Tim Minchin began his career as a straight musician, but found himself writing songs that expressed comic ideas, or took on loaded topics like religion in a comedic way. His act—a solo stage show that combines piano songs with the occasional heady bit—came about naturally, as did his rise in international popularity. His 2005 solo show, Darkside, was met with critical praise and later recorded as a top-selling album, as was 2006’s So Rock. After winning the award for Best Alternative Act at the 2007 HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, Minchin began his run as an Edinburgh Festival Fringe staple, debuting a string of new shows and material. Last year he co-wrote the music for Matilda, A Musical, based on the Roald Dahl books, which begins an open-ended run at the Cambridge Theatre this fall. Minchin’s introduction to the United States, though, has been much more deliberate. He’s appeared on Conan twice this year, and is in the midst of his first-ever U.S. tour. Fans are coming out of the woodwork, eager to hear Minchin’s layered, bitingly satirical ditties, or simply sing along to the lyrics, “Fuck the motherfucking pope.” During his stop at the Just For Laughs festival in Chicago, The A.V. Club sat down with Minchin—crazy hair, eyeliner and all—to discuss his discomfort with the term “musical comedian,” his deliberate career choices, and his relationship with applause.
The A.V. Club: Have you noticed any discrimination against musical comedians? The phrase often gets a bad rap.
Tim Minchin: When I came into comedy in 2005, I didn’t even know there was discrimination against musical comics in the alternative-comedy strain. I was saying, “I’m cool. I don’t really give a fuck.” I come from a cabaret, musical theater background, not a comedy background, so it didn’t even cross my mind. And then the interviewer started going, “So how do you deal with the fact that everyone knows musical comedy sucks?” I’m like, “Eh, call it what you want. What I do is write. I’m a songwriter and the lyrics are meant to make you laugh.” Then I understood that what they’re talking about is the tradition of, you know, in a club night you’ll have a guy with a ukulele or playing four chords [on a guitar], and he’s leaning on rhymes and misdirection.
AVC: It can be an easy way for a mediocre comic to stand out—to have a hook.
TM: Yeah. And look, a lot of that comes from jealousy, because stand-ups hate it when someone gets up with an instrument and they have a big impact, because people are predisposed to chant and cheer when they hear a song. But obviously, now I am in the comedy world much more. I guess now I can see it more in the context of things. When I started doing it, it’s not like I was listening to Tom Lehrer and old-school music comics and going, “I wanna do that!” I was just listening to bands and trying to write songs and realizing I’m really bad at writing songs without hyper-dense, critical lyrics. And now, of course, I’ve developed all these ideas about what musical comedy should be. Although lots of different—Reggie Watts is a musical comic, but he doesn’t really do songs. He doesn’t do many songs, anyway. He’s got “Fuck Shit Stack” and stuff, these kind of edgy songs. And then you’ve got Bo [Burnham] doing more of my end of stuff, the hyper-dense lyrics. But he’s finding his way to define himself, in a way, that’s very different from what I do. What has become apparent is that, increasingly, you can’t get away with being a shit musician. If you want to be a musical comic nowadays, it seems there’s enough people out there being relentless in their pursuit of being musically good at the same time.
AVC: Was it difficult to find an audience when you were starting out, given people’s apprehension about musical comedians?
TM: No. For whatever reason, luck and word of mouth—my comedy career couldn’t have started better. I went to Edinburgh, selling out this 300-seater just because I got the right place, right time, right venue, right buzz, right reviews early on. And every year I’ve gone out on tour since, it’s doubled. I’ve done my penance, but I did it in the music industry for 12 years. But in terms of comedy, I never did five-minute sets or clubs or anything. I just started doing shows. Coming from that theater background, it never crossed my mind that I should start doing five-minute sets. I just went, “I’m gonna put on a show,” and people came. Which is why I’m a comedian. If they hadn’t come, I would have moved on and done something else.
AVC: Now that you’ve been doing Conan and shows with a very defined length for a comedian slot, what has been your experience performing songs that might be out of context with your larger show?
TM: I don’t find it very hard because I’ve done little sets at charity gigs and on telly. I found the best way to do a telly is write a song specifically for the show, if there’s time to do that. Things like Conan, it’s such broad audience, you just hope that a couple of thousand people look further. Because those songs have to be clean. They’re very tip-of-the-iceberg of what I do. My clean stuff is absolutely in the minority. [Laughs.] I just do what I gotta do and try to show people I can write some funny lyrics and play piano, and hopefully that’ll make them dig further. I really believe in my form. That’s why I haven’t done a lot of telly, and I’m not a regular on any panel shows, and I’m not in a sitcom or all those things. And not really for lack of offers, but I just know that what I do suits me trapping an audience in a room for an hour-and-a-half and going, “We’re having this conversation, and I can say this because I said this earlier and that justifies my position.” Or, “I’m asking you to trust me on this and I’m holding off a joke for three minutes.” It requires a building of some kind of relationship. All comics feel like that. I’m just in a luxurious position where so far in my career, I’ve been able to pursue that form almost exclusively.
