Tim Minchin: The satirist who ran out of upwards to punch

What happens when a satirist becomes a superstar? His targets have to get bigger, too – as Tim Minchin is finding out.

It’s lunchtime in a basement restaurant in London, and Tim Minchin is explaining to me why he needs to shut up. It’s because he follows me on Twitter. “I follow all you guys – or I follow more pro-sciencey, feminist commentators than anyone else – because I’m trying to put my face in all this stuff; this notion that I am suddenly a cisgendered, privileged person whose voice is . . .” He trails off. “Who needs to shut up.”

Minchin is referring to the raging internet debate over “privilege”: the idea that the people with the biggest megaphones have the greatest duty to make sure they don’t drown out more marginalised voices. And yet, that there are times when it is better to zip it is an intriguing conclusion for Minchin to reach, because everything else in his life suggests that shutting up is the last thing he should do. At 39, he is moving from one very successful career – as a musical comedian, or a funny musician, depending on where you put the emphasis – to another, as the writer of blockbuster stage musicals.

Four years ago, he wrote the music and lyrics to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage version of Matilda, which won seven Olivier Awards and transferred from the West End to Broadway in a comet-tail of superlatives. His co-writer Dennis Kelly says bluntly: “There are these dumb rules in musicals, like you have to walk out humming a tune. And so what you often get is one quite good song and a whole bunch of shitty ones. Tim didn’t think like that – he wasn’t looking for a hit song, the one you perform at the Royal Variety Show. Although, as it happens, he does have songs in there that are standouts.” On the strength of Matilda, Minchin is now writing a musical version of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, as well as developing an animated film for DreamWorks called Larrikins.

Words have made Tim Minchin successful in three countries: his native Australia; Britain, where his first Edinburgh Festival appearance made him famous in one turbulent fortnight; and now America, where he is known to atheist nerds as “the guy who called the Pope a motherf***er” and to fans of glossy network dramas as “the naked guy in Californication who isn’t David Duchovny”.

But there’s a parallel story about words here, because a satirist – particularly one with a social conscience, particularly in the age of the online outrage machine – must weaponise his or her ability to be offensive, and then ensure it obliterates the intended target rather than bystanders. A satirist lives and dies in the grey idea between intended and unintended offence. When a satirist becomes a superstar, how does he find a target big enough to be worth taking on?

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Tim Minchin by Ralph Steadman, for the New Statesman. 

Tim Minchin was born in England, but grew up in Perth, Western Australia, which is both very beautiful and very, very far from anywhere else. (The next city is a 28-hour drive away.) He went to its poshest private school, and spent his teenage years playing hockey and playing piano in his older brother Dan’s band, Timmy the Dog.

The family is still close – his father, a retired surgeon, his mother, two sisters, Dan, and their kids all flew to London to see Matilda when it opened. A few years earlier, he had closed his live show with an unapologetically tear-jerking song about Christmas in Australia, “White Wine in the Sun”. He sang about taking his baby daughter Violet home to meet them: “These are the people who’ll make you feel safe in this world/My sweet blue-eyed girl”. It reliably had people snuffling into their sleeves, and this convinced Matthew Warchus of the RSC to ask him to write Matilda: the director knew Minchin could make people laugh, but it turned out he could make them cry, too.

Minchin’s material has always drawn its force from his own life. Unfortunately, while a well-balanced, academically inclined family is an undoubted asset in many ways, it’s not much help if you want to be a tortured emo genius. Several of his best songs focus on the paucity of material generated by his happy childhood and his debilitating lack of emotional issues (“So he sits and imagines his girlfriend is dead/To try and invoke some angst in his middle-class head/But the bitch is always fine, at half past nine . . ./When they go to bed”).

After graduating in performing arts, he moved to Melbourne to try to break into theatre. “I had written six scores by the time I was 20, and I’d never been paid a dollar,” he tells me. “I was brought up in a town where it never crossed my mind I’d get paid for it . . . that I could have a musical in the West End, are you f***ing joking? I thought, ‘I can’t even read music.’ ”

As it happens, he still can’t read music now, a subject on which he is ever so slightly defensive. “The fact I can’t read dots doesn’t mean I don’t understand music very well. I can say, ‘That is an A flat dominant seven and we want a flat nine, and that should be on top, expressed by the strings –’ ” Is it now a point of pride not to, I ask, having come this far? “Oh, you just can’t go back. I tried. I did a course in Perth and my aim was to learn to read music, but can you imagine being able to play the piano reasonably well and then going back to stage one? And I don’t need to. Most of the best songwriters that ever lived couldn’t read music.”

