Winner of the Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005 and creator of the cabaret smashes Dark Side and So Rock talked to Darlene Taylor about funny stuff, fat kids and his tragic thing for Sting.
Darlene Taylor: Hi Tim, thanks for joining me in the studio, well, cheers for sort of being in my bedroom in Melbourne. It’s incumbent on me to mention one of the most exciting snippets of information I discovered about you while paddling the web. “I love Sting” is the quote I found on the ABC’s site. As a thirty-something female, I am proud to declare that “Sting rocks”. Why did you use the word “tragic” in the sentence prior to your declaration of love?
Tim Minchin: Geez, I said that? I do love Sting, and defend my right to do so because he’s got one of the most beautiful voices in the industry, and he plays with amazing musos. As you know, I promote the notion that I’m a slightly uncool, middle-class, wannabe rock star, and in that context, a love of Sting is part of the “tragedy”, I guess.
DT: You’ve been in many quality theatre and television productions during your career including The Tempest and Comedy Inc. Why did you decide to let your parents down and become a comic?
TM: I was an extra on Comedy Inc. I’d forgotten about that. As mentioned, I tend to exploit the failed rock star thing in my comedy, but actually what I am is an actor/musician who took a long time to realise how to put all the bits together. In hindsight, I guess my strengths have always been songwriting and performing. The comedic side was always there but I didn’t think to focus on it. Looking back, the path I’ve taken seems so obvious. My folks have never been “stage parents”, but they never stopped me doing what I wanted. They, of course, wanted me to get a vocational degree to “fall back on”, but they love what I’m doing now.
DT: Your work covers a range of topics including religion, the environment, marriage and an obnoxious stockbroker with a girlfriend possibly named Darlene. The writer Fiona Scott-Norman has argued that, “The comedians I like are the ones who have something to say. I don’t much mind what it is as long you’re passionate. Laughter is one of the most amazing tools for social change in the world; you can change how people think if you can make them laugh.” What do you think about Scott-Norman’s analysis and how important do you think it is for humour to be about something more than having a giggle?
TM: If Fiona said it, it’s bound to be so, in my experience. I suppose Fiona and (Eddie Perfect) and I could all write huge bloody essays on this question. We’ve certainly had big discussions about it. I think I probably think something along the lines of: Individual comedy acts change people in tiny increments. It’s the cumulative impact of all (socially aware) art that can create more open minds. There are of course exceptions to this. Sometimes an audience member’s thinking can be “radicalised” by watching one act/hearing one song/seeing one painting. I think this mostly happens in young people. That is, teenagers in their philosophically formative stages. I think laughing at the stuff that worries us is empowering and cathartic. There’s nothing at all wrong with laughter for laughter’s sake (i.e. without any intent to change audience beliefs). However, there’s always a subtext, even if it was not intended. Personally, all I try to do is say things I think about in an “interesting” way in the hope that people might mull over them a little. I don’t have a clear political agenda; however, I admire those who do. Trouble is if I start writing material about the fleeting minutiae of Aussie politics, it’s not going to entertain or inform my audiences in London eighteen months later.
DT: When I put the following quote to Eddie Perfect, he used a word that my post-modern friends like to reclaim; however, as I’m an old-fashioned feminist, I’m warning you to watch your potty mouth. Is Tom Lehrer a “cunt” due to the following statement which appeared in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald, and how would you respond to his declaration?
.bq Audiences like to think that satire is doing something. But, in fact, it is mostly to leave themselves satisfied. Satisfied rather than angry, which is what they should be.
TM: Did Ed say Tom Lehrer’s a cunt? Hilarious. Since I’ve been in the UK, I’ve noticed no one uses that word over here. I pine for the insouciant fondness with which Australians bandy it about. However, I’m not totally clear on what old Tom is saying there. I don’t want people to leave my show angry. I want them to leave thinking, ”...that nice young man sure could play the piano well and we really had a good laugh”, and then I want them to wake up the next day unconsciously a tiny bit less conservative than they were the day before. I want to sneak my thoughts in under the cover of my music and comedy. Although, I suppose if you can make people laugh and get all fired up about a political issue at the same time, then you’re kicking arse. For me, it’s more “slowly slowly eat the elephant”. Or is it “softly softly catchy monkey”? One of those two.
DT: Do you think artists with a political element to their work inevitably preach to the converted?
