Tim Minchin Sweetly and Scathingly Resurrects Musical Satire
Songwriter and comedian Tim Minchin shot to stardom in Australia and the UK—forgive me for opening with such a hoary cliché, but there's no other way to put it—at the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival and 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Minchin has been filling theaters and concert halls over there for the last six years. He has YouTube and a certain two-minute song about the pope—a song with more "fucks" in it than you'll find in a decade's worth of Savage Love columns—for his small but rapidly growing following over here. Topical, profane, and hilariously irreligious, Minchin is equal parts Tom Lehrer, Stephen Sondheim, and Noel Coward. His upcoming show at the Neptune is not to be missed. We spoke by phone.
Comedian first or musician first?
Musician. Very much a musician. I consider myself a songwriter, really; it just happens that I write about strange things.
You're a huge star in the UK and Australia. Does it feel like you're going back to square one taking on America?
This America thing, I thought it might be tough because most of the comedians selling lots of tickets in the UK are on TV. And they come to the US and their TV shows aren't on here and suddenly they can't sell tickets. I feel very lucky because I've always been about live stuff and word of mouth and the internet. And that seems to be selling tickets for me here.
The Americans I know who are familiar with you found you thanks to YouTube, Facebook, and "Pope Song."
That's come to my attention, actually. "Pope Song," "Storm," and "White Wine in the Sun" seem to be the gateway drugs for my audiences in the US.
You're an atheist, you're a fan of the scientific method, you mock people for their religious beliefs. You wear eyeliner. How far do you think you can go here? How big is your potential audience?
The kind of publicity that your Tea Partyers and religious fundamentalists generate gives an outsider the impression that this country is full of absolute fucking weirdos. But of course it's not. America puts out the most cutting-edge satire, a lot of the smartest people, and all that. They say 8 percent of Americans are godless, and I bet it's more like 30 percent. There's 300,000,000 people over here, so that leaves a huge group of people who might like my stuff.
Are you performing "I Love Jesus" over here?
Aw! I haven't yet! I really want to get it back in! But I don't want my shows to be dominated by talk of religion because, while I'm obsessed, it can get boring. I really want to do "I Love Jesus" here, but I've got this new song about prayer that I really wanna do, and I've the "Pope Song," and something has to go.
I apologize in advance that I mostly want to talk with you about your older stuff, but it's what we're most familiar with here. "Storm," your epic nine-minute beat poem, I've been dying to ask you, is there really a Storm out there, and does she know about the song?
[Laughs] No, Storm's a composite... But there was a dinner party once with an Australian actress, and I thought very early on, you know, I just don't know if this girl is quite my type of person. And then very late in the evening I said something about homeopathy in the context of something else, using homeopathy as an example of an erroneous belief, and there was this silence, and then she went off about how homeopathy works. It was late and I just wanted to go home, and I had to be really, really nice about it because I didn't want to upset anyone. So I spent about an hour going, "Oh yeah, I guess I maybe haven't read all the studies," and all that, because at that stage I wasn't quite as competitive and not quite as informed.
And so the song is what you wished you had said?
Yeah, of course. I mean that's the whole point of comedians and artists, really. We're just expressing the stuff we wish we were smart enough to express in life.
I find myself wondering about Mrs. Minchin. Sometimes I make my husband the butt of jokes in my column, and sometimes he's okay with it, sometimes he's not. How does your wife feel about you standing up and singing a song ("If I Didn't Have You") with lyrics like, "If I didn't have you... somebody else would do"?
[Laughs] Well, Mrs. Minchin, when she first heard that one, she was pretty contemptuous of it because she heard it in a way that, unfortunately, many people do, which is that I'm saying now that I'm a bit famous and shit, I could probably fuck loads of other chicks. But, of course, the song is saying that the idea of a soul mate is—just like all my fucking stuff—it's saying the idea of that kind of mysticism is not as beautiful as the idea of choice. It's about the fact that if events had unfolded even one butterfly-wing-flap differently, our whole lives would have been different. But they didn't, and here we are. And we're choosing to be together.
And that choice is more beautiful than saying you were fated to be together. To say you're "fated" to be with one particular person isn't much different than saying you're condemned to be with that person.
Exactly! "We have no choice in this, oh well! The gods have thrown us together." There's two problems with that. One, it's sort of sad and not as beautiful, and secondly, it's just so much bullshit. It doesn't mean anything. My problem with this kind of language and spirituality and religion and all that is that I don't know what you're fucking talking about! I don't know what you mean when you say "soul." I don't know what you mean when you say "fate." I don't what you mean when you say "god." What are you actually talking about?
There was a shitstorm at my paper when I posted—and this is really reaching back to some of your early stuff—"Fat Children" on our blog.
Oh, yeah, Jesus! I didn't know that caused a shitstorm at your paper, but I did drop that song and stop performing it because, well, I'll tell you why after you tell me what happened.
Some folks thought it was bullying. I thought it was tough. But the shitstorm left me wondering how you, as an artist and a satirist, balance your clearly empathetic, humanistic side, you know, the part of you that writes passionate and funny songs about the Palestinians ("Peace Anthem for Palestine"), about women's rights ("Confessions"), and gay rights ("I Love Jesus"), with your role as a satirist? Being a satirist requires taking the piss out of people. But being a humanist can get you boxed into this corner where you're not allowed to be "mean." How do you balance that? And now that I know you're not performing "Fat Children" anymore, I have to ask why.