It was in 2005 that Minchin had his big break. He arrived in Britain for the Edinburgh Festival at the request of the comedy producer Karen Koren, and with the documentary film-maker Rhian Skirving in tow. The omens were not great – Minchin was sharing a grubby dressing room with the Australians behind a self-explanatory show called Puppetry of the Penis – but Skirving thought he was worth taking a chance on after seeing him play in cabaret clubs in Australia. “Each show got better and funnier and more sophisticated,” she tells me by email. “By the time he performed at Melbourne Comedy Festival 2005 Tim had found his onstage character – a tortured artist at the bottom of the heap who can’t get anyone to listen to him.”

The effect was helped by a makeover that left him with a distinct image: lashings of eyeliner, chemically relaxed and backcombed hair, mildly Gothic clothes and bare feet. (There is a video online that shows him before this process: he has a ginger afro and is wearing a tight, short-sleeved T-shirt. It is safe to say he would not have attracted such a devoted female fan base if he had kept this look.) Today, in off-duty mode, he is wearing an unremarkable hooded sweatshirt and thick-framed glasses.

Skirving turned her time with Minchin into a documentary, Rock’n’Roll Nerd, an abrasively honest account of what a sudden rise to fame does to a person. He is shown savouring the fusillades of praise that rained down on him, culminating in the 2005 Perrier Award for Best Newcomer; but he also allows himself to be filmed feeling hurt and vulnerable after a critical mauling.

“Tim reacted very strongly to the one or two dreadful reviews he started to receive,” Skirving says. “In those days I don’t think he was more or less sensitive to criticism than any performer – he was just open and articulate about the effect it had on him.” She adds: “Tim doesn’t engage much with reviews these days; they make him feel like the King of the World, or shake his confidence or make him cross – none of which is helpful.”

One review in particular made him cross: the comedy critic Phil Daoust gave his Edinburgh performance a single, lonely star in the Guardian and averred: “Strip away Minchin’s fretful porpentine hair, white piano and willingness to fall off the stage for a laugh and you’re left with a bog-standard stand-up with a silly voice and a few good songs, most of whose material would have seemed dated in the last millennium.” And he concluded: “Whatever happened to that fine old tradition of tarring and feathering?”

In 2008, in his show Ready for This?, Minchin gave his answer to the review in a song that contained the lyrics: “Just wanna say, Phil Daoust, occasional Guardian newspaper journal-oust/That it’s been three years since you wrote it, and time is very healing/But I still wanna cut big chunks of flesh out of your stupid face and make your children watch while I force you to eat them.” He performed it to thousands of people every night at the Hammersmith Apollo in London.

He doesn’t perform it any more. “I don’t know how I feel about the song any more,” he told Desert Island Discs in 2012. “I feel bad for Phil that if you type his name in [to Google], his name is associated with that song.” Even though he didn’t regret writing it at the time, “Then it goes on the internet, and four, five years later, it’s still there. That’s the bit I don’t feel great about.”

What happened in those intervening years is that Minchin got big, seriously big. And that changes the power dynamic between reviewer and performer. At first, Daoust had all the power: he was the gatekeeper of taste, passing judgement on an unknown wannabe. Then the wannabe became an actually-is and the playing field became level. But as Minchin’s star continued to rise, suddenly the power was all with him: now far more people are interested in Tim Minchin’s opinion of Phil Daoust than in Phil Daoust’s opinion of Tim Minchin. To continue singing about feeding Daoust’s children his face-meat would seem bullying.

