The big interview: Tim Minchin

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HE’S brought off the difficult trick of writing orginal music and comedy and making them work as one. Nick Ahad met Tim Minchin ahead of a visit to Yorkshire.

But then he makes a request.

“Can we do this in half an hour to give me a chance to find my voice and shove some breakfast in my face?” he growls.

To be fair, he does sound pretty gravelly.Half an hour later, breakfast has not made much difference – the voice is still a deep croak.

“It’s the jet lag, I got back from Oz a couple of weeks ago and my two kids got sick like they always do and that meant I got ill and tonight I’m facing my fourth Scottish gig this week – it’s two and a half hours of full on singing, so it’s pretty tough.” The voice remains a growl, yet somehow he still manages to sound friendly.

Minchin is a rare beast. A talented musician, a first rate comedian who has not only managed to combine the two, but also found a path out of the comedy backwaters to which such types are so often confined. There are plenty of comedians who are also musicians: Steve Martin could jam on banjo with the best of them, Adam Sandler’s comedy albums are brilliant and Victoria Wood’s vigorous piano rendition of her song The Ballad of Barry and Freda always brought the house down. In America, Weird Al Yankovic has made his name with comedy songs, cornering the market in comedic cover versions of popular hits.

Few, however, have been able to win fans ploughing the furrow of musical comedian, Bill Bailey excepted. Now Minchin, whose fans have been won with brilliant musicianship combined with hilarious songwriting that hits the heart and the head while constantly tickling the funny bone, can add his name to that elite group.

He can be silly – he came up with a Peace Anthem for Palestine with a message to Jews and Muslims which includes the lyrics “we don’t eat pigs/you don’t eat pigs/why not, not eat pigs/together?”

He can also be surprisingly cerebral – in his song If you open your mind Too Much, Your Brain Will Fall Out, he eloquently attacks the notions of homeopathy, astrology, alternative medicines, religion and psychics.

He is always very funny and, with his twinkling eyes (shown to their best effect on stage with his trademark thickly applied mascara) and his crazy ginger barnett back-combed into a style that Russell Brand might consider scruffy, he is an almost shambolic, but constantly engaging on stage presence.

Minchin, who was born in Northampton, but grew up in Perth, Australia, arrived at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005. No one knew much about him when he stormed the Fringe from nowhere, taking the crown of best newcomer in what were then known as the Perrier Awards. It didn’t exactly bring him overnight success, but Minchin’s star has been steadily rising ever since to the point where, in a couple of weeks’ time, he will play the several thousand-seater Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield on a nationwide tour. When he does, he will be following in the footsteps of Michael McIntyre, Peter Kay and John Bishop, who have all recently taken centre stage at some of the country’s biggest venues.

“It’s something that’s quite hard to get your head around, so my approach is to just not bother even trying,” says Minchin with a smile.

“It’s just through dumb luck that I’ve not ended up doing a TV show or something. I’m just doing what I want which means I’m uncensored and can kind of do what I like.”

This lack of censorship makes Minchin a great interviewee – he doesn’t hold back on his opinions and says the sort of things that would give most publicists a heart attack.

What he likes at the minute are two things in particular. The first is getting excited about a West End transfer of Matilda, the Royal Shakespeare Company musical for which he wrote the lyrics, but more of that later. The second thing is the arena tour, which sees Minchin arrive in Sheffield next month complete with a 60 piece orchestra.

“The truth is arenas kill comedy. For comedy to work you need proximity, so there’s no doubt in my mind that arena comedy is purely profit driven. But I’ve managed to completely screw the promoters, if they were hoping to get a massive profit, by having this huge orchestra to pay for.

“I figured if I was going to do an arena tour, then I wanted to fill the place properly. I wanted it to kind of earn its space – I’ve got a show that’s like Alicia Keys if she were a satirist.” His tongue is firmly in his cheek now.

“What I love is that people will get to hear an orchestra in a way they’ve never heard one before. The show is also my sort of stuff, with satirical and funny songs that gets kind of whimsical towards the end.”

Minchin eschewed the well-trodden path of stand-ups from dingy gigs to appearances on panel shows where the lucky ones will land their own TV vehicle, in favour of live performances in whatever venues were willing to book him.

As recently as 2008, he was playing West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre, the smaller of the theatre’s two spaces holding an audience of around 360. At the time, I was asked to review his show but wasn’t keen. Even for a serious fan of stand-up comedy, the musical addition was enough to put me off.

A few months later, I saw him perform a show-stealing song at the Amnesty International fundraiser The Secret Policeman’s Ball. The song If I Didn’t Have You sees Minchin musing on the nature of his relationship with his wife. The song wrong-foots its audience, at first sounding like an anodyne love song, then switching to attack the “inherently flawed notion of fate”. The line “If I didn’t have you”, is swiftly followed by “someone else would do.”

It took all of 30 seconds of the song for me to realise I needed to rethink my prejudice about muso-comedians.

When he came back to the UK from Australia, Minchin admits he didn’t realise that most of those who would happily pay good money to see even a third rate comedian would balk at the idea at having music involved.

“I totally agree that music and comedy was never really accepted as two forms that should go together. But when I arrived, I came into the industry completely naïve and in a sense free from any of that, because I had never seen any comedy. I was involved in a nerdy Perth sub- culture working as a songwriter and playing with a few bands. I’d never been to a stand-up gig so I didn’t realise that what I was doing was considered to be so uncool.

“I’m really glad that I was naïve about it. I’m sure there were a lot of comedians who thought what I was doing was a bit naff, but I really didn’t care or worry about how they were judging me, because I just wasn’t part of that scene.”

Minchin’s musical journey began when he was in his 20s living in Perth and working as a songwriter and itinerant band member. A few record companies had suggested the problem with his songwriting was that they were never sure if he was being serious or satirical.

His music had always had an edge sharpened by his slightly sideways view of the world, so he decided to take all the songs that were clearly not to be taken seriously and put them together in a cabaret show, strung them together with a little bit of talking.

“I was always very comfortable on stage,” he says. It wasn’t long before he realised he had hit on something and within a few years his act had brought him success at Edinburgh, which has become hallowed ground for comedians.

The heart and brains contained within his lyrics led last year to Minchin collaborating with Dennis Kelly on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s much-loved book Matilda.

The show received reviews way beyond his expectations, with one national newspaper declaring that he and Kelly “suddenly look like the brightest prospects for British musical theatre since Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice broke through”.

“Oh mate, I could talk about Matilda all day. The talent behind it, with the director Matthew Warchus and the RSC, I was the least experienced person involved, so I just thought that if it didn’t work this would be my fault. I was absolutely clear with myself that if it didn’t transfer to the West End, I would be entirely to blame.”

Fortunately for Minchin’s seemingly slightly fragile ego, a transfer into London’s West End appears, if not a certainty, then highly likely.

What really gladdened his heart was the reaction of Dahl’s widow, Liccy. She sent a book with an inscription, confirming her approval of what he had done with her late husband’s story. “It’s like my prized possession,” says Minchin, beaming at the thought. Not rock and roll at all.

Tim Minchin and His Orchestra, Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield, May 10. Tickets 0114 2565656.