Tim Minchin: interview

Time Out meets piano-playing funnyman Tim Minchin to discuss pen pals, nerdy fans and his lack of a ‘Kate Bush moment’. Whatever that means…

  • Tim Minchin: interview

    Piano man: musical maestro Minchin

  • Sitting in an Edinburgh café having breakfast with Australian comic and musical maestro, Tim Minchin, I can’t help but wonder why he’s not more of a household name.

    He’s annoyingly multi-talented, with rock star good looks and a sharp and focused intellect. Although he has a considerable, ever-expanding and devoted fan base he’s yet to to break through to the wider public consciousness.

    ‘I struggle a bit to get on telly because people think: What? Piano Guy? What are we going to do with him? They don’t seem to realise I can be chirpy on a panel show even without a keyboard in front of me.

    'It’s been slow progress, I’ve just been bubbling away. The internet has been great for spreading my name and the press awareness has been rising steadily for a few years. But there’s been no big Kate Bush moment.’

    I’m not entirely sure what he means by that but I don’t want to appear stupid so I don’t ask him to clarify it. I guess he must be referring to the child prodigy’s explosion on to the music scene in 1979 when at the tender age of just 19 she went to Number One for four weeks with her very first release ‘Wuthering Heights’. But I’m not that familiar with her career so it could mean something else.

    There are, however, some similarities between Minchin and the adorably kooky Ms Bush: both are virtuoso pianists, both have eclectic and idiosyncratic approaches to their work, both have theatrical and mime elements to their live performances and both tell jokes between songs – except Kate.

    Watching him the night before presening his tour de force new show ‘Ready For This?’ it occurred to me that if Edward Scissorhands had been blond, and played the piano instead of cut hair then Tim would have been the perfect person to play the role. Like Burton’s greatest creation, Minchin’s on-stage persona begins his shows as a shy, gothic, mass of insecurity and is transformed into an excitable, grinning devil when released by the joy of his talents with his instruments of choice (in Tim’s case, a piano and an incredibly adept and poetic turn of phrase). Perhaps, it’s this mixture of qualities which provokes such strong and almost obsessive love and loyalty among his audience.

    ‘I have heavy fans. It’s a little strange having more than 12,000 articles written by them about me on the net. Don’t get me wrong though, I love my fans. I’m a fan of my fans. They’re bright, unusual, open-minded people who read and examine everything I put out. I think they get the contrast between the slightly rockstarry persona and the fact that in real life I’m just desperate to be loved by everyone. They’re nerds who understand the irony of it all. They’re a bit like me, I guess.’

    And how hard has he worked to create the Tim Minchin we see on stage? ‘I came into all of it so naively. I’d never been to see a live comedy gig before my first one-hour show. I’m not really a comedy consumer,’ he admits somewhat sheepishly. ‘I didn’t even really think what I was doing was stand-up. Genres don’t really matter. What I was, was a frustrated actor and muso with, as it turns out, something satirical to say. I stuck all of that together, and found my own individual way to entertain.’

    But this doesn’t mean that it was somehow effortless or accidental by any means. ‘I’ve never formally trained at anything I do, but I work really hard to be as good as I possibly can be. I like watching people who are virtuosic. I’ve probably got 20 years or so before I’m anywhere near close to that level on anything that I do, but I’m determined to keep chipping away at it.’

    It’s a little hard to understand his heartfelt modesty. Not only is he one of the funniest, most intelligent and most thought-provoking comedians I’ve seen to in a long time, he is a breathtakingly talented pianist and his exquisite ‘Nine Minute Beat Poem’, the climax to his latest show, would have made Ginsberg weep with joy and warm the cockles of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s heart.

    There is one particularly strong seam of material that he mines throughout this new hour-and-a-half. ‘I’m a bit obsessed by religion,’ he says, smiling.

    This is an understatement. Within the show he attacks the Church’s anti-homosexual stance, questions the existence of an omnipotnet deity and discusses the absurdity of believing that human morals are somehow God-given. ‘I might not be that intelligent but I read a lot of books,’
    he says humbly.

    Unsurprisingly he’s a big fan of Richard Dawkins, perhaps more surprising is his pen pal relationship with magician and legendary sceptic James Randi. ‘He heard one of my songs and wrote to me. I couldn’t believe it. We write every now and then. It’s amazing. The point is though that it’s something I’m passionate about, I don’t want to simply say religion is stupid. That’s pointless.

    'I want to say something about why it matters that we are saying these things. And it really does matter a lot at the moment.’ His conviction and fervour are unequivocal . ‘These are the ideas that I’m interested in, so I’m going to talk about them, if I can make them entertaining, funny and still actually say something then I’m doing my job. If I died knowing I’d turned a whole lot of kids against God I’d be a happy man.’

    Perhaps, this is the key to his success. He’s an artist able to communicate complex ideas clearly and eloquently and yet never compromise his ability to make an audience laugh. He’s also happy to poke fun at his own failings and play the clown, which, as with Shakespeare’s fools, makes his message even stronger and more profound.

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