Comedians call this idea “punching up”: the belief that you should not just pick on people your own size, but preferably someone bigger. It is behind the liberal backlash against jokes about the disabled, the poor and minorities: who can enjoy watching a rich man mocking “mongs” or rape victims? It is a notion that many comedians who become successful fast struggle with: the “edgy” material that went down so well on the live circuit looks very different refracted through TV lights and a million tweets. You can “do a Gervais” – insist that the veil of irony absolves you of any potential criticism for mocking the weak; or you can copy Frankie Boyle and exile yourself from the mainstream.

Success kills many comedians, or at least their stage personas: “Strip away the showbiz and a pure stand-up is still a turn, a music-hall act,” is how Stewart Lee has described it. “It’s clowning, and clowns are always tragic figures.” Of Minchin’s career, Rhian Skirving says: “He played up this low-status persona and it was incredibly endearing. Audiences fell in love with him. That time in his life is now far gone. As his success has grown so has his status and people do listen to him now. So of course that onstage character has had to evolve to keep his show from feeling disingenuous.”

This has involved shedding songs, like a snakeskin, as his career has continued to grow. In 2011, “Fat Children” (“Do not feed doughnuts to your obese children”, it goes) left his repertoire. “It’s a song about people who are abusing their kids by forcing a choice on them,” he told the journalist Dan Savage. “But, f***, 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.” Rock’n’Roll Nerd shows another misstep: the song “If You Really Loved Me” featured the lyrics: “We go together like a cracker and Brie/Like racism and ignorance,/Like n*****s and R’n’B”.

The N-word caused an instant reaction, and in the film, Minchin is shown struggling to come to terms with being considered a racist. Ultimately, he apologises fully for using the word and explains why its resonance had not been fully clear to him (“You don’t hear that word in Australia outside of hip-hop,” he told Savage. “It’s not like anyone calls a black person that word here”). He then writes a new song: “Prejudice”. “In our modern free-spoken society/There is a word that we still hold taboo,” it begins, tantalisingly.

A couple of Gs, an R and an E,
an I and an N
Just six little letters all jumbled together
Have caused damage that we may
never mend
And it’s important that we all respect
That if these people should happen
to choose
To reclaim the word as their own
It doesn’t mean the rest of you have
a right to its use . . .

I’ve seen this song performed live to an unsuspecting audience. The whole room clenched. And then the song reaches its chorus, revealing what those six letters spell for Minchin: “Only a ginger can call another ginger, ginger . . ./So listen to me if you care for your health/You won’t call me ginger unless you’re ginger yourself”. There was a collective exhale. Even now, he sometimes performs it to crowds that have no idea what is coming. “It’s so powerful,” he says. “Because when it breaks, the more it’s built up, the better the break.”

Rhian Skirving, who filmed Minchin’s anguish over his earlier song, says: “He learned very quickly and painfully the power of language and ownership of language. [‘Prejudice’] addresses that very lesson.”

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The show where I saw Minchin perform “Prejudice” also featured another song, which has had a much longer afterlife. It was a nine-minute beat poem called “Storm”, featuring a narrator at a north London dinner party getting increasingly angry with a tattooed hippie who insists on the fluidity of knowledge and the possibilities opened up by alternative medicine. Eventually, a crack forms in his “diplomacy dyke” and he berates her for her credulousness. The rant takes in psychics, homoeopathy, auras, star signs, spiritual healers and religious prophets. The best line is perhaps this one: “You know what they call ‘alternative medicine’ that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

In 2008, a pair of animators called D C Turner and Tracy King approached Minchin out of the blue about turning “Storm” into a video. He agreed, and their creation racked up three million views on YouTube. The reason I’m meeting Minchin is that Turner and King have now turned the poem into a glossy book, complete with a foreword by the Nerd King himself, Neil Gaiman.

I loved “Storm” when I first heard it but, like any piece of art, it exists within, and takes meaning from, its cultural context. In the case of the organised sceptic movement, this includes two events that Minchin could not have foreseen. The first is that the great nerd-comedian axis of the mid-2000s won its battle against woo-woo. The doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre took a chainsaw to Gillian McKeith’s career and the poo inspector didn’t trouble our screens again. Simon Singh triumphed – after a gruelling trial – in his quest for the right to be disobliging about chiropractors. Paul Chambers secured for us all the ability to make bad jokes on Twitter about blowing up airports.

