Film

Tim Minchin: "Comedians don't want to be trying to topple a despot"

Actor, comedian, composer and all round pigeonhole avoider Tim Minchin is back this week as Friar Tuck in the 'Robin Hood' remake, but he is also planning his return to stage after almost a decade. And what a weird decade it has been

In 2011 Tim Minchin sang a song about Pope Benedict backed by an orchestra and choir at the Royal Albert Hall. Pointing out the hypocrisy of claiming moral authority while covering up priests who had systematically abused children, it contained 157 f- and motherf-s. Remembering that moment, Minchin says it felt that he had taken musical satire to a point where he “couldn’t really imagine it getting more absurd.”

The same year, Minchin’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical with the Royal Shakespeare Company opened in the West End and instantly became a smash hit, so Minchin moved away from comedy to do more composing and acting; he plays Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood reboot out this week. Next year he is back behind the piano on his first tour in eight years, but he feels comedy and satire has changed enormously since a chorus of ‘Fuck the Pope’ rang around the Royal Albert Hall.

The Big Issue: For the last few years, your satirical comedy has taken a back seat. Are you to blame for everything that’s gone wrong since then?

Tim Minchin: I took my foot off the pedal, I was keeping the world in balance with my shit rhymes. When I started, which is only about 12 years ago, I was honing the craft of polemic rhyme – I wasn’t honing it, I was having a crack. ‘Fuck the Pope’ was powerful because no one was saying it. But we are so far beyond that. Now everyone’s a polemicist, no one cares about the form. No one. It is really a problem that being polemic just throws further fuel on this polarizing fire, to mix all sorts of metaphors.

What is a comedian’s role today?

Comedy actually works best when you’re living in an OK world and you are pointing out the hypocrisy in apathy. We need comedy now, but it’s not what comedians want. They don’t want to be trying to topple a despot, they want to be talking about bus timetables and how isn’t it weird that people wear beige trousers.

Anger and fear can bring about a lot of negative consequences but can it be used in a positive way?

I don’t really want to put more anger into the world now and that was what I was running on. Progressives have to be truthful and calm. When this dumpster fire starts, hopefully, burning down, we want progressivism to be the philosophy standing there saying: this is the data, this is the science, be kind. Fight for what is true. What is true is enough.

Some of your songs, especially from Matilda and Groundhog Day seem to focus on regret and what might have been. Do you think about that a lot?

Trying to work out where you find meaning and sense in a meaningless world is my obsession. The Human Condition is my obsession in a totally wanky way, I suppose it’s the obsession of all art. If you got to try 2018 a hundred different ways, what would you learn from that? That’s the thesis of Groundhog Day. Will I look back on 2018 and be proud? I try to say that to myself all the time, especially when shit’s not going right and I feel like having a fucking tantrum. In 20 years and I look back on how I behaved in this situation, will I be proud of myself? Will I be proud of the decisions I made? Yeah, I think about that shit a lot.

Your songs can make people laugh, or make people cry. Is there a similar process in making that happen?

I have come to the conclusion there is no point making anything if you’re not going to make people laugh and cry. In ‘White Wine in the Sun’ and ‘You Grew On Me’ you get that. Even When I Grow Up [from Matilda], you get a fond smile then suddenly find yourself feeling a bit sad. I’m obsessed with that and I think it’s to do is finding a truth. That sounds extremely pretentious but comedy and emotion both come from pointing out something that we all know but we hadn’t thought of in that way. That’s why we laugh. But that’s what the tears come from as well.

https://youtu.be/e0tRDhEmdO4?t=44

Is truth difficult to find when it seems people don’t mind being lied to by people in power?

Truth is hard because truth is not always as good a story. People want to feel things, they don’t want to know things. I think there’s a reason most of Trumps supporters are Christian. Their superpower is mitigating cognitive dissonance, partly because they’ve been taught to be able to look at something and believe the opposite. If you spent your whole life believing that Jesus is magic while still believing in physics and stuff then you can believe Trump’s good whilst hearing the news that is a lying cheat.

You play a religious man in Robin Hood, how do you square that?

I think you have to be eccentric to be religious, particularly these days. If you’re a bookish intellectual, the spirituality is resolved as being a manifestation of eccentricity; that poetic interpretation of the world.

Is your Friar Tuck the comic relief?

Tuck is traditionally depicted as a kind of shit friar. You know, the friar who is meant to be abstemious but sneaks alcohol. My guy is definitely not that. In a way he’s the ethical beacon, this warm heart in the middle of things. He’s not really the comic relief, but the trouble is I’m born with this face, right? And so people laugh even when I’m trying to be serious.

When you, as a singer and composer, are in a Robin Hood movie, are you tempted to write a song even better and more successful than Bryan Adams’ Robin Hood song?

Do you know what? I had a crack. Actually, I probably shouldn’t tell you that. It was pretty bad. It needed a whole lot of stuff that I couldn’t give it: a really good hip-hop artist to do a breakdown section and Arabic singing. I did say to them: ‘Do you want Tuck to sing some psalms?’ and I’m very happy that they said ‘No, we’ve hired you to be an actor.’ I worry that people just want the party tricks; singing and dancing and playing piano.

Do we need Robin Hood back in 2018?

Well, people need escapism. They’re classic tales that bare retelling. It is a story about a guy who looks at his privileged life and decides he can’t act morally within it anymore. He goes to war, sees the church’s role in keeping this war fizzing along and how it’s in cahoots with the city of Nottingham, taxing the crap out of the peasants. They can, of course, justify taxing them because there’s a war on. It’s pretty simple to see the parallels.

Robin Hood is in cinemas from 21 November; Tim Minchin tours the UK next year timminchin.com

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