LONDON – Tim Minchin walks in dressed in a close-fitting navy suit with neatly buttoned waistcoat and whips off his trilby and puts it aside. His hair hangs below his shoulders, and his eyes, minus the black eyeliner he wears on stage, have a disarming warmth. You cannot help but feel a connection on the strength of his smile alone.
Minchin is a phenomenon: a 37-year-old Australian satirist, composer and pianist who can fill London’s Albert Hall with his one-man shows (with symphony orchestra as back-up). But it is as the lyricist of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) musical of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” that he has become the hottest of properties. “Matilda the Musical,” directed by Matthew Warchus and with book by Dennis Kelly, won so many awards — four Tonys and seven Oliviers — that it earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
And, as if all this were not enough, Minchin can act. He is just back from Sydney where he played Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead;” he has recently appeared in the U.S. television series “Californication;” and he is about to sing for his last supper as he reprises the role of Judas in a U.K. arena tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
We meet at the Kings Place music and visual arts center in central London where Minchin rents a studio, “expensive and under-used,” in which to compose, practice the piano and think. He offers to show me round but, in the end, we stay put in the ground-floor cafe, looking out on to the still water of the canal.
Minchin is anything but still. I have to keep interrupting him, the talk flows so fast. I’ve come from a household of fans — two of my sons have begged for his autograph and for the same reason: they are redheads and Minchin — unlikely distinction — is patron saint of gingers everywhere since his song, “Prejudice.” “It is a joke. I am imbuing redheadedness with the burdens of being black. But it works literally and ironically at the same time.”
If you are new to Minchin’s satirical, argumentative rationality, shored up by exuberant musicianship (the piano a raft for whatever he asks it to carry), sample “Prejudice” on YouTube — and his other videos. He performs in evening dress and often an explosively frilly shirt. His hair is backcombed like a rock star’s — a dandelion clock under the stage lights, his feet are always bare. His ideas often seem to give him a fright and he checks over his shoulder, from his piano stool, as if someone were about to arrest him.
He is brilliant at minute facial adjustments. There are moments when his eyes roll a little — like those Christmas cracker puzzles you have to tilt just a fraction to roll balls into the correct holes. He also plays the stuttering intellectual to perfection. Sometimes, he agonizes — head in hands. And then there is the sudden nervous blaze of his smile. But his particular gift is for talking as if there were just one other person in the room — and not the 5,000 or more people that fill the Albert Hall.
“What I’d like you to say to him before anything else as a message from me,” says the younger of my red-headed sons, “is: ‘You’re a ginger’ ” — a nod here to Minchin’s famous line from “Prejudice”: “Only a ginger can call another ginger ginger.” But what I am not expecting — a startling start — is Minchin’s out-and-out denial: “I am not a redhead. I have never been and am still not. Well, just a little … but I was blond as a kid and then mousy brown. As I got older … it came up. I’ve got a lot of red in my hair but I’m not a ginge.”
I stare at him in the morning light. Is he in denial? “People look at me and say, ‘Yeah, you’re a redhead.’ But they only say that because they are expecting it. I am a very ginger-colored person but I don’t have orange hair.”
A ginger-colored person … there’s a concept. Before we tiptoe away altogether from the subject, is it true Australian redheads get called blueys? “Yes, a dumb gag. Like if someone is really tall, you call them midget.” He blames the Australian taste for irony. And, he adds, he does not see his comedy as Australian, thinks it too “jumpy” — he sees himself as closer to an antipodean Woody Allen.
We will return to this, I say. But let’s talk about Matilda first. She is a free-thinker with a spry intransigence. In Minchin’s song “Naughty” she goes in for chirpy agitprop, explaining: “Just because you find that life’s not fair it/doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it./If you always take it on the chin and wear it/Nothing will change.” An empowering message with no sentimental additives. How much Minchin is there in Matilda?
“Unlike Matilda, I was a very slow kid. I had terrible ear problems and asthma and allergies. I spent quite a bit of time in hospital up to the age of eight so was not — am still not — extraordinarily intelligent.”
He grew up in Perth, Western Australia (to find out what that was like: “Read Tim Winton’s [novel] ‘Cloudstreet,’ it evokes Perth so beautifully”). He was the son of a surgeon and one of four children (an older brother, two younger sisters). But this verdict on his intelligence — like the vexed issue of his hair (I am going with strawberry blond) turns out not to be definitive.
An alternative conjuring of himself as schoolboy suggests he flourished academically: “I gave a speech at my old school five days ago. … When boys from school contact me, they often say: ‘God, this f——— place, I hate it. You must have hated it too …’ But I didn’t. It was a boys’ private school. I wasn’t a prefect, I didn’t have a highly decorated blazer, but I was in the first hockey team, ran in athletics, did drama, got Bs and As [plus stars for poetry]. I am just a nerd. I was straight. I had quite strict parents and all of us did fine.” Yet, having said that: “I didn’t get lead roles in school plays. I peaked as a female magical cat in Cinderella …”
I keep thinking of his song “The Fence”: “This is my song in defense of the fence/A little sing along, an anthem to ambivalence/The more you know the harder you will find it/To make up your mind.” It nicely sums up his attitude to himself — a seriousness (comedy no laughing matter) and skepticism. For all his warmth, there is a distance meeting him across a table that vanishes on stage where it is the closeness of the encounter that is constantly surprising.