The second is that the sceptic movement has been dogged by allegations of institutional sexism. Several of its leading lights have been accused of harassing female colleagues and guests at sceptic conventions.

In one such incident, a blogger called Rebecca Watson mentioned in a video diary that a man had made a pass at her in a lift and that such behaviour made her uncomfortable. She was rebuked by no less an atheist hero than Richard Dawkins, who wrote a sarcastic letter to an imaginary Muslim woman, “Muslima”, telling her not to complain about forced marriage and female genital mutilation, given “the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one . . . do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee.” (Dawkins later apologised, in passing, in a blog post about another subject.) After the incident, Watson suffered months of online abuse and harassment.

I suggest to Minchin that some of his fans must like “Storm” precisely because it shows a rational man giving an emotional, drippy woman her intellectual comeuppance. If he wrote it now, would he still make the title character a woman? “No, I probably wouldn’t – but it just became popular.” He points to his song “Mitsubishi Colt”, which features an unbearable millionaire swaggering about his bank balance. “It pre-dates ‘Storm’, and it’s about wealth and privilege and it’s a man, and it’s a dialogue, and I get slowly drunker and eventually just f***ing punch him.” He says he will defer to women on whether “Storm” is sexist, as anything else would be “mansplaining”.

Perhaps it’s like Gordon Gekko, or the Wolf of Wall Street, I suggest – you wrote an anti-hero and then your audience decided he was a hero? “You can’t make art backwards,” he protests. “You can’t make any art from the position of perceived reception, because you’ll be wrong anyway. I wrote ‘Storm’ because the moment I based it on was with a woman, and some of the attributes that annoyed me about her were probably feminine attributes . . . However, to hold myself to account further, would I have made her a Pakistani woman? If I had opened the poem and described her as having black skin – I would never have done that . . . That would make people go, ‘Oh, it’s racist.’ And yet it didn’t flag that it was a woman. And I don’t see women as less powerful than men, if I’m honest. You should meet my mum and my sisters and my wife.”

Unfortunately I haven’t met any of the female Minchins, but his wife, Sarah, does appear in Rock’n’Roll Nerd. At the time, she was working to support him as he tried to make it as a comedian: since he became successful she has given up her job to follow him around the world. When we meet in London she is back at their new home in Los Angeles, “with two kids on holiday, going mad”. He feels vaguely guilty about this, but his devotion to her is clear – they have been together, on and off, since their teens and have been married since 2001.

Tracy King, who has become a friend since collaborating with Minchin on Storm, is keen to defend him from the charge of sexism. “The character is a jerk,” she writes in an email. “Actual Tim is as fine a feminist as I’ve met – not because he gets it right, but because he does his homework. I’ve never known him to arrive at a position and stick with it regardless. That is sort of the point of Storm – she isn’t open to learning. She can’t deal with the tough questions, and Tim only deals in tough questions.”

Throughout our interview, Minchin worries about getting himself in trouble. This does not stop him from saying the kinds of things that might get him in trouble. For instance, on Richard Dawkins: “Look at poor old Dawks. I don’t care whether Richard says outrageously anti-Islamic [things] – not because I don’t care about Islamophobia: I do care if someone’s racist – it’s just that he’s not an icon to me. He’s just a guy who wrote a really good book.”

Or, on Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza, “I’m surprised by the incredibly intelligent people I know who say: ‘You don’t understand; this isn’t about religion, this is about politics and land.’ Hold on, they’re not mutually exclusive. Religion is the origin of the problem and the way it firms itself up and supports itself. Religion is used to tell kids to kill other people.”

In religion, Minchin has found the answer to his unique dilemma: that he had run out of upwards to punch. In 2010, he wrote “The Pope Song”, which called the pontiff a motherf***er more than 40 times. This rampant offensiveness is part of the conceit – how dare people be more offended by a swear word than by the Catholic Church covering up decades of paedophilic abuse by priests? The song says, “. . . if you protect/A single kiddie f***er/Then pope or prince or plumber/You’re a f***ing motherf***er”. It’s not subtle, but it certainly makes its point.