AVC: Most comedians start with one joke, turn it into a bit, build out a five-minute set, then turn a bunch of five-minute sets into a half-hour or an hour. But you started with an entire show right off the bat.
TM: Yeah. And look, I have massive admiration for those people. I only write a couple jokes a year, you know? I don’t look at the world through a stand-up comic’s glasses. I’m not always looking for the gag. If I’m writing a children’s musical, like I did last year, I’m looking at the world through a child’s eyes. I just don’t have that top comedian’s filter on. And if I did have that pressure, I’m sure I’d be a better stand-up. But my jokes only exist inside my shows. My stand-up is so on purpose in relation to the songs and where I’m going. It’s not like a narrative, but it’s a graph. If I’m doing a couple of dick jokes, it’s just cause I’m trying to pull it down so that I can then do something more testing.
AVC: You’re thinking more about the arc of the show.
TM: That’s right: The relationship I’m building, giving people permission to laugh at this, and then stopping them laughing deliberately and making them feel comfortable, and letting them go, and all that. I don’t think about that cerebrally, but that’s what I’m instinctively trying to do. I think about things in long form. The good part of that—well, it’s a blessing and a curse. I’ve never been under pressure to make people laugh immediately. In a club, you’re standing there, and if you don’t get a laugh every 15 or 20 seconds, you’re failing. That’s your currency: laughter. And a good set is more laughs, whereas I’ve never had that pressure. So although I think my show is getting funnier and funnier as I get better at my craft, I’ve got bits that most stand-ups would never ever get. In what club can you practice the bit where you hold up a copy of the Quran and have five minutes of jokeless stuff about the nature of sacredness and supernatural agency? It’s quite nerdy. But it’s like winding up the car so I can play, “Fuck the motherfucking pope.” I loaded up my audience with realizing that when I think about language and the sacred, I think about it very, very carefully. And this is my response. [Sings.] “Fuck the motherfucker!” I couldn’t have developed that in a club atmosphere.
In my 90 minutes, what my show does that gives it an advantage apart from the plinky-ploinky, is that you get tired in a stand-up show. Even if they’re brilliant, like Ross Noble who just makes me lose my shit, or Demetri Martin especially, after 40 minutes, “Haha, I wanna keep laughing, but I’ve seen the rhythm of these jokes now and it’s not doing its magic on me anymore.” And you find yourself forcing. So what I try to do is make sure that over my 90 minutes or two hours, I find the time in the 105th minute there’s still a laugh of surprise, because I haven’t been relentless. It sounds like I’m justifying not being funny. I think people find my show funny.
AVC: Do you feel like YouTube has introduced you to America?
AVC: It took a long time for you to have your American TV debut, though, which was only last January.
TM: That’s the amazing thing: It’s very hard to quantify how you’ve spread. I haven’t done America because I’ve been busy, and I’ve been touring, and the U.S. has that charming habit of thinking that it’s Mecca, right? It didn’t really cross my radar. I like going to Montreal and Aspen. Actually, I must have been on a gala before Conan, but I was busy, you know? I’ve had a really good career in the UK and Australia, and so it’s just been held off there. Also, what the American industry wants to do is go, “Right, you’re going to come over, and you’re a big star over there, so we’re going to get you into the movies, get into a Russell Brand,” and I just kept saying, “Book me a tour.” They were like, “Yeah, we’ll have to get a viral marketing thing,” and I’m like, “The viral’s done. Look at YouTube. Just book a tour and we’ll see what happens.” That took a good year to convince someone, and even though I was the one saying, “Book me a tour,” I’m surprised I’m doing the numbers I am. I just didn’t know. I thought there might be 100, 200 people in each town who might have heard of me and take the risk, but it’s better than that. It’s totally word-of-mouth.
AVC: A lot of press, too.
TM: Yeah, hipster press, and I’m not key with press generally, but my stuff appeals to a lot of journalists because it’s about words and language. A lot of the stuff that journalists are interested in themselves.
AVC: At comedy shows, when a comedian’s introduced as being really popular in the UK or Australia, there’s a real sense that the audience has just crossed its arms, like, “Yeah okay. Prove it.” Have you run into that?
