Tim Minchin interview: Matilda The Musical, stand-up and more

We caught up with Australian comedian Tim Minchin to chat about his new stand-up DVD, his Matilda West End musical, and more...

After Matilda The Musical’s hugely successful transfer to the West End last month (co-written with Dennis Kelly), and new comedy DVD, Tim Minchin And The Heritage Orchestra, on the shelves, we spoke to Tim about the British comedy scene, song-writing, getting invited to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s for tea, being called a demon, Nazi poodles, and more. (A word of warning for sensitive ears: things do get a bit sweary later on.)

Comedians can be quite a competitive bunch…

Oh yeah, yeah.

Have you experienced more competition than support between fellow comedians on the British comedy scene?

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I think there are examples of people who, either consciously or subconsciously, want to sabotage each other and I understand all that. It’s a very competitive world and naturally you feel jealous of people who are doing what you want to do.

My experience of coming to the UK and to Edinburgh as a total unknown and doing quite well – I was probably dreaming it where it didn’t exist – but it certainly felt like I was being glared at. There were a couple of people who were established who obviously came to the conclusion by taking a quick glance at me that I perhaps had tickets on myself, you know coming from Australia and with the make-up, and they just thought, what a dickhead, and I felt so… It felt awful.

I was a very new comedian, even though I was 30 and it might have looked like I was confident, I was a brand new comedian and it was very… it wasn’t nice. Yet, in contrast, there were comedians who were supportive had a huge impact on me. In particular Stewart Lee and Tony Law, people who could have been really critical were really supportive of me, and I’ll never forget that, and I want to be that person, so you have to work really hard to repress your natural jealousies and be one of those people.

There’s nothing to be gained by being hypercritical of people whose style you don’t really like, it’s not going to improve their work and it’s not going to improve the culture of comedy, you’ve just got to be supportive of what people are trying to do.

As an Aussie ex-pat though, presumably you’ve always got Nick Cave and Jason Donovan’s shoulders to cry on…

It is amazing actually, you do end up meeting everyone. I’ve certainly never met Nick Cave, though I’d love to, but I have Jason Donovan’s number saved in my phone and it’s like, “If you ever want anything at all”.

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It’s just hilarious, I find myself hanging out with, like, Elle McPherson. You do get to meet all these people and the first time you meet them, you go “Holy shit, that’s Elle McPherson” and then of course it takes about 20 seconds for it to kick in that it’s just a normal, nice person.

Speaking of people you have on speed-dial, is it right you were invited to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s house for tea?

I was. I don’t know who was on that list or what their intention was. I wasn’t invited as an individual, it was some sort of reception. I know Reece Shearsmith went.

From The League Of Gentlemen?

Yeah, and I must ask him who else was there. I was also invited to Buckingham Palace recently because the Queen and Phil had a reception for, like, eminent Australians in London, so every Australian you could poke a stick at was there, but I don’t know who was at the good doctor’s reception.

I’d love to meet him, I think he’s an incredibly interesting man, and I want to meet him because I want to know whether he’s an eccentric or a sort of political Christian. The church leaders I know (and I know a couple in Perth, the Dean of Perth happens to be a friend from when I was at Anglican school), I can usually explain their religiosity as an act of intellectual eccentricity, whereas Rowan is so smart I’m absolutely sure he’s an atheist. I mean, the way he talks, there’s just no way he can be wandering around his house thinking that there’s a magic guy from two thousand years ago having an impact on the world today, it’s just such an absurd notion.

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I’m interested in whether he’s just kind of ended up in the church because he’s such a smart guy that’s where he thinks he can make an impact politically and ethically – not that he’d tell me if he was an atheist – or whether he’s just a bit wacky, one of those people who I adore and respect, but who are just a bit wacky, and that’s how they can sustain the magic stuff.

Have you ever felt the need to bring a rationalist message to believers, or are you happy preaching to the converted, so to speak?

I don’t think you have a choice really. Whether you write an academic paper or an entire book as one of the greatest scientists and intellectuals of your generation, like Richard Dawkins did, most of the time you’re going to be selling your ideas to people who are going “Yeah! Go get ‘em!”

