sat 13/07/2024

theartsdesk Q&A: Comedian Tim Minchin | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Comedian Tim Minchin

theartsdesk Q&A: Comedian Tim Minchin

The singing Australian stand-up on growing up in Perth, channelling Matilda's naughtiness and writing songs about critics

'My personality is a bit odd': close up on Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin (b 1975) has had a year in the stratosphere that would arouse envy even in the biggest arena comedians. He has taken an orchestra on the road to play bespoke arrangements of his scabrous attacks on religion, hypocrisy and uncritical thinkers. Despite the fact that God and the Pope are regularly spotted in his gunsights, Minchin was somehow the obvious (although also highly quirky) choice to write the lyrics to the RSC stage musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

The marriage between Matilda’s naughtiness and Minchin’s back-of-the-class anti-authoritian instincts was a five-star hit which moves this month from Stratford-upon-Avon to the West End. And en route he hosted an inaugural Comedy Prom at the end of a week of riots which will not be forgotten by anyone who was there.

The journey from Perth, where he spent his first 26 years, to global comedy stardom has been winding. As he tells theartsdesk, Perth taught him the straight-and-narrow virtue as a bit-part actor-composer-bandleader that “you have to work and work and work and work to get the lowliest of jobs or exposure because there’s three gigs and one theatre company or two at a pinch”. He moved to Melbourne and became creatively paralysed, spending three agentless years playing in a covers band in an ersatz English pub. Only when he twigged that his rare gift was for singing and joking at the same time - “comic songs is probably what I’m best at” - did a butterfly shuck its chrysalis. His casually brilliant pianism is married to Sondheimian lyrical dexterity.

He made his Edinburgh Fringe debut in 2005, to be greeted by a ripsnorting review in The Guardian. Where a regular stand-up would look horribly petulant to bear a grudge, Minchin put his toxic riposte in song. It’s still all over Google. The joke about Minchin’s lashing tongue is that he is of course all twinkly civility. He is as usual shoeless, strawberry-blond scarecrow hair all over the shop. Instead of kohl, his eyes are rimmed by thick black specs. Along with the ultrabrite grin, the make-up helps him telegraph his ineffably sweet charisma to the cheap seats. Is that a strategy?

TIM MINCHIN: It’s really all about that. Long before it became a rock‘n’roll thing I was wearing theatre amounts of make-up. People have to see your eyes. Luckily my persona is a bit odd so it doesn’t matter. You watch how much McIntyre uses his hands. My hands are stuck.

JASPER REES: Your trick is to have people wait for the gag with eager anticipation even if they’ve heard it before. Are you conscious that your songs have a lifetime?

I’m conscious of where I have an advantage over stand-ups, which is they do bear a second hearing. Having said that, I’m much happier if people haven’t heard it. “Prejudice”, the ginger song, which is a play on acronym - I’ve been in the States where my fans are more weird and rabid YouTube bingers. They know everything. I’ve worked really hard to keep the newer stuff off YouTube. But they want to hear this song and I always say, “I’m glad you want to hear it,” but unless the moment you hear “Only a ginger...” undoes the assumption of the previous two and a half minutes that we’re talking about the N word, it’s dead to me. And so I don't enjoy playing the songs which everyone knows so much, unless they’re “Dark Side” or “Rock’n’Roll Nerd” which don’t have a big twist and reveal, in which case let’s just enjoy them for their bits of wordplay and fun music. But the long builds with the twist are very hard. We all know the rabbit was under the thing but I’m going to pull it out anyway.

Watch Tim Minchin perform "Prejudice"

Might you drop “Prejudice”?

I just dropped it in Montreal for the first time. It was the best feeling of my life. I haven’t played “Inflatable You” for three years, and it's my most popular song. It is just a set of songs but my shows have an arc that I think about a lot. If the journey of the show doesn’t need that stopover then it goes.

Were you influenced in any way by Tom Lehrer or Stephen Sondheim?