TM: Yeah, you should try being an American comic in Edinburgh, man. The British are straight-up racist. Like, someone goes, “Now all the way from America, this guy’s huge, he’s been on these shows,” and he comes on and they’re like, “Yeah, fucking whatever. My mate in Liverpool, he’s so funny, and you’re, fucking, a big star.” They’re so defensive. And that’s incredibly important to me. You’ve gotta be a fool to come in all guns blazing. I’m not trying to get rich or famous; I’m just trying to have a long career and build my audience, and the way to do that is to let people feel like they’re discovering you. I’ve managed in England to play 10,000-seaters, and yet still people feel a sense of ownership because I’m not on their telly every week, and I don’t take out ads. There’s still a sense that I’m playing for them, and that they’ve come to see me because they’ve found out about me, as opposed to being whacked over the head by a million bucks’ worth of advertising. That’s worth its weight in gold, because that’s a lot of people, and they all feel invested. They’re there to see you. It’s ’cause my stuff’s got such a strong worldview. It’s atheists and people who want to laugh at shit, people who are frustrated, bookish people, intellectuals who don’t want to watch a chat show because they find it obsequious and vapid. And I’m not actually that guy, so it’s like, “Oh this is fun.”
AVC: Is there a point where you remember feeling more comfortable pushing boundaries, especially with religion?
TM: I was doing it all along. Even some of my earlier songs that I wrote as a teenager were about religion, and I don’t really care what people think as long as I don’t hurt other people. It’s a really rich subject, and it’s a challenge to make people laugh about it. There’s an element to which I am preaching, I’m proselytizing for critical thinking. I believe strongly in what I’m saying, but it’s not my intention to proselytize. I’ve got to write about something, and that’s what I spend my days thinking about, that’s what I read about, and what I’m interested in.
AVC: How do you approach the subject without ostracizing people?
TM: I ostracize people, and that’s fine. I have lots of people’s emails saying—basically I’m one of the things standing in the gateway for people who have doubt. I’m loath to over-estimate my impact on people, but if I think about the people I listened to when I was a kid—musicians or artists, plays—those people you listen to in your late teens, early 20s, define the way you’ll think for the rest of your life. I get a lot of feedback along the lines of, “I was brought up in this kind of household, and I stopped going to church a little while ago, but you’ve helped me.” I’m like a gateway drug to what Americans like to call “skepticism,” or critical thinking. And I’m very happy with that role. I can help people firm up their beliefs. I don’t think I’m going to take a fundamentalist Christian and convert them—far from it. They’ll think I’m Satan. What I care about is that there is someone out there saying this stuff, and there are people who are sitting at home thinking about this stuff, and can’t believe that they live in a country where the president says that he thinks that a magic sky fairy is looking over his army. I mean what the fuck? If you get into thinking about it too much, it’s scary.
The other thing I try to do is avoid laziness, and I don’t mean to say, “I’m not a lazy comic and everyone else is,” because all the comics I know are incredibly smart and they think a lot about what they’re doing. In that vein, if I’m going to write a song expressing anger at the Pope’s treatment of claims of child abuse, I’ll write a chorus that goes, [Sings.] “Fuck the motherfucker, fuck the motherfucker, fuck the motherfucker,” but then make sure—and I don’t think anyone can ever accuse me of not trying to structure an argument that self-justifies—that it’s intellectually consistent and hopefully entertaining. I am really interested in comedy that entraps people, and makes people go, “You’re just saying this!” And you know what? Fuck you. I’m not just doing anything. I’m saying that, and I’m looking at your reaction to that, and I’m judging your reaction. I keep coming back to this term “thoroughness,” and being thorough sounds like such a damningly faint praise to give to a comic, but I’m obsessed with being thorough. Musically thorough. Intellectually thorough. I love the idea of thoroughness. [Laughs.]
AVC: Where does that come from?
TM: My surgeon dad? I don’t know. [Laughs.] No, I never thought I deserved to be a musician, and I never thought I deserved to be a comic. You gotta earn your right to talk, and my way of earning my right to talk is to go, “I’m going to relentlessly pursue this idea until it’s all nice and tied up.” Sometimes when I feel like I don’t draw a very clear conclusion, that’s okay as long as I know what kind of question I’m asking. It also just sounds so dry to talk about. My main aim is still to entertain people, you know? Not to make them walk out and go, “Wow! Fuck man! That was huge! Like, he really tried hard!” I don’t know how else to be. You can only be yourself onstage, and I’m really just interested in people who articulate ideas. Anything. Whether they’re talking about art or politics or science or the meaning of fucking life. Like Ian McEwan and Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens and [Richard] Dawkins, even some religious writers with beautiful, totally consistent ideas.