And it turns out, after all, not to be Matilda with whom he feels the bond: “I feel a kindred spirit in Dahl — at least in his love of a rant against anti-intellectualism, I feel close to him there.”
Minchin’s own rants are driven by rationality. He is a humanist, a believer in the enlightenment, a fan of Richard Dawkins, whom he has described as “one of the greatest evolutionary biologists of all time.” Dawkins is keen on him too — he has Minchin videos on his website. Minchin is also said to have been influenced by the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, U.S. author Sam Harris and the philosopher Daniel Dennett, and has become something of a cult figure for atheists in the U.S.
In one of his most enjoyable bashings of “Bible-bashers,” “Thank-you God,” Minchin tells the story of Sam — who, it turns out, is no figment of his imagination: “Sam bailed me up in a bar, exactly as the song says. He was enthusiastic, handsome, in-my-face. He waited hours to tell me that God fixed his mum’s eyes when nothing else did. People become attached to their anecdotes …” Minchin’s powerful, entertaining polemic begins with demure thanksgiving and ends in frenzy, railing against the idea of a God who randomly homes in on Sam’s mother’s cataracts while ignoring a suffering world.
Everything comes to him, Minchin says, “at its own pace” — that is to say late. His love of science (he was indifferent to it at school), playing the piano (he gave it up as a child, only taking it up again when his brother Dan lured him into a rock band). And success. He was almost 30 before anyone had heard of him. At the start, he says, he had no faith in himself. But others did. At 17, he wrote a musical of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” that “moved people to tears.” His work didn’t make money, attract agents or make him famous but “people would say: ‘I have never seen anything like that.’ ” And he could “play the hell out of a piano in a shitty kind of way.” Yet his expectations were low. “I was incredibly jealous of friends who had bit parts in [Australian soap opera] “Home and Away.” I just hoped I’d somehow be allowed into this game.”
It was at the 2005 Edinburgh festival that he was more than allowed in. He moved to Melbourne in 2002 and his show “Darkside,” which won the directors’ award at the 2005 Melbourne international comedy festival, convinced the shrewd Scottish producer Karen Koren of his talent. She invited him to Edinburgh where 2,000 shows compete for audiences nightly. Word of Minchin spread and the reviews were great. With one exception: Phil Daoust’s one-star offering in the Guardian. Daoust commented on the entranced audience: “It’s enough to make you believe in mass hypnosis,” and described a “bog-standard standup with a silly voice and a few good songs.”
Minchin went on to win the Perrier best newcomer award and you might assume he would have laughed — or at least shrugged off — Daoust’s review. Not a bit of it. The review continued to rankle (negative criticism has more clout than praise) and he retaliated with “Song for Phil Daoust,” which contains the lines: “Everybody sing along/lalalalala/I hope one of your family members dies.”
Minchin describes the song as “laughing at myself.” But it reveals an ego in turmoil. I wonder how Phil Daoust felt about it and email him to find out. “The song makes me wince a bit, though not because I’ve actually listened to it,” he replies. “Life’s too short and I’ve already done my bit by sitting through that show in Edinburgh.”
Minchin, meanwhile, has found his own strategy for damage limitation — not unlike Daoust’s. When I ask whether he is developing a tougher carapace, he replies: “I have built myself various outfits that emulate a tough hide. They are mostly blankets over heads — I don’t read the Internet, I never Google myself, I don’t look at comments on YouTube vids, I follow Twitter, where I get a huge amount of affirmation all day every day — which is a gross narcissistic addiction.”
Narcissism and self-hate — two sides of the same coin. The key to Tim Minchin, it seems, is this need for affirmation — “a bottomless pit” — and the thin skin that goes with it. On the face of it, it might seem curious that someone with such a wobbly sense of self-worth should be so flamboyantly opinionated. But there again perhaps it makes a compensating sense. In the early days, people used to walk out of Minchin’s shows. Nowadays he sings to the converted (although “Cont” — short for “context” and a song that sounds bigoted beyond belief unless you listen to the end — still removes bums from seats).
“It seems a strange thing to say but I really don’t like upsetting people and the fact I do makes me bury my head. I don’t deal very well with the hate that gets spat around the Internet when it is directed at me. I don’t deal with it well when it is directed at others and I never do it myself unless it is an incredibly carefully thought-out polemic like the Phil Daoust song or the pope song (‘If you cover for another motherf——- who’s a kiddy f——-/F—- you, you’re no better than the motherf——— rapist’), which have carefully constructed points to them.”