The difference with my material is that I don’t set out to proselytise. I’m really an entertainer and as a comedian I have to think of things to talk about, and all I can talk about is what I think about. I was never a stand-up and never did the clubs or anything, so I don’t have that sort of innovative observation of the latest pop cultural phenomenon or reading the news and thinking, “I’ve got to find a joke about that”. I just write about what I read about or what I think about, so the intention is not to educate or change people’s minds, the intention is to make an entertaining show about ideas.

The result, inevitably, is that people are going to sit and laugh at things they feel empathy with, which is what all comedy is, it’s really, “Yeah! I understand that.” Comedy’s always about saying, “Isn’t the world like this?” and ideally, if you’re doing your job right, you should be saying, “Isn’t the world like this” in a way that people haven’t thought of and at best, that makes them laugh.

Also, I have to remind myself that a lot of my audience is young, and when I was 14 or 15 and through to my early 20s, I looked up to people in this same industry. I listened to what they had to say and thought, I want to think like that or I want to be like that, and I get emails from young people saying that they come from a religious family and I helped them to clarify their ideas. But changing people’s minds only ever works with young people, because once you get past a certain age it’s almost impossible to change anyone’s mind about anything.

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Do you enjoy courting controversy? Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night worrying, “Oh no, those Texans actually think I’m a demon”? [Minchin was recently refused use of a piano on a Texas tour date because its owner considered him demonic]

No, that stuff doesn’t really worry me because the vast, vast majority of people aren’t mad and that Texan was mad.

I don’t like courting controversy because I don’t like people not liking me. I’m a comedian because I want people to like me, that’s really why all comedians are comedians. Most people are pretty motivated by wanting to be liked and respected and I hate upsetting people…

[Incredulous] Really?

Yeah. I hate upsetting individuals. But I don’t hate upsetting homophobes…

Or the Pope…

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And I don’t hate upsetting fundamentalists. I don’t upset them actually, because they don’t listen to my stuff.

I just want people to hold themselves to account about what they think more, because I strongly believe that the way to live a moral life is to not allow yourself to have beliefs which are easy but which don’t make sense. I don’t think it’s ethical to sell medicine that doesn’t work, on and on it goes.

Maybe it’s arrogant to talk about it, but when you are a rationalist and an atheist, you sort of get frustrated by the fact that you’re trying to have a debate about euthanasia or abortion with people talking about a magic book and you just feel like screaming. I’m screaming in frustration at the pomposity. Weirdly, because I’m sure people think I’m pompous although I think that if you come to my show it hopefully doesn’t read like that, that’s why I get away with it.

But I’m just screaming in my head at the pomposity of saying, oh, “I know God”, or “I have Jesus in my heart” it’s just like, you don’t, so shut up, and come back when you have something that comes from an intellectual position.

I certainly don’t deny anyone the right to believe anything they want, as I say very explicitly in all my shows, I just don’t think you should be able to bring your beliefs into debates that affect other people’s private lives.

A lot of Matilda is Roald Dahl’s reaction to another strand of anti-intellectualism. Neither you nor Dahl seem to suffer fools gladly. Is that the affinity you feel with his work?

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Well, you could definitely class Matilda as a rant against television and he was quite grumpy about it, so yeah. I never thought of comparing myself to him in that sort of way, but I think what Dahl did was never to talk down to his audience, and that’s why kids love him. He doesn’t pander to childishness, he lets stories go dark and I guess you could say that’s what motivates me, in that I just don’t believe that talking down to your audience is the right choice.

I don’t adjust my material depending on where I am in the country, or where I am in the world. I don’t assume some people will get what I say and some people won’t. I’ll just say whatever it is I’ve learnt or thought about that I’ve decided to write into material. I guess that decision not to condescend to the audience by assuming they’re thick or by assuming they’re children might be a link.

Talking about frustration, what do you make of the status afforded to comedy as compared to say, film or music or television?

I’m just so grateful that I’ve got a career. I don’t need everyone to say, “Well, comedy is the greatest art form”. I mean, people are watching my stuff and I get to write musicals and it’s ridiculous.