TM: Yes, inevitably. But that doesn’t really matter. It’s nice to have one’s beliefs affirmed while you’re being entertained. And there’s always the chance you might change a few minds. I feel squeamish about the implication of the word “converted” in this sense. It suggests that an artist is someone who has earned the right to “convert”. Which of course we all think we have. Cunts (Sorry).
DT: To contradict my last question, I enjoy your work a lot, but I find the song “Fat Children” a tad preachy and full of simplistic conclusions about why many kids are obese. Should satire really be aimed at bigger targets than parents who might be doing it tough? (That’s my “I want a job on Today Tonight” question)
TM: Oh damn, I don’t want you not to like it. A lot of people really love that song. Especially health workers and teachers who see how bad diet negatively affects their charges. I’ve also had positive feedback from a couple of seriously large people. People are obese because they eat too much bad food. That’s a truism and it’s this that I’m trying to capture in being “simplistic”. The question of why people eat too much food is infinitely complex, but is kind of moot because I’m not saying being big is a problem. I’m saying overfeeding one’s kids is abusive. There’s a whole other element of course: specifically, the correlation between obesity and lower socio-economic status, which is what you’re referring to I guess (“doing it tough”). Sure, I can see that it can be hard to find the time and money to prepare good food and get your kids to exercise. But a soccer ball costs less than an Xbox and a lot of the people in the world who let their kids get fat drive huge fuel-guzzling cars and have a TV in every room. It’s actually knowledge that’s lacking. Regardless, it’s a significant and growing problem that people in the “West” overfeed their little kids. Sure, they’re not a “big” target (mean pun by the way), but I don’t think my job is to slay giants the whole time.
Audiences turn off if all you ever do is address the latest global Goliath. Obesity is a serious issue, and I’m deliberately being a bit shockingly judgmental in that song. We are overconsumers. We are greedy. We watch too much television. We don’t exercise enough. We are bringing up lazy, sugar-addicted people who won’t be able to redress their bad habits as adults and they’ll have health and self-esteem problems as a result. But more than anything, it’s just another subject about which to write, and another subject to which people can react.
As I say, I have no specific agenda. And yes, it’s pretty preachy, but I guess I’m trying to see if there’s humour and impact in saying this stuff in a way that has become taboo. That is, without hiding behind euphemism. Obviously you think not, but I’m slowly learning to deal with the inevitability (of) not pleasing everyone all the time. Being able to take criticism is an ongoing challenge of mine, as indicated by the length of this answer. You spend your whole life trying to be liked, and then land in an industry where every now and then you’ll inevitably be hated.
My big problem with the song – and I have problems with a lot of my work – is that I hate the thought of people with weight problems sitting in my audience feeling bullied, and I get that that may happen. As a result, I tend not to do it live very often.
DT: “Peace Anthem for Palestine” is a fun song that celebrates a behaviour two warring groups have in common. That is, not eating pigs. Please discuss whether you have received any negative feedback about the use of the word “Palestine”.
TM: Never had protests about using Palestine. I usually refer to Israel in my intro, but not always. One reviewer said he found it about as funny as a suicide bomber. I took that to mean he didn’t find it funny, but maybe I misjudged his sense of humour. Mostly people love it. It’s my favourite tune to play, and it accurately reflects my feelings about religious conflict.
DT: There have been criticisms in the past about the Melbourne Comedy Festival’s refusal to include performers who crack jokes about Islam. Songs like “Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins” suggest you’re an equal opportunity taker of the piss. What topics do you regard as off-limits given the current political climate and what do you think about comics who kick the boot into Christians but leave other faiths untouched?
TM: All religion should always be a target. There’s never a time when religion should be off-limits to satirists. It’s one of the biggest, most powerful and influential forces in the world, and it’s ridiculous and damaging hypocrisy needs to be pointed out over and over again. It’s just a matter of finding ways to do it that are interesting. Obviously the positive attributes of religion are substantial too, but talking about them is not in my job description.
DT: Finally, please tell me a bit about Tim and what the future holds for him (sheer poetry).
TM: Living in London now. Baby due in ten days1. Opened on the West End last Sunday (went very well, yay!). Just recorded a special for Radio Two. Filming some television for the BBC. Canvas Bags film clip next week involving forty extras and dancers plus a marching band, wind machine and shopping trolleys. UK tour in January. Australian tour in March. It’s all very busy and very exciting.
1 Tim’s wife gave birth to a daughter on 24 November.