The best of his rants is a nine-minute beat poem, “Storm,” about going to a north London dinner party and meeting a new-age woman, Storm, who bores on about homeopathy and says: “Science falls into a hole when it tries to explain the nature of the soul.” Unlike God-bothering Sam, Storm was “an avatar, a straw person I created to burn. But her opinions exist.”
Minchin has bullshit detection down to a fine art. But does reason ever desert him and irrationality strike? “I am wired to be rational. If you met my dad and grandfather, it is almost boring — our brains are quite structured.” He is “intrigued” by irrationality and yet, although his songs promote “discarding magical thinking,” he is no evangelist: “I didn’t do comedy to teach. I had to create some bloody material — I had a theater booked.” Yet he acknowledges the “responsibility” of being “listened to a bit.” And, at one point, he admits he would like to have been a teacher.
One thing Minchin wants to emphasize is that reason and imagination are not mutually exclusive. “People conflate the idea of being rational with being unromantic. I reject the idea that rationalism equals dryness and boringness. I am incredibly romantic, my work is romantic. And I love stories. Matilda is all about love. Storm ends in a way that should make you feel a bit teary.” And it does. Minchin keeps his bare feet on the ground as he acknowledges the mystery of being here:
“Isn’t this enough?/Just this world?/Just this beautiful, complex/Wonderfully unfathomable, natural world?”
In 2008, a friend of Minchin’s from Melbourne, Rhian Skirving, released a documentary “Rock’n’Roll Nerd” about Minchin’s early days in which we meet Sarah — his wife and his first girlfriend. She is lovely, good-looking, calm — a bit of a heroine. “My God, look at her in that doco and see how incredibly cool she is,” Minchin says. ‘She is incredibly uncompetitive in the most refreshing, wonderful way. In the past 10 years, it is as if our relationship — we met at 17 — has been leading up to being able to cope with this. She is perfect for this.” No need to ask what “this” means.
The documentary shows Sarah before there was mega-success to contend with, as breadwinning social worker, supporting Minchin. We see them celebrating their first pregnancy. And then, later, when the baby miscarries, Minchin is in Edinburgh, overcome that he cannot be with Sarah in Melbourne. But he returns with good news. He now has more than a hunch that their lives are about to change: “Sarah was hating her job. I said: ‘I think you can quit.’ “
What does Sarah make of his song about her, “If I Didn’t Have You?” It parodies a soppy pop song before delivering the shockingly reasonable thought: “Yeah, yeah/If I didn’t have you/Well I really think that I would …/Have somebody else …”
He says: “Sarah didn’t like it. She thought it was lazy. She said: ‘You are better than that. You are doing a song about how you can f—- other people now you are famous.’ I told her: ‘That is not what the song is about, darling, you are going to have to listen again’ — and she did. It is a love song about how I chose to love her. It points out that the romantic world view is wrong, that there is beauty in the reality behind the romance. I don’t understand why people need more. And why do they need to believe in the afterlife? Of course you are going to be dead and there will be nothing left.”
I suggest Sarah’s song is uncomfortable because it rubs your face in randomness, reminds you how arbitrary life is on a cosmic scale. “Yes,” Minchin chimes in, “every single decision you make sends you down a path from which you can’t return … Discomfort is a wonderful part of comedy.”
The couple have two children now: Violet, seven, and Caspar, four. They moved to Crouch End in north London in 2006 and in the documentary Minchin jokes that they will have to “sell the baby” to afford the rent — no such struggle post-Matilda. Crouch End has been “amazing” he says. “Through the mothers’ group, bless it, we made all these friends. Our downstairs neighbors were gorgeous and are still our friends, another couple with kids moved in next door. … We adore London and have been so lucky to have friends to fill the gap of family.”
But for all the bouquet-throwing, it seems unlikely the Minchins will stay in London for ever. Minchin’s life is jammed with projects. He is writing the lyrics for “Larrikins,” a DreamWorks animated film about Australian wildlife, which will mean spending more time in L.A. He is also work-shopping a second stage musical (rumored to be another Matthew Warchus collaboration). And then there is “Judas,” a role in which he has to “break” every night on stage. (“Judas is not a baddie. He has to stop Jesus being a messianic, self-obsessed, narcissistic prig who thinks he is the son of God.”) And he is desperate to “create another solo show and tour it within the next year or 18 months.”
And then there is the pull of Australia. He grew up a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean. He raves about his recent visit down under — running on cliff-tops, swimming every day: “It changes everything … I’d go and do Stoppard with the salt-water still in my hair. In Australia, I feel connected to the land. I am not saying it is better than London. In many ways, London is my favorite place in the world and the idea of leaving it makes me want to cry. But we are Australian, you know. We grew up on the beach and who are we to deny our kids that?” And he picks up his trilby and puts it back on — it looks jauntily rakish — and steps away into his future.