Tim Minchin

The first thing you notice on meeting Tim Minchin is that he’s a lot bigger than he seems on TV or stage.  When he’s performing he comes across as an elfin pixie. In real life he’s much bigger, his crowning mane of backcombed hair contriving to make him look even larger still.  He’s physically different but he’s expectedly optimistic, light-hearted and thoughtful.  He’s also extremely talkative and there’s a feeling I could have spoken to him for hours and not just the 15 minutes I was allotted.

A great deal of Tim’s musical comedy addresses rationalist themes and his popularity is now at an all time high, having played the Royal Albert Hall with a 50 piece orchestra, hosted the first ever BBC Comedy Prom and written the music and lyrics to the critically acclaimed RSC musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel, Matilda, which has just started its second run. He lives in London with his wife and two young children.

You’re in the middle of a tour at the moment…

Well, I’m sort of taking dates, you know rather than planning a tour.  The model in America is a little different to how it is over here.  “We’ve got an offer!”  They offer you a theatre and a day and I go, “oh right, well if I’m going to be in Chicago, let’s build some dates around it”.  They become these micro tours.

How’s it going then?

It’s great yeah.  I’m doing the Town Hall in New York.  That’s 1400 seats.  That’s really amazing.  It’s weird in America, they’re there for the…well they’re there for whatever reason but it’s brilliant because I get to sell proper theatres based on nothing but Youtube.  They’re proper fans though; it’s like a cult-y thing.  They’re there for the god stuff you know because living in that culture if you’re a rationalist or a humanist or whatever, someone like me is like “Fuck yeah!”  It becomes a bit like an anti-church service, it’s quite interesting.

I suppose anyone going to see your shows would be aware of what you’re like?

Yeah, in America, you don’t go because you go “look at that nice man on the poster” or “I saw him on the telly”.  Although when I was there in 2007, I did a couple of weeks in New York as a little underground thing and I shocked some people then.

You’ve satirised rock and roll lifestyle in Rock And Roll Nerd but you’ve got a massive orchestra backing you now and a painting of you won an Australian art prize.  Have you become the very thing that you satirised?

I guess the good thing is, I’ve become the thing I’ve satirised while still only joking. The incredible joy of my career is that I walk out on stage at the fucking O2 where the Foo Fighters play and 10,000 people scream because I come up on a lift through smoke in a cage.  And that’s because I went to the 02 and I saw Alicia Keyes and she came out in a cage and I thought, “That’s fucking hilarious”.  And the audience scream and I’m joking and they’re joking but it’s indistinguishable from the not-joke.

And a lot of times at rock concerts, it is a suspension of disbelief especially if you’re watching Kiss – you’ve kind of got your tongue in your cheek anyway, so I’m flipping over that line into pure taking the piss.  But sure, if you went to a Spinal Tap concert, I’m sure people would throw their knickers on stage as part of the joke.

In a weird way, my shows…like Canvas Bags, I used to do in a tiny room with a stereo on stage and a fan blowing my shirt open to 30 people and it was funny because it was a massive display of rock ostentation in a tiny room.  And as the rooms got bigger and bigger, I thought “is this going to fail” but it just gets funnier in a way.

I once saw Steve Vai put a small fan on the front of the stage to unironically blow his hair when he was playing a guitar solo.

That’s fucking beautiful.   I guess it’s Michael Jackson in the black and white era that really got that going.

So has any of the crippling self-doubt gone away?

Erm…aahh..nnn…The last couple of years have been good for my believing in myself as a songwriter and as a player.  I’m still a hack player but I play with an orchestra and stuff and feel like I’m a player now – I’ve got over my untrained chip but the self-doubt never goes away.

I’m not very prolific as a comedy writer – I don’t walk around going “the funny thing about that is this” like the Jason Manford’s and the Sean Locks  – they just see the funny in everything and I’m not that. I’m getting better though, I’m very new to it in a way; I’ve been a comedian for five or six years.  It’s scary, writing comedy’s scary.  But my self-doubt has never crippled me, I’ve always believed in putting my head down and getting on with it.

How did the orchestra thing come about?  Were you watching Metallica’s S&M one day and thought “If they can do it, I can do it!”

Well actually it came out of Australia because the Australian state orchestras get contemporary acts guesting with them quite a lot.  The producer that lines those gigs up asked me if I’d like to play with the orchestras and I said yeah and he said, “I’ll go and ask them” and they all said yes, so we pencilled in this Australian tour.