AVC: What was the nature of your theater background?
TM: I came up through uni theater writing music mostly. I wrote my first score for a theater show when I was 17, and another when I was 18, and all through uni I wrote musical scores for Shakespeare and stuff.
AVC: How did you get into theater originally?
TM: I guess school, and then university.
AVC: Was it was something you had always wanted to try?
TM: Nah, I guess it was just the drama department—I wouldn’t get lead roles in plays at school or anything like that. There was this lady, who is a dear friend of mine now, who wrote me a letter in 1993 because she had seen me doing little songs in plays, going in a hand-written letter, “I’m doing this version with Midnight New Theater Company”—which was the company based at the school I went to, and I had left school by now—“…of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but it’s a musical version. We’ve got other Elizabethan poems and we want to write music to it, and would you like to do it?” I was 17 and showed it to my mum, and said, “Look at this,” and mum said, “You don’t know how to write music.” And I went, “Yeah, but…” because I’m not trained or anything, so that was huge. One of those things where—have you done plays?
TM: It’s like that summer camp thing, where everyone falls in love with each other, and you never forget those moments. I wrote songs that made audiences cry and songs that make the audience laugh, and I went, “Fuck me.” I’d been writing songs forever, but I didn’t really feel legitimate until the last couple years when I finally got over the fact that just ’cause I can’t read music doesn’t mean I can’t play with a symphony orchestra. But it’s been a long road to feeling like I’m allowed to be a musician. And then I started acting again, having spent my time composing, and I got a couple of roles in professional theater, at The Perth—small—and then I moved to Melbourne thinking, “I’ll get an agent and continue this.” I couldn’t get an agent, got ignored, and played in shit bands. Out of that frustration came my first solo cabaret show, which people laughed at, so I took out the “abaret” and put in “omedy,” and now it’s great.
AVC: Originally this interview was slated as a Random Rules, but you declined because you said you don’t listen to music anymore. What kind of music did you gravitate toward as a kid, and why don’t you listen anymore?
TM: I didn’t grow up in a loads-of-music household, but I kind of—I lived in a revisionist history guy’s home, where you do a lot of interviews and people ask you your influences, and you end up sort of having a fictional version of it that you’ve made up to justify where you’ve ended up at. But all that taken into account, my grandma took me to Gilbert And Sullivan and all the school musicals, and I listened to Sgt. Pepper’s from beginning to end probably 100 times the year I turned 12; I actually liked “She’s Leaving Home” and the interesting, weird stuff. We had a Pianola, like a pedal piano that had all these old tunes, and so we sat around and sang, and my brother played guitar. He listened to Australian rock bands like The Hoodoo Gurus and Midnight Oil and INXS and Crowded House, and eventually British stuff. Then there was The Kinks, which was a massive, massive [influence] on me, and Queen, Deep Purple more than Zeppelin, the British organ bands—The Doors and Deep Purple probably because of the keyboards.
AVC: Was it always keyboards that held your interest?
TM: On the hard-rock end of the things. The ’70s rock where everyone was listening to Zeppelin, Motörhead or whatever, I was listening to Doors and Purp because of the organ. But it’s mostly just what you stumble across. My brother was really into music, and I drifted in and out. We played in some bands together, and he was like, “Learn the introduction to ‘Light My Fire.’” That’s actually why I’m up here doing this, because he was like, “I want to play music. Fucking learn these chords,” and I play piano like guitar, I play chords.
AVC: Does he still play music?
TM: No, not enough. He’s a business guy. He’s chairman of Whammy, which is part of the Australian music industry. He’s great at guitar, but he stopped. And then I went to college eventually, and did this two-year contemporary music course. I sat there for a few years just feeling shit about myself because next door the guy was learning jazz, and I go, “I’ll never, ever learn to play like that.” I don’t know why I fucking bought that; that’s what any music college makes you feel, any artistic college. Then I learned my 13 sharp 11 chords and my dominant nine flat five and all that, and spent a good five years finding my way back from those hyper-extended chords, back to the place where I could write a song with three triads. Somewhere in there I started finding music stressful because it either annoyed me because it wasn’t good, or it upset me because it was too good—maybe that’s because somewhere in me there’s someone really competitive. Like, I couldn’t like jazz because it was too stressful. It was never relaxing for me. Then I got to the point where last year I wrote 50 songs, I was in my studio all day writing, and I just wanted silence. Somewhere along the way I lost my habit, not that it was ever a very well-developed habit. I would put a CD on once every three weeks during a drive, and so when I turned on the car I liked silence or science podcasts. And that’s fucking great.