Fuck, I love talking to you. I stopped performing that straight after the first tour because I didn't want everyone to look at the fat people in the room and think, they must be hating life. It was the same reason I dropped the word "nigger" from my song, "If You Really Loved Me." To be fair to myself, I understand the history of that word, but I didn't understand it quite deeply enough, but I wasn't unaware at all of the history of that word in all its power. You don't hear that word in Australia outside of hiphop. It's not like anyone calls a black person that word here. It's just sort of a hiphop gangster word. There's lots of highly offensive lyrics in that song, and so I wrote this lyric, "We go together like a cracker and brie, like racism and ignorance, like niggers and R&B."
Oh my god.
You can imagine how that went down. My point, which is clear when that lyric is taken in context with the rest of the song, was that racism is the result of ignorance, and yet the R&B industry promotes the use of this word. It doesn't matter. It wasn't good enough. I got in trouble and dropped it because the people who got cross at me were right. As an empiricist and rationalist, it's incredibly important to be able to learn, to admit when you're wrong.
And so what about "Fat Children," then?
I don't mind offending people if I know how to defend my song, you know? I've got a case brought against me by some idiot with the Australian Human Rights Commission for religious prejudice because "Pope Song" was played on TV in Australia. And I would go to the highest court in the land to defend that song—not that I'll need to, because it defends itself, because it's very well thought-out and clear. Everything that I could possibly say about that song is in the song. It's got its defense built in. "Fat Children" is a funny song about not overfeeding your children. It's not a song about fat people. It's a song about people who are abusing their kids by forcing a choice on them and not helping their kids make the right choices. But, fuck, I just didn't feel comfortable doing it. I just didn't care enough about the issue to sit in a room knowing I was making the overweight people feel sad.
How do you pick and choose whom to make feel bad? I mean, clearly you're willing to really scald people of faith, as we call them here in America.
[Laughs] But I don't, actually. I mean, "Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins" was pretty mean, and that again was early on, but if you think about all my songs I've written about religion since "Ten Foot Cock," they're all specifically addressing the place where erroneous belief meets discrimination and prejudice. When I'm being mean about religion, I'm being mean about where religion goes wrong. I'm not just being mean to people for having faith. I think about this shit a lot. But to bring it back to what you were saying, I do want to be a humanist, and I do want to point out to people that beauty is in the real world and not in the fake one, and how the language of spirituality is empty. I mean, I'm not on a mission. I'm on a mission to just play fun gigs and make people have a fucking riot of a time. But the bigger my audience gets, the more I have to take responsibility for what I'm saying. And I guess that's the short answer. At some point I have to decide whether I'm going to be one of these comedians that says the unsayable for shock, or whether I'm going to be a comedian who says stuff he can back up intellectually in an interview with someone on the phone five years later. What do you think about "Fat Children"?
Some parts of it made me go, "Whoa." Some of the lyrics—"Your 6-year-old miniature Jabba the Hut, eating half-melted Mars bars from the folds of his gut..." Ouch.
[Laughs] That bit's funny.
And, "Diet Coke is not the way back." Smart, true, you can't say that here. But I've watched people feed doughnuts to their obese children and felt myself getting angry—as a parent, as a human. I travel a lot for work, and I go through airports and see parents feeding their overweight kids Cinnabons that are bigger than their heads, and I think, "What are you doing?"
I know. And I did write that song from an honest place of horror. And also because I get it. I don't suppose anyone would look at me and think I'm fat. But I've got my own issues with my body, and I've spent my whole life finding it difficult not to eat too much. And I work, and work, and work, and work, and run, and run, and run, and all this and I'm still a pretty chunky guy. And I was trying to write a song that was like, no excuses, no excuses, no excuses. If you put in more calories than you put out, you get fat. But you don't want to bully your own audience. And a satirist's job should be to pull down the people who are pulling down others. You pull down the church for fiddling with kids. And you pull down the church for discriminating against gays. You've got to decide where you're going to use your poison pen, and I decided pretty soon after I started performing that song that I didn't want to bully fat people, because most fat people are sad.
It's still up online, still on YouTube.
Ah, yeah. Look, I'm not trying to pretend it didn't exist. I just stopped performing it. And some people like that song. And some people are upset by it. And people can listen to it if they want. You're not putting people in a room and then trapping them there while you abuse them.
You just performed at Sasquatch! here.
What was that like? Your material—which can be a bit heady—at a big rock festival?
Yeah, I've done quite a few festivals. It was really cool, actually. For Sasquatch! it was quite early in the day. I was on at about 2:30 in the afternoon. And there are all these kids on mushrooms wearing their undies and nothing else. But it seems wherever I go in America there's this little bunch of fans that know all the words. I really enjoyed Sasquatch!
Are you familiar with Tom Lehrer? My parents had his albums and I memorized all of his songs, and it helped me develop this taste for wordplay and finding the jokes. And when you came along—when I found you; you came along long before I found you—it was like I had this hardwired ability to appreciate your shit because I grew up listening to Tom Lehrer.
When I started really concentrating on comedy, people would be like, "You're like Tom Lehrer!" And when I first started getting that, it would tend to be in the context of "Why do you have to use such foul language? Tom Lehrer didn't have to." And I'd be like, "Well, Tom Lehrer got kicked out of Australia." He was incredibly contentious for his era. And the times have changed. I think he was an excellent musician.
You are a better musician—forgive me, Tom, I'm still a fan. But for my money, you're Tom Lehrer crossed with freaking Stephen Sondheim.
I'll take that—can you put that in your article?