In conjunction with that, I was talking to my English promoters and they asked when I was going to tour again and I said, “I’m already writing a musical and a orchestra show, I can’t write three shows this year, so if you want me to tour, you’re going to have to give me an orchestra”. And they had been talking about arenas anyway and I said I didn’t want to do arenas because that’s just a cash grab, so they said, “I’ll tell you what.  You can have your orchestra if we can have our arenas because that’s the only way it’s going to work mathematically.”

Then I set about trying to write a show big enough for an arena, because I don’t think comedians generally try very hard to fill the space – they just go “more lights” “big screen” and I wanted to see if I could make something that justifies the space.

I wanted to get onto rationalism a little bit.  Do you feel that things are getting worse from a rationalist’s point of view?  There seems to be a modern backlash against science recently.

I… can’t tell.  You’re in your own bubble.  It’s an interesting time.  I don’t know whether the fact that you can do a sell out tour of massive venues with Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Robin Ince means anything.  The fact that you can do Infinite Monkey Cage and get a pop crowd is pretty incredible. Now is that an indicator that we’re going through a boom for rationalism or does it exist because of the weight coming crashing in on the other side?  Like a revolution exists as a reaction? I don’t know, it’s an interesting time because it’s out there more than it’s ever been before.  For the first time there are pop atheists!

We spent 2000 years increasing our education, increasing our knowledge of the universe and people are still believing this shit, so maybe it’s time to shout and stamp our feet.  That’s my theory about this new atheist movement. It’s like we’ve sat here quietly saying “this is why the big bang and here’s the proof.  And this is quantum physics and evolution and here, let go of your myths!”.  Ok that hasn’t worked – fuck!  I think it’s just a bubbling over and it will probably recede.  It’s borne of a disbelief that people still believe, that’s what it is.  It’s like “Seriously?! Shit, gotta write a song about that”

Do you find it difficult to strike a balance between satire and humanism?  On one hand you’ve got to be quite cutting, on another do you sometimes think “I’m being a bit of an arsehole”?

Yeah. Well I don’t know.  It is a big thing for anyone.  I try to be really nice to people and it’s in my nature to be polite and I’m generally good to people.  And stuff.  I don’t read what people say about me behind my back, I’m not interested.  I don’t have the hide to deal with the hatred, so I don’t read Youtube comments but I try to make sure my shows have in-built in them…because they’re entertainment  not lectures… they should feel like they have humility in them.

And that can come from the fact that I play and sing without too much fuss.   I don’t go “look at my amazing playing”, I just go “this is the thing I do”.  And it’s just fun, I don’t make too much of a deal about it.  And I try to write material that has built into it an appeal to beauty and humility, so I’m trying to do three things. I’m trying to say “This is why you’re wrong, you dickheads; this is why you can also be nice and that the world is beautiful and by the way, laugh” and by hook or by crook that’s why people come to my shows because I’ve managed that on some level.

And laughter is a way of getting from A to C.  Laughter is the magic thing that allows you to be a fuckhead and not be loathed by most.  Mostly people watch my shows and feel reasonably charmed by what’s going on and they can walk away disagreeing, but I don’t think people walk out hating me very much unless they’ve come for that express purpose.  I could be wrong though.

Has having kids affected your writing at all?

In as much as I’ve tried to avoid being the comedian who does jokes about nappies because I’m not interested, that’s not the type of comedy I did before.  I have seen edgy comics turn into “dad comics” and that’s fine, I just didn’t want to do it myself.  But I don’t think so.  At some point I’m going to have to face up to my kids watching my work and I’m going to have to explain it to them.

As I said I’m not hugely prolific, I write a new every couple of years or something and with the orchestra, it became more about the music and the spectacle.  The increasing sizes of the audiences have had more of an impact.

Lastly, why should people buy your DVD and why should they go and see Matilda?

They should buy my DVD because they’ve got to give their friends something for Christmas.  I don’t want to damn it with faint praise, but comedy DVDs are souvenirs.  It’s not like watching a Hollywood film.  It’s a souvenir of a live show. Ideally come and see me live but having said that, a hell of a lot of comedy DVDs they’ve put on a load of cameras and some lights behind them just like an arena show but we all worked incredibly hard to make it sound as good as an orchestrated pop concert sounds in any genre not just comedy.

We imported gear and had the orchestra on 60 in-ear units and all this bullshit stuff and we had eight cameras and filmed it specifically for the DVD in the most beautiful venue in the country and I hate watching myself but I’m actually proud of this thing, this artefact. So if you’re into comedy DVDs and you’re not a born-again Christian, I think it’s a pretty interesting live show; it’s fucking epic actually.  And it’s kinda beautiful in lots of places as well.  And it’s funny.

Go and see Matilda because it’s the best musical ever written; it’s the best.  Don’t see it because of me, go and see it for the other fuckers that worked on it.  It’s great.

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