Music

Skewer Mouth

Tim Minchin Sweetly and Scathingly Resurrects Musical Satire

Skewer Mouth

TIM MINCHIN Thinks homeopathy is bullshit.

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.

Yeahhhh.

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? recommended

 

Comments (40) RSS

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1
God, I could read 10 more pages of this. Great interview. Thanks for introducing me to Tim Minchin, Dan! I can't wait for the show this weekend!
Posted by JenV on June 22, 2011 at 1:21 PM · Report this
STJA 2
MOAR.
Posted by STJA on June 22, 2011 at 1:42 PM · Report this
3
I wish this were a video interview. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for it.
Posted by oohlookasquirrel on June 22, 2011 at 2:06 PM · Report this
veo_ 4
Aww, Dan has a crush. It's so cute.
Posted by veo_ on June 22, 2011 at 2:54 PM · Report this
5
We wants more. GIVE IT TO USSSSS!!
Posted by Lynx on June 22, 2011 at 4:25 PM · Report this
despicable me 6
Thanks, Dan and Tim, that was delightful!
Posted by despicable me on June 22, 2011 at 6:12 PM · Report this
Knat 7
Dan, Tim Minchin would like you even more if he knew how many new fans of his you were creating here on SLOG. I'm going to go look up "Pope Song" on YouTube now.
Posted by Knat on June 22, 2011 at 7:12 PM · Report this
djh 8
I just hope Dan takes to heart what Mr. Minchin was saying about taking responsibility for his words.
Posted by djh on June 22, 2011 at 9:32 PM · Report this
Puty 9
Do people still think Q and A interviews are "wrong"? How else could you have written this? What an entertaining article. Just terrific. Thank you so much. I'm with everyone else who wants more. Please try to get a video meet-up with Minchin before or after the show for all of us silly little squealing Tim and Dan fans.
Posted by Puty on June 22, 2011 at 9:35 PM · Report this
Knat 10
I just watched the Pope Song (again) from Megan's post about free tickets. I'd seen it before, when Dan posted it here, but I guess I really discovered Tim Minchin later.
Posted by Knat on June 22, 2011 at 10:14 PM · Report this
Canadian Nurse 11
Hurrah! Hurrah! Such a good interview.
Posted by Canadian Nurse on June 23, 2011 at 3:26 PM · Report this
Eva Hopkins 12
This was GREAT. Dan, love this bit about how you & Tim talking about us --choosing-- to be w/ someone makes a mockery of the whole idea of "fate" or "the one". No, there are several people out there who could be The One, or A One. ;) Or 2 or 3, YMMV. Point is, choosing to be w/ someone = gutsy, courageous, real. Saying "Fate" did it = bleah, opposite of romantic.
Posted by Eva Hopkins http://www.lunamusestudios.com on June 24, 2011 at 9:40 AM · Report this
More, I Say! 13
LOVED THIS! I agree with everyone else about a video interview!
Posted by More, I Say! on June 24, 2011 at 9:59 AM · Report this
14
I'm going to go see Tim Minchin tomorrow night at the Neptune. Thanks to Dan for linking White Wine in the Sun on the Slog, and for letting us know when tickets were available. Great interview.
Posted by invisigoth on June 24, 2011 at 10:27 AM · Report this
15
Take your canvas bags to the supermarket. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVh15aUt8…
Posted by strangerstill on June 24, 2011 at 10:35 AM · Report this
OuterCow 16
SQUEE!!! *ahem* Squee.
Posted by OuterCow on June 24, 2011 at 10:35 AM · Report this
17
Take your canvas bags to the supermarket!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVh15aUt8…
Posted by strangerstill on June 24, 2011 at 10:40 AM · Report this
18
Dan, another thanks for introducing us to Tim.

Tim, You rock!
Posted by PaulBarwick on June 24, 2011 at 10:43 AM · Report this
Vince 19
I want to marry Tim! He understands me! He really gets the world. I see why you love him so.
Posted by Vince on June 24, 2011 at 10:56 AM · Report this
Paindancer 20
I know this interview happened via phone, but I CHOOSE to believe this conversation between Dan Savage and Tim Minchin happened in a tricked out S&M dungeon. And they were both naked. And the only reason the article isn't longer is because, obviously, their throbbing erections could withstand the sexual tension no longer and they started vigorously making out. And I got to film it. And occasionally splash massage oil all over them. While they're switch-hitting.

Yep.

That's how this interview happened in my brain.
Posted by Paindancer on June 24, 2011 at 11:11 AM · Report this
Paindancer 21
I know this interview happened via phone, but I CHOOSE to believe this conversation between Dan Savage and Tim Minchin happened in a tricked out S&M dungeon. And they were both naked. And the only reason the article isn't longer is because, obviously, their throbbing erections could withstand the sexual tension no longer and they started vigorously making out. And I got to film it. And occasionally splash massage oil all over them. While they're switch-hitting.