AVC: Has it affected your songwriting?
TM: I don’t know. Now I listen to music rarely, and when I listen to it—and I listen to it very consciously—I run the risk of being too easily influenced because that’s all I’ve heard that week. The other side is, my music is quite different. The subjects I write about, the actuality of the song structures is this weird thing. It’s not very original, but it’s not what’s going on in the moment, and that’s served me well. When I wrote Matilda, I did in such isolation. You listen and you can go, “There’s a little [Andrew] Lloyd Webber, there’s a little [Stephen] Sondheim,” and I’ve listened to all that. I don’t worry what other people are writing at the time. I just try and find the shortest route between my lyrics and my intent, and the place I want to hit people. The music’s a function of the idea. If I want to make people cry, because I’ve got an idea that I find emotional, I make sure I simplify or pull back. If I want to say, “Fuck the motherfucker,” my first instinct is to go, [Makes heavy percussion noises and raps.] “Fuck the motherfucker!” and people are laughing despite themselves because you skipped something, you’ve gotten behind their barriers. Music’s like a magic pill.
AVC: Do you hear your own songs running through your head the way people get songs stuck in their head?
TM: No, I don’t get my songs stuck in my head, but sometimes a phrase will slip out of my mouth, which is quite disgusting.
AVC: I read in another interview that you used to have a desire to write very serious rock songs. Do you still have that?
TM: It’s against my instinct to write, because that’s what I mock, but I don’t see lines between what I do now and—if Matilda’s doing all right and I have a bit of income and time next year, I’ll go into the studio for six months and write an album. I would imagine that album would have quirky lyrics, but I’ll shed myself of the pressure to make people laugh. I’ll try and get rid of my didactic tendencies. I’ll put out a record with a band, that’ll be whatever I feel like writing about at the time, and that’ll be the result of consciously going and listening to some stuff. Go back and listen to Abbey Road and listen to what Randy Newman’s been doing, and listening to a few people who write like Elvis Costello, and then go listen to The Strokes and go, “What sort of album do I want to make?” and I might go make it. I’m in a really good position to just be a songwriter now. I’m incredibly fucking surprised that I have that position. I don’t think the majority of my fans are going to go, “What’s he doing making an album? He’s a comedian!” People who know my stuff know that the music is everything, and that I’m a serious musician. Even watching my comedy show I don’t think anyone will. The most common thing people will say to me after my show is that they’ll comment on my playing… If I didn’t fall into comedy, I’d still be playing in bands, but my shows would be silly and entertaining, like Barenaked Ladies, or Frank Zappa, or, frickin’ They Might Be Giants. Whatever side of that comedy/music boundary I fell, I don’t think it was ever going to be much different from this. Being called a comedian has put pressure on me though, I reckon.
AVC: Comedians have odd relationships with applause—like, they prefer when people laugh, and they can find applause unsettling.
TM: Yeah, like it’s not as visceral. Is that what it is? “That’s more thought-out than I want. I want [surprised laugh].”
AVC: What’s your own relationship with applause?
TM: I get a lot of mileage out of expressing ideas with apparently casual “pff.” It’s not casual of course, I work my fucking guts out to try and get this idea. They get applause because they’re not exactly funny, they’re, “Huh-huh, oh, fucking exactly dude! That’s exactly right! The dude just said what I’m fucking angry about, but it’s quite a fun way to say it, and it’s a poetical way to say it.” Sometimes it’s like a tent revivalist, like, “Hallelujah!” That’s fine, I’m very comfortable with that response. Sometime you do a joke and people clap and it feels a bit like they’re going [adopts a snooty accent], “Yes, yes. Well-structured joke.” I have no problem the way my audience reacts to my stuff. Without applause it would be very fucking weird.
Songwriting to me is a lot more like doing puzzles, doing sudokus, than most musicians. My songs are like little journeys. They’re little games that I have to solve. Like, this little girl in Matilda who’s just moved a glass with her eyes, she’s 5 and she’s just discovered she’s telekinetic. What would she feel after that? What would she say? What are the options here? Maybe it makes her feel big or small. It’s like, with all the other people in Matilda, we threw up all these different ideas, and we decided that it gives her a sense of peace that she’s never had, so how do I write about that? It’s the same with the comic stuff: How do I talk about my child and make people laugh? It’s problem-solving, as opposed to a real artist who’s going, “I just want to express my soul.” I don’t know what that means.