Comedy is huge in Britain as you know,  and – I mean this with absolute respect – people like John Bishop and Michael Macintyre are reflecting the minutiae of the lives of people, and that’s what most people think is funny, and that’s comedy as it should be.

But there are incredibly smart people doing incredibly interesting things just rumbling below popular culture. If you went back over the last 50 years and looked at the progression of liberal ideas, you would find that in every step of the way comedians were saying it first, not thinking it first, but saying it out loud, first because comedy is a permissive genre. I’m not putting myself in that category either, I don’t think I’m one of the edgy comedians, but I do think it has a role to play.

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To be a complete wanker, it goes all the way back to the Elizabethan fool. As a comedian, you get to say it first, because you can get away with it. So I think it’s appropriate that people don’t wander around saying, “Comedians are the voices of the future”, it should be underground.

Are you glad then, saying all that, that you never made it as a straight-up rock star, that you ended up in comedy instead of being, say, Eddie Vedder?

I love writing music, and I’m compelled to write didactic lyrics. It’s a very theatrical style of writing I’ve got, and I’ve never really listened to one genre whereas most musos listen to rock or soul or pop and that’s the genre they want to write in. I’ve always written whatever seems to suit the subject.

Because I’m not really trained and I didn’t grow up being told that being a musician was an option, my goals were more that, say, playing piano in a piano bar would be a dream come true. Then of course, you get more ambitious and the goal posts get further away. But I remain so surprised and grateful that I get to be a song writer, I’m certainly not going to turn around and bitch that I’m only selling out arenas because of comedy and not rock.

That I’m involved in the theatre world is more important to me than anything, and I’m just so grateful and if people come and watch my show as well. Then I can do rant-y me and then offer other things in other formats.

What are those other formats then? Are there any more adaptations coming up?

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A lot of people are now asking me to be involved in projects, Broadway producers and West End producers, which is incredibly cool.

You weren’t asked to do that Spider-Man Musical were you?

The Spider-Man one? [laughs] No. There have been a few things that are just terrible, well, maybe not terrible, but there’s this habit of putting films on the stage now which I’m generally not interested in. There are a couple of film ideas. Someone’s doing an adaptation of Beetlejuice for the stage, and that sounds like a pretty fun idea to me. But mostly I think I want to write something original, so that’s what I think I’m going to try and do next, theatre-wise.

And there’s a studio album of non-comedy songs on the way?

Yeah, I’ve been saying that for years, but this might be the year. I am finding myself writing more quirky songs not aiming for laughs, and I feel like I probably should do it, but part of me sort of thinks maybe I’m a bit shit at that so maybe I should just stick to comedy and theatre.

You’re being modest. You’ve said before that you’ve been writing songs since you were 11. Can you remember any of the really early ones?

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I wrote a song about Hitler having a poodle at some point, I don’t know why… It was a song called Hitler Had A Poodle Too. It was a weird song about, I don’t know, it was really weird. That was in my teens at some point. I don’t know why that’s come into my head, it’s so ridiculous.

A Nazi poodle, presumably?

Yeah, a Nazi poodle. It was blonde.

I started out writing love songs and I was into a lot of The Beatles and I’ve got this song that I vaguely remember from when I was maybe 12 or 13 that sounds like a Johnny Cash song or something but with a lot of clichés, it’s not bad, I remember how it went, so it’s not terrible, well, it’s pretty terrible, I mean it’s utterly terrible but not bad for a 12-year-old.

How long does it take you to write those topical songs you’ve done on TV programmes like The Jonathan Ross Show?

A day pretty much, a good day. The Jonathan Ross one I think I did in two days, The 3 Minute Song was in about a day. Usually I’ll have in the back of my head that that’s coming up but I never get around to sitting and doing it so the idea might be fermenting, and you just need to wait until you’ve got a good central concept.

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With Five Poofs And Two Pianos, I had this idea of wanting to write it, then Jan Moir said that horrible thing about Stephen Gately in the paper, and suddenly I had gay politics to turn to. I’m really proud of that song, I think it’s pretty funny that… well it’s not funny, but in a way I think a lot of people missed what that song was actually about because of the chorus.

Sometimes being under pressure and writing a song that does reflect current events is really good, even though I try and do songs about broader concepts so that I can tour them around the world for a couple of years.

