, to the experience of growing up gay in Australia, but not necessarily in the kinds of ways you’d expect – or the kinds of ways I’d expect from my limited experience of gay stand-up comedians.
For one thing, there was no effort to present being gay as an edgy lifestyle, or to speak to a self-elected edgy gay demographic. No doubt, Nicholson was frank about sexual experimentation, drug use and gay terminology, as well as terrific with bitchy invective at times, but beneath it all his main, recurring joke was that – despite all the surface trappings – he is a fairly vanilla kind of guy. Not into fetishism, not into polyamoury, not into casual hookups (any more), most of his jokes revolved around gay domesticity, drawing deeply upon his experience with his boyfriend and the weird ways in which they have accommodated themselves to virtually-married life.
In another comedian’s hands, that could have played like watering down gayness for a predominantly straight audience (or conservative gay audience). Similarly, it could have played as an argument for a bourgeois, marriage-oriented version of gayness that, at first glance, might seem quite inimical to the anarchic possibilities of stand-up comedy. Yet what made Nicholson’s set so compelling was the way he dodged both these options to present himself as a gay man who has done many conventionally or stereotypically gay things and yet somehow still falls short of the fabulous edginess expected by society of gayness. That was the main joke of the show, and it worked brilliantly, as Nicholson discovered a new kind of flamboyance in the relish with which he imploded the kinds of flamboyance expected of him as a “gay” stand-up comic.
Personally, I found there was also something salutary about his attitude towards domesticity and gay marriage, not least because he continually reminded the audience that he “grew up poor” in Newcastle, making it clear that the middle-class aspiration associated with the gay marriage movement had never been a part of his genes. What ensued was a vision of gay domesticity wrenched out of a young adulthood of hard drugs and casual sex that nevertheless refrained from moralising either marriage or partying, but instead framed his current situation as something of a relief, a safe haven and soft landing-pad. Refusing to cast himself as edgy in either his partying or domestic modes, there was something cathartic about seeing a young gay man joke about the difficulty of always having to occupy a vanguard position to satisfy society’s notions of what gayness should entail. To paraphrase D.W. Winnicott, somethimes all we need to be, as gay people, is OK, alright – or, in Nicholson’s words, “fine.”
Like all great stand-up sets, too, there was a kernel of trauma, with Nicholson drawing upon his bulimia and social anxiety at key moments throughout the set. From my limited experience of stand-up I’ve started to learn that one of the greatest indices of a comedian’s talent is both how they can insert these confessional moments and incorporate them into the wider narrative arc of their performance. Throughout the evening, Nicholson timed it perfectly, continually breaking the comic tone with confronting admissions only to gradually reassemble it again, until by the end it felt invincible in the face of even the most intractable traumas. If stand-up comedy is a kind of therapy, a talking cure – more on that in my next post – then Nicholson’s was perfect stand-up, wonderfully comic and cathartic at the same time, and I can’t wait to see him again when he performs at the Sydney Comedy Festival next month.