It’s the lyricist in me that makes me treat songwriting like a Sudoku

I always find it hard to deny influence because you bathe in everything. I certainly didn’t know Lehrer before I started doing this and have since gone back and checked him out. People ask me all the time. I knew the Elements song because a friend of mine learnt it and I knew “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”. I don't have a memory of hearing Lehrer and going “wow”. Sondheim - I saw Sweeney Todd in a school production once. There is no doubt he is one of those people you listen to. Before I wrote Matilda I hadn’t seen a musical for 10 years because I’d been too poor and then had babies and just lost that. I went on a little mini binge. The one I saw that scared me was A Little Night Music which, although it is probably not his greatest work, had “Send in the Clowns” which could be one of the great songs ever written. But I didn’t know that. I saw Billy Elliot which I think I can happily go on the record as saying, “The songs aren’t the best things about Billy Elliot.” I saw The Lion King the other day. That’s got great music in it. Not that you can tell because the sound system was so shit and we’re talking Broadway. I don’t think Elton has a process like Sondheim does or like I aspire to do because he’s not a lyricist and actually it’s the lyricist in me that makes me treat songwriting like a Sudoku. It’s relentless and it’s like a puzzle. I think that’s probably how Sondheim works as a lyricist. I neither understand nor aspire to write music like Sondheim but I do understand and aspire to write lyrics that are that thorough. I liked Wicked and Les Mis. Most of the stuff out there didn't make me go, “Shit, I can’t do this,” except Little Night Music. I thought, that’s all right, I won’t try.

Which comes first, lyrics or music?

I can’t imagine doing half of it. People have asked me to do lyrics and I say, “Yeah, but why would you get someone else to write the music?” When I write a lyric it comes with music virtually. That sounds like I’m a fucking genius and the music comes to me. Certain phrases tend to have at least a rhythm with which they should be expressed. I’ll usually come up with a lyrical concept or idea - what Matilda is singing about after she’s done magic for the first time. After a lot of discussion I decided that she felt a sense of quietness so I wanted her to talk about quiet and the word “quiet” has to be sung quietly - or if you’re making a joke sung incredibly loudly, but we’re not making a joke at that time. You put a lot of space around it. You start from something. Then I tend to find a musical world and go back do the Sudoku. The music inspires the lyric and then the music gets written and then I fillet and fillet and fillet.

Did you feel released by not having to be funny?

Oh yeah. Although it’s not like I’ve been in those chains. I mean comedy is pretty new to me.

The concept of you not being funny is new to your fans.

Although I tend to do an encore that sends people out teary. I fail to always be funny in my shows or at least I allow myself more leeway than a stand-up would. “You Grow on Me Like a Tumour” is funny - actually it’s a little bit beautiful and disturbing and we don't know how to feel about this any more. I guess I’ve given myself licence to do that. I was 29 when I started doing comedy. Comic songs are probably what I’m best at and I fucking love it. Comedy has solved my life except that it’s still incredibly complicated. It’s given me a career and freedom and allowed the RSC to ask me to do a Roald Dahl musical and hopefully I’ll go on from there. It’s done two other things. It’s made me a much, much better musician, which isn’t to say I’m a very good musician but spending the last five years on grand pianos in front of people and writing in the knowledge that next year 50,000 people will watch what I’ve made has put all this pressure on me and, given that I’m largely self-taught, the only way I’ll learn is when I write something that challenges me. Comedy has made me go, “Right, I want to do a lullaby and it has to be a waltz and it has to be really dark so it has to have some really beautiful waltzy music so I’ll have to learn to play full-octave melody.” So that’s what I did and now my full-octave chops are all right. Comedy has made me twice the musician I was, the player and singer, although my voice is still pretty average.

I’m still a hack but I’ve got some tricks

When did music enter your life?

Playing with my brother in my teens. I wrote my first songs for theatre when I was 17. I had lessons up to Grade Two. And then after I’d written all these songs in my teens it never crossed my mind that I was allowed to do this stuff because I had quit. I guess I just thought I was playing music for fun. Because I had quit I would never get to be one of the proper ones. Then I thought, maybe I could do this contemporary music course. And I got in. I had to learn to play some chords. It was a two-year course which was how to play in bands in different styles. I did a half-hour lesson a week for 50 weeks. Pretty soon after I quit I started writing songs. But the way I still play is chords - I understand harmony and chords, and I can play blues scales really fast. I’m still a hack but I’ve got some tricks. And actually, to skip forward, the orchestra show and Matilda have changed my life again because all the way up until this last year I’ve still thought I’m a comedian, I’ve got some tricks but I’m a pretty shit muso but so long as no one else knows... I’ve now played with some of the best musicians in the world and they’ve gone, “Your chops are really good” or “Your time’s really good” or something that a lot of people say which is that my pitch is really good. I’m not a good singer but people go, “Your pitch is never off.” The other thing that comedy has done is help me find my voice in writing non-comic songs. It’s forced me to not be lazy. I’ve always written very didactic lyrics. They were dense and quite literal and you know what they were trying to say. I’m not Jackson Pollock or Bob Dylan. I’m not asking you to impose your meaning on my songs. I’m telling you what you should think. And that’s why I didn’t really succeed as a pop writer, but comedy has allowed me to learn more about how you can say things differently. You can express common ideas. “Fuck the Motherfucking Pope" or “You Grew on Me Like a Tumour”. I’m talking about common experiences like love and anger and God and trying to find ways to talk about things that everyone thinks still sound like a revelation. Just because you’re writing non-comic songs doesn’t mean you should regress to rhyming “dove” with “love”.

