Tim Minchin is a theater geek turned cabaret comedy renegade whose cheeky wordplay and nimble fingers behind the piano are just now earning him fame beyond his native Australia and resident country of Britain. With his charcoal-lined eyes and ratty red locks (don't call him a ginger unless you are one, he says in his song) , he's a bit of a comedy rock star, having burst the million-views mark on many of his YouTube videos and notably guest-hosted long-running UK game show Nevermind The Buzzcocks.
Tim's touring the U.S. for the first time this summer, making a stop in Minneapolis at the Pantages. We tracked him down over the phone to find out a bit more about the guy some have called the next face of musical comedy.
Have you been to the States much before this tour?
Not really, I mean I've been to New York and LA -- New York for a bit and LA for not much -- and now I've seen a lot of airports and highways! I'm not complaining though, I absolutely loving the glimpses I'm getting. I've been to Chicago, Boston, Austin, Seattle and Portland, and there's been a really great group of 500+ core fans at each gig. It almost seems more fan-ish than in the UK or Australia where I'm from; perhaps it's grown in my absence. Back home they don't feel so deprived.
It seems like there's a good chunk of people in the US that are into non-American humor -- maybe this comes from being pummeled with shows like the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
I think you're actually right, there are some really interesting, incredible comedians here, but the bulk of what people get put in front of them is a result of the industry. There's a few different factors at play, I reckon. Because there's so much TV and film made in the states, comedians are looking at that as their end goal. You do comedy in order to get a sitcom or a late-night chat show or to get into film, which is fine, but it might have the effect of creating a mainstream-y style.
Is it similar over in the UK?
In the UK, although people want to make telly, the live comedy thing is as big as the rock scene in a way. There's all these comedians doing arenas and theaters. To get your head above the crowd in live comedy, you have to be different and creative. I have very little engagement actually with the comedy scene in any country, really, I'm just this theater guy who started doing this show. I've never done clubs and I've refused a lot of telly.
Because I'm into live performance. It's the only place where it translates. I'd happily do telly but sitting and playing piano only works in the room, really. People like it well enough, they come to my shows and say "Oh, that guy is so much better live..." and you go, "Well, yeah." There's this natural progression for comedians to start doing television as a job, and I think it's pretty well paid, and it makes you famous and you get to sell more tickets when you go out live, but you're a presenter. I didn't start doing this to be a presenter. Especially because I wrote this musical for the West End in London, I keep thinking to myself, I love doing these panel shows but actually what I want to do -- if i was lying on my death bed thinking back on my career -- I'd like to have created shit. I've got this wicked situation now where I can sell thousands of tickets to my live shows but I can walk down the street because I'm not on people's tellies all the time.
You did do some television that was quite impressive when you hosted popular UK gameshow Nevermind The Buzzcocks. Did you enjoy that?
I'm not very good at that competitive panel show thing, but Buzzcocks is an exception because it's just so mad. I love Noel [Fielding] and I love Simon Amstel. I'm so proud of Simon for stopping because it's hard when you have a job like that to stop and go back to doing standup. We've invited each other around to each others houses for parties and such but never are in the same place at the same time.
One thing I've always wondered about that show - is it scripted?
Anything that the host says looking into the camera, he's reading the auto-cue. What you do is, you go in early in the day and they tell you vaguely what the segments are and show you the music videos, but they don't tell you what the actual questions are. In the end, if you sat back and tried to write hollow jokes, none of them would air -- only about 20% of what gets said makes it on. It tapes for over two hours so the reason people look so witty is that they've been sitting there trying to be funny for the better part of two hours! [laughs] They narrow it down to 27 minutes and find the best things that happened. I loved hosting and I think they were happy with the job I did. That show, at least, is something I could do happily and naturally, I think.
Did you start off wanting to be a musician first?
I didn't start comedy until I was 30, so there's 12 years of adulthood there. I was an actor, and a working musician in a million bands. I played piano for cabaret artists, I played keyboards in funk and disco bands, I've played in piano bars, and I wrote music for theater. That's how I started out. I wrote a score for a play when I was 17 and I acted in stage drama not particlarly successfully but not too badly. My comedy career was really just me putting together a cabaret show where people laughed more than I expected. I'm still figuring out standup, I'm only five years in.
What's the most memorable thing anyone's ever said about your comedy?
My first ever Edinburgh festival, the main comedy editor in London came to the show at one point and he thought he had his 10 pages of comedy reviews sorted out, but he kicked everything else off and replaced it with a front page article that said something like, "Sell your house and put your money on the safest bet you'll ever make: Tim Minchin's going to be the next face of musical comedy." My show is quite razzle dazzle, and I really play the fuck out of the instrument and stuff, so people get a quite cool version of this genre of comedy. But those reviews, they do have real impact to get yourself going. That review translated into management and DVD offers.
A question about your hometown of Perth: If anyone ever finds themselves there, what should they do?
They should go to the beach and stay there. The thing with Perth is, it's like any town in the world. There's really amazing bits and some bits that are a little depressing. People there like sport more than art or theater, but I adore Perth. We go back as much as we can. When my wife and me and my kids go back now, we don't stay with our parents or anything, we just get a place as close to the beach as possible and don't wear shoes all day.
That was actually my next question. Why do you play piano barefoot?
I always do. It's just part of being a free mantle hippie, really. I don't think I wore shoes for most of my arts degree at University. It was the grunge era, no one did. It was certainly the closest thing to successful feminism in terms of fashion I've ever seen - for women, if you wore a short skirt or something, people would go, "What's wrong with that girl? Is she a prostitute or something?" My now wife -- I met her at that age -- she wore overalls every day. People just wore floppy pants, t-shirts and no makeup. It was just kind of feral. That may be the reason. I was doing gigs in a tiny Melbourne room in the Butterfly Club and I'd do songs and try to write some new ones as often as possible. at that point I started wearing no shoes because it was nerve wracking. It seemed to work for me to own the space in that way. Still has the same effect.
TIM MINCHIN plays the Pantages Theatre on Saturday, July 16 at 8:00 p.m. Click here for tickets.
Tim on Twitter: www.twitter.com/timminchin