I just see myself as someone who has a bit of a way with words, basically”, says Tim Minchin, the musician, comedian, writer, actor, superstar, Doctor of Letters and world’s most favourite ginger (if we may call him that).
Having won awards for his comedy and music – most recently a fistful of Oliviers for his musical of Roald Dahl’s Matilda – he is now working simultaneously on a new animated film for DreamWorks, set in the Australian outback, and the music and lyrics for a musical version of Groundhog Day. And now, he has also come out as a poet. Which is great news, because it means that we finally have an excuse to interview him for these pages.
He’s talking to me about the new book of his beat poem “Storm”, from the studio in his LA home where he is aptly surrounded by musical instruments, a writing desk, and a hi-tech, Skype-interview set-up. “Storm” is a short and wickedly funny tale of a man at a dinner party who loses his rag with a good-looking hippy when she starts banging on about homeopathy and psychics. In real life, he says, the dinner party happened but the rant didn’t, and the poem is a triumph of esprit d’escalier – except that “a lot of the time your instinct is right: it’s usually better not to confront because most people are unable to change their minds, and if there’s any possibility of anyone changing their mind about anything, direct, aggressive confrontation is not going to change it.” After starting life in Minchin’s 2008 live show, Ready For This, “Storm” was animated by the artists D C Turner and Tracy King, and the resulting short film was viewed more than three million times on YouTube. The new book of that animation is bound to be a Christmas hit, as people buy-up copies to hand out like pamphlets to irritating hippies at dinner parties. It has, like many of his songs, “its sting in its body and a heart in its tail”.
For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity – imagine the bastard offspring of Simon Singh and Richard Dawkins, with the hairdo of a troll toy, green-tinted contact lenses, bare feet and guyliner, cheerfully singing “fuck the motherfucking Pope” – Minchin is surprisingly gentle in person. In his recent Honorary Doctor of Letters speech at his alma mater, the University of Western Australia, the fatherly 39-year-old told students to be “pro-stuff”, not “anti-stuff”, and revealed that he makes “important decisions about big executives based on how they treat the wait[ing] staff”.
He actively avoids labels such as “atheism” and “humanism”, he says now, although he does concede that humanist principles inform all his work: “The fight against anti-intellectualism is all through Matilda”, for instance. He claims that he is “not very funny” in real life, but he talks just like he does on stage: “But yeah. I’m incredibly interested in science as a construct and the philosophy of science and how it applies to our life and how you can think like a scientist in order to sustain a humanist world view where you’re challenging your own ethical positions and aaaaall that stuff…
When I ask him what he makes of the Bible, he says: “If Jesus were here now he would clearly be a liberal humanist. Obviously, he’d be embarrassed that there are all these people quoting him from two thousand years ago. He would find it unbearably awkward. He’d go, ‘Um, guys [in Minchin’s version, Jesus sounds a lot like Paul McCartney], I was just working within the knowledge structure of the time to preach humanism. Like, will you drop it, please?’” If first-century Nazareth had had green-tinted contact lenses ….
At this point I have to confess that, while I don’t exactly think he’s Jesus, I am a huge fan of Tim Minchin. His song “If I Didn’t Have You (I Would Probably Have Somebody Else)” is my favourite love song – not flimsy romance but an intelligent “Our Tune” for grown-up lovers. He wrote it, like many others, for his wife, whom he met when they were 17. “I love people who understand what that song is about,” he says. “You can’t always rely on everyone listening.” The song “Prejudice” (aka “Only a ginger can call another ginger ginger”) is “a buzz” to perform. “Because the tension in the room is just glorious, and you hold the power of the knowledge that you’re going to relieve them. You’re going to let them off.” So, I have to ask, can someone who dyes her hair ginger [that’s me] call another ginger ginger? He explodes with laughter. “I can’t believe it! Um, I think that’s a bit like minstrelism, it’s a bit like blacking up.” Oops.
It’s good to know, then, that Minchin is a bookworm. He’s “a massive Ian McEwan fan”, as well as trying to keep up with science. He’s just been sent an early copy of Jon Ronson’s next book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. He was reading Simon Singh and Professor Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, when he wrote “Storm”. Having studied English and theatre, and then music, at university, he is a passionate advocate of the Arts and the Sciences working together.
So, how about it, would he like to be an author? Of course! A novel, he says. And a book of essays. And then … “I’m trying to get better at not being such a fragile fucking idiot that needs to show everyone … but I’m slightly driven by going, ‘Yeah, I could be a serious actor and I could write musicals and I’ll show them’, and it’s so petty.” Before he gets better at saying “no” to projects, however, he definitely wants to write a children’s book, and I think he’d do it brilliantly. “I have these rhyme-based ideas, because I love Julia Donaldson. ‘The Snail and the Whale’ is one of the most beautiful poems, and I feel like I could do that. I can make rhymes. My style of writing is kind of childlike anyway.” Well, yes, except when it’s about the Pope.
Mostly, though, he’s just happy doing what he’s doing – which is a lot. “It’s hard to express without sounding falsely humble,” he says, sounding genuinely humble. “But when I was 17, if someone had offered me this career or a hundred billion dollars, I would have taken this career, without a second’s hesitation. People say, ‘Well how did you get your career?’ And my answer is, really, expect nothing, and work your fucking guts out.”
It’s a good philosophy. That, and have a bit of a way with words.
Storm, by Tim Minchin with D C Turner and Tracy King, foreword by Neil Gaiman. Orion, £12.99