Watch Tim Minchin perform "You Grew on Me Like a Tumour"

You do love rhyme.

I avoid comments on me like the plague because of my now famous inability to take criticism, which I don't think is any more or less than anyone else’s. But someone passed on a bit of criticism: “He’s just got famous for making words rhyme.” I’m like, “That’s pretty good, isn’t it?”

Would you have written that song about the critic again? Was it a career move?

I’m not that Machiavellian.

When I got out of Perth I assumed that I would drown in a sea of people much, much better than me

Are you slightly ashamed of it?

I’m ashamed of it but only to the extent that I don’t play it any more. I let it live in its time and stopped. People still want me to play it but I’m not going to. Phil [Daoust] wrote an article in which he tried to use hyperbole and wit to be hilariously scathing and he did it to a new artist who had been a comedian for less than a year in a very, very, very famous paper, during Edinburgh which is the most emotionally heightened place an artist in this context can be. And he knew all that and he chose to do it. Talking about how I should be tarred and feathered is his hyperbole. I haven’t ever answered this like this, perhaps because I am a little like, “Was that right thing to do?” Now you Google his name and it’s just my song. And so I used hyperbole in writing a wittily scathing song back. I’m probably better at that than he is, as it turns out. So he chose to use my tools in a very public way to be incredibly cruel. Even now I read it and go, “That’s awful. You’re being awful. You’re not criticising me. You’re being awful and casually awful.” And I don't believe any critic should ever do that to anyone ever. The schadenfreude of reading a horrible review, I get it, but I don’t think it’s ethically the right thing to do as a journalist to be casually scathing. I read a lot of great critics and I think their work is amazing. Admittedly there’s a correlation between my admiration of their work and their enjoyment of mine. In the end I was mocking my own hysterical reaction. It was very clear I was mocking my own inability to take criticism. I named him and shamed him but it really is about me. It has Pachelbel’s Canon underneath, by the way.

How much of a Perther are you?

I’m a Perth boy in everything I think and am. It’s not like I was fleetingly there like Hugh Jackman. I didn't leave till I was married at 26.

What does it mean to come from there?

It means that you believe, perhaps wrongly, that you have to work and work and work and work to get the lowliest of jobs or exposure because in Perth there’s three gigs and one theatre company or two at a pinch. You just don’t ever assume there’s work for you. That’s a huge part of it. When I got out of Perth I assumed that I would drown in a sea of people much, much better than me. I was never in the music scene but I had my band and was one of the people in Perth that could write music for theatre. I went to Melbourne and I think I probably defeated myself for a year or two. I went in too humble. I went, “I’m in Melbourne now, as if I’m ever going to be able to get any work.” So I played keyboard in a covers band for the first three years I was in Melbourne in a pub. I didn't sing. I just played keyboards in a fake English pub Friday and Saturday nights from 10pm till 2.30am every weekend. It kept me alive and I’m so grateful to those guys but it meant I couldn’t take other work. I couldn’t figure out how I’d pay the bills if I dropped that gig. The world seemed so big and threatening that I went, “I’ll take whatever I can.” I couldn’t get an agent and couldn’t get representation at all. And out of all that feeling of drowning I did my first cabaret show.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the idea that I’m unentitled to this

But you didn’t know who or what you were?

I wasn’t an actor. I wasn’t clearly going to get a part in an Australian TV soap.

How long was your hair?

Short. I was number one when I got married and then it got pretty shitty and curly. It was a tough time but having said that I’m not scared to work. If there’s anything to my credit - it’s not really to my credit, it’s the way I was brought up – I never thought it was OK to chill out. My dad’s a surgeon and he works very hard. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the idea that I’m unentitled to this. Everyone says that. It’s not a humble thing to say. It’s just that I don't feel entitled to have any work. When I got that job playing keyboards in a cover band that felt about right. Everything else is like, “Fuck, I better work pretty hard if I want to stay here.”

Did you do any of your own material with that band?

No. They didn’t even let me sing. They let me sing once.

Do you go back home?

I love Perth. It’s a constant conversation between me and my wife about where we’re going to end up.

What music did you grow up listening to? Your show has all the apparatus of an arena rock show...

But without any of the rock.

Do you get off on Bon Jovi or Whitesnake?