What’s the selection process for your shows? How do you decide which songs you’re going to bring back out?

There are a lot of things to take into account, you know, how popular they are, what sort of songs my fans will want to hear… Obviously half the songs on the DVD were written for that show and I don’t know how I chose which old ones to do with the new ones.

A lot of that is influenced by what would sound good with an orchestra and also, you know, could it do with another big ballad, or something dark, are there already three love songs, can I put in another love song? Then I’ll fit Tumour in. Is there something that shows off the top range of my voice, or is there something really groovy?

It’s all about balancing the show so you don’t go ballad/ballad, or you don’t go Latin/Latin, or God/God, it’s like doing a Sudoku, you have to bring out all these factors and figure out how it goes together, so there’s an interval, so which song to end the first act on and how do you come back for the second act, do you come back hard or do we lead in, so all that kind of theatrical architecture stuff.

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Now you’re getting invited to Buckingham Palace and doing the Comedy Proms, do you feel at all constrained by having to censor yourself for ‘the establishment’?

I have to censor myself in that I can’t say fuck at the Comedy Proms, but it doesn’t worry me in the slightest, you know, I don’t have Tourette’s. I swear when it’s appropriate to swear. There are things, as I say, in The Pope Song, “This is language one employs when one is fucking cross at motherfuckers fucking boys”, and that’s appropriate language, that’s the point of the song, that this is the sort of thing we should be saying. We should be saying, “Fuck you, pompous fuckers, sort your shit out”, that’s how we should be talking about this.

However, when I’m writing Matilda The Musical, that’s completely not the language for that world. So I have no problem with that, if someone wants me to host a comedy prom then I’m not on a mission to be edgy, my comedy shows are just about what I think about, and if that needs bad language that’s what I use. The Proms is about rejoicing in music and comedy for a broad audience for TV.

The whole idea that to playing the establishment is selling out, and all that sort of loathing of Ben Elton for working with Lloyd Webber, I must admit, I find it contemptible. I’m not just one set of ideas, you know, it’s like saying, “When you go home to visit your Grandma, do you feel censored that you can’t say fuck?”

It’s context then. Do you think you’d have been able to write the Matilda songs in the same way before becoming a father?

I think so. I don’t write mathematically and musically. I don’t sit down and think, “Right, I’m going to approach this in this way because I’ve learnt this in composition school, or this is how so-and-so did it” I just sit down and play and see what comes out.

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Lyrically, it’s a fastidious process, so I think I would have been fine, but there’s no doubt that having a kid – I wrote my first draft of Matilda when my second one, Caspar, was on the way, in the month before he was born I was writing my first draft – and I think there’s something about having your own kid to remind you of how naïve and innocent kids are. I mean naïve in a really good way, how hopeful and unfettered by information and cynicism they are, and I think that really helps.

Before you go, in the spirit of being supportive of other comedians, do you have any comedy recommendations for anyone reading?

People should see Tony Law, he’s one of the greatest unsung geniuses. Tony’s a bit like Sean Lock, but Sean does a lot of telly now, so he’s kind of found his place. Tony’s just a hilarious, absurd genius. Dan Antopolski also, and Tim Key, I think is, one of the most incredible comedians around. Bo Burnham, I think is incredibly talented, and incredibly good, and an incredibly nice guy.

I’m a huge fan of Stewart Lee. I sort of forget that not everyone knows of him, but he’s the best. Richard Herring too, he’s the most beautiful, generous man, I mean talk about someone who’s been in the business for years, and obviously feels all that jealousy like the rest of us, but puts it aside. Herring has been incredibly good to me and incredibly supportive.

Stewart Lee and Richard Herring have both published books in recent years, a memoir, a novel and a collection of transcripts. Can we expect one from you anytime soon?

I’d kind of like to write a novel one day, but it’s more a maniacal thing where I think I should try and do everything, even if I don’t know if I can. But a memoir? My life’s pretty boring. I just want to be a happy person. I can’t do the ‘comedy is my life’ thing, I just want to do my job and go home and hang out with the kids.

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Tim Minchin, thank you very much.