Yep.

That's how this interview happened in my brain.
Posted by Paindancer on June 24, 2011 at 11:12 AM · Report this
Suz 22
Great interview! Want to read more!
Posted by Suz on June 24, 2011 at 11:36 AM · Report this
mr. herriman 23
i have one extra ticket for tonight if anyone's looking.
Posted by mr. herriman on June 24, 2011 at 11:41 AM · Report this
Just Jeff 24
First saw Minchin on The Graham Norton Show, then got a couple of his shows via BitTorrent (sorry Tim - not available on NTSC here) and loved it.

Another good new young (and American this time) musical comic is Bo Burnham, now on Netflix and a performer I'd like to see here.
Posted by Just Jeff on June 24, 2011 at 11:52 AM · Report this
25
awesome article. i'm a big fan! i wish he was coming to New Orleans.
Posted by kate oiseau on June 24, 2011 at 1:15 PM · Report this
26
I began to suspect that Tim Minchin was smarter than me when I heard "Storm".

This interview pretty much settled the issue in my mind.
Posted by Brownian on June 24, 2011 at 1:15 PM · Report this
27
And that choice of sexual orientation is more beautiful than saying you were fated to be homosexual. To say you're "fated" to be one particular orientation isn't much different than saying you're condemned to be that orientation.
Posted by gaudam thats profound on June 24, 2011 at 2:45 PM · Report this
28
Friday was a great show. He's there Saturday too.
Posted by david on June 25, 2011 at 1:06 AM · Report this
29
Anyone know if that bit about Tom Lehrer getting booted from Australia is actually true? The intarwebs don't seem to be able to cough up a reference for it.
Posted by Corkscrew on June 25, 2011 at 4:25 AM · Report this
30
Robert Smith called from the early 90s and he wants his look back.
Posted by Strider on June 25, 2011 at 5:35 AM · Report this
31
Thanks, Tim Minchin, for helping me become an atheist! I've had a helluva bunch of laughs, and enjoyment galore from your work.

Thanks, Dan, for helping me transition from an American homophobic Evangelical to an equality loving atheist!
Posted by booboogoo on June 25, 2011 at 5:53 AM · Report this
32
Storm is a great piece, but shame on you Dan - Minchin doesn't compare to Lehrer as a comedian.
Posted by Cloudgazer on June 25, 2011 at 9:48 AM · Report this
bcdofaulk 33
Anyone go to the show last night (6/24)? Was it packed? I am trying to figure out if I should get there before the doors open or just before the start. Got floor tickets...can't wait!!
Posted by bcdofaulk on June 25, 2011 at 1:23 PM · Report this
lyllyth 34
...wish I could've gone!

A cheeky *kiss kiss* to Tim, come back again soon!
Posted by lyllyth on June 25, 2011 at 5:25 PM · Report this
35
Thanks for this. As others have mentioned, an absolute delight. Wasn't too impressed with Savage's interviewing skills after having listened to a (1) podcast, but this was excellent. Great questions; lovely read.
Posted by Penisnipples on June 25, 2011 at 6:00 PM · Report this
36
I was at the show on Friday, and yes it was packed. Show up early, or you'll be standing in the back, if you get in at all.

And for the record, this is one fat guy who A. isn't sad, and B. loves the song 'Fat Children'. It's one song I wish he'd bring back.
Posted by J_Brisby on June 25, 2011 at 7:18 PM · Report this
37
Two of my favorite people--what a great interview! I saw Tim in NYC a few months ago, and I just bought tickets for DC. Yeah--I'm a Tim Minchin geek. If you're reading this, Tim, can you please come to Baltimore? Not that you aren't worth sitting on a bus for six hours and staying in the only dump in Brooklyn I could afford... I realize it's not NY or DC (hell, it's not even Philadelphia), but I'm doing my damnedest to build up a following for you here. (To take away my guilt for stealing all your music off the internet...)
Posted by MelissaBee on June 26, 2011 at 5:53 PM · Report this
38
I needed to read this interview. Dan's SLOG on "Fat Children" put a barrier up between Minchin and myself. His retort on the song has lifted that barrier. Maybe now I can enjoy his stuff.

Just remember, being fat is not what makes fat people sad, it's being judged. Being fat is pretty fucking cool once you get over the prejudice.
Posted by Billy the Fridge on June 27, 2011 at 7:36 AM · Report this
39
Ah yes, all interesting and all true.

But Mr. Minchin—what do you think of Neil Innes?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n83uhp36…
Posted by Robin Landseadel on June 29, 2011 at 8:42 AM · Report this
40
Tom Lehrer wrote songs about necrophilia and S&M. And he was a big fan of gallows humor. He may not have used swears, but Mr. Conservative Family Values he was not.
Posted by Whoop Di Doo on June 29, 2011 at 8:01 PM · Report this

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