I don’t have any taste, in that I don’t feel contemptuous towards Coldplay. I think Kiss and Deep Purple and Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses wrote amazing songs. I wasn’t particularly into rock in the way that my friends were in the late Eighties, early Nineties. I’ve never been very cool. I listened to a load of Beatles and quite a lot of standing in the lounge room singing JC Superstar from beginning to end as well, if I’m totally honest. So I’ve never had a genre. To the extent that I listened to grunge in the early Nineties, which I did and I loved  - Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Pixies – it was really because my friends were. But I guess everyone can say that. I’ve never owned all the albums of any artist ever except The Beatles. My brother was a huge music fan. Crowded House and INXS came through him. I have him to blame. He’s a guitarist and it’s him that kept me playing music.

Does he miss you?

I think he misses me. He’s still in Perth which isn’t to say we don’t miss them. I guess we thought our kids would be cousins. We are a very real Perth family. I’m very close to all my siblings. They worry that I’m going to do a Heath Ledger. I don’t think they think I am but that’s the spectre: I’m going to fuck up my life and cheat on my wife. All they want me to do is stay normal.

Which you seem to be.

Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not like I’m on the telly every week.

Have you been offered a series?

We made a pilot for radio and I didn’t really like it so I stopped. Matilda came up and suddenly all that seemed so not me.

I am trying to live up to Matilda. I think playing with words in comedy is very similar to a magic trickWhat is it about Dahl’s world view that chimes with yours?

I think it’s because it’s naughty. I wrote lots of poems. The poems and stuff I was writing when I was 10 were pretty cool. I remember writing a short story for Mr Burke and writing that a character started to say “fuck” and then the narrator stepped in and said, “I can’t write that word.” That was a complete misinterpretation of how Dahl would deal with it. It was a failure to try and be Dahl. I remember Mum being cross with me and blaming Dahl. She was like, “You can’t have someone swear in the story. You’re 10.” I was deliberately being naughty. Seeing how close I could go. In my first ever DVD I have a whole bit about “F**k” which connects to my contempt for double entendres and “as long as we don't say it out loud we can make jokes about gay people relentlessly”. I was worrying about our obsession about not saying dirty words when much, much younger. I remember The Twits scaring me. It was too dark. Matilda was post me. I was grown up by then. Now that we’ve created our own version of the story the book looks very episodic and childish.

Are you channelling her spirit?

The density of my lyrics and the internal rhymes and the speed with which I do it is meant to sell an idea of virtuosity. The Pope song is probably the clearest example. You’re trying to make it sound like a magic trick. I think that really, really suited Matilda. Assuming that it does pretty well, the question then remains whether I just got lucky and it was the perfect first music and without Dennis Kelly [who wrote the book] I would have killed it dead. Hopefully my style of songwriting will be able to transfer to other stories. There is no doubt that Matilda is a virtuoso, she loves language and she’s impossibly brilliant to the point that it becomes actual magic eventually. I am trying live up to her rather than channel her. I think playing with words in comedy is very similar to a magic trick.

There was no swearing or blaspheming in the Comedy Prom. Can you keep yourself off the naughty step?

Perhaps what’s interesting is the way I’ve not made the decision to stop talking about God and swearing and go and do a panel show. That sounds contemptuous. I don't mean that at all. I quite like the idea of doing what I want or seeing how far I can go. Despite my low level and quiet rejection of being too mainstream I seem to have a reputation for being a slightly charming, slightly cheeky plinky-plonky guy. And it’s really nice. I feel like a ninja. Everyone goes, “He’s a little plinky-plonky guy,” and I go, “I’m talking about the Koran and saying God’s a cunt.” It’s amusing that it keeps getting wider. I’m working with the RSC and the Proms, I might do the Royal Variety show, and on the other side I’m still touring the south of America ranting against erroneous belief systems.

Is there classical music in your life?

Doesn’t exist. Can’t read music. Didn’t really know what the instruments are. I don't listen to any music actually. I stopped at some point.

Would you always have been a ginger?

I think it’s the power of suggestion that everyone thinks of me as a ginger but am I? Do I look like a ginger? Do I? I’m definitely slightly red. I’m a strawberry blond. I wouldn’t change a thing. For someone that’s found some career late and has played in a lot of cover bands and has been rejected a lot of times, I’ve always been happy. Apart from feeling frustrated. It’s not like before I became a vaguely known D-grade celebrity I was miserable and wanting to be a D-grade celebrity. I’m happy with my slightly retarded hair colour and history of failure.

  • Matilda the Musical at Cambridge Theatre from 25 October

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