Not all of his songs about religion are such brickbats. In 2011, a relatively innocuous Christmas song, “Woody Allen Jesus” (“Short and Jewish and quite political/Often hesitant and very analytical”), got cut from The Jonathan Ross Show at the last minute. Minchin blamed ITV’s director of television Peter Fincham, writing on his blog: “He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.”

He tells me now that even if the great sceptic bugbears seem vanquished, religion is not. “My ranty stuff, my polemics, are about belief . . . and religion is the place where there is an inability to unpack belief. That’s the real place where the rubber hits the road. I’m always intrigued by the sceptical movement because they don’t want to go there – and I get that, because as soon as you step into religion, you lose your audience. Because religion is sacred.”

For that reason, he wants to use his comedy to encourage a rational world-view. “If you just play around in the shallows then you can surreptitiously start seeding the notion of critical thinking – and eventually people will find their way to [applying that to] their religious beliefs themselves. And that’s what happens. People first get worried about UFOs and stuff, and then they go, ‘Oh, hold on. That stuff I was told when I was five and very vulnerable about Jesus might not be true.’ ”

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Minchin with the New York Matildas. Photo: Getty

 

There is one final option for a comedian who runs out of upwards to punch: don’t punch at all. The RSC production of Matilda doesn’t aspire to make any grand satirical statements – which must have been a deliberate choice, given that the script was written by Dennis Kelly, author of the Channel 4 conspiracy drama Utopia and plays with titles such as Osama the Hero.

Both he and Minchin are adept at social commentary but decided to leave it out of Matilda. “Not every play has to be about the situation in Syria – it can just be about what it’s like living with your brother,” is how Kelly puts it to me when I catch him on the phone. “You have to feel it, though. It has to come from your heart.” They both wanted more than anything to explore the fun and the fear of childhood: “I found being a child a very frightening place; school was terrifying. With Matilda, what’s very attractive is that she sorts out her own problems. She’s got nowhere to run to.”

Minchin almost turned the Matilda project down. “I thought: ‘The comedy is working. Why would I go back to writing, being behind the scenes?’ But then I thought, ‘This is the RSC.’ ” He says he found working collaboratively to be invigorating after the narcissistic, self-referential world of stand-up comedy: “And I’m glad I’m excited by that, because this career can turn you into a puppet.” Kelly says he was expecting Minchin to have more ego, but he discovered someone who was just extremely, brutally straightforward. “He says what he means, and that can be taken as being a bit rude – if it’s in his mind, he says it. It’s not arrogance. Tim would bring in songs and say, ‘I’ve written this. I think it’s really good. I am really hoping you like this.’ At first, that’s quite disarming. You think, ‘F***ing hell, that’s intense’ – but actually he’s just telling you exactly what he means. Maybe it’s an Australian thing.”

Following Matilda, Minchin has reunited with the same team at the RSC to work on turning Groundhog Day into a musical. The critic David Benedict tells me that several other people previously turned down the commission: a story in which a man repeatedly relives the same day presents an unusual challenge to a composer because there is a fine line between a satisfying reprise and merely bludgeoning your audience with the same melody over and over again. When we meet, Minchin has just finished two weeks of workshopping the storyline. “It’s the hardest, best part of my life,” he says.

Is it significant that Groundhog Day has an uncomplicatedly happy ending? Perhaps he’s decided that inhabiting the persona of a tortured loser, even ironically, is too much of a stretch these days, given DreamWorks paycheques and the LA house.

If so, his next chapter might be even more interesting than his last, because he is one of the few artists who can spin happiness into gold. The best moment in Storm comes in the last section, after the self-important theatrics and the demolition of lazy magical thinking, when the narrator makes the case for wonder. Thanks to science and modern medicine, he says, he has “Twice as long to live this life of mine/Twice as long to love this wife of mine . . ./Twice as many years of friends and wine/Of sharing curries and getting shitty at good-looking hippies with fairies on their spines and butterflies on their titties”.

Tim Minchin may be less angry these days, and his targets might need to be bigger, but there is one modern evil that will always need fighting: cynicism. And that is why, I guess, he won’t be shutting up any time soon. 

“Storm”, by Tim Minchin with D C Turner and Tracy King, is published by Orion (£12.99)

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies