Tim Minchin Answers Questions

The Guardian recently hosted a Q & A session with Tim Minchin, the Australian musician, comedian and “affirmed atheist”. In the transcript Minchin has some interesting things to say and comes across more or less the way he does in his performances, or at least the ones that I’ve seen on video – intelligent, quirky, and pleasantly laid-back, but with an unfortunate streak of the kind of soppy earnestness that makes me want to mumble an excuse and dash for the nearest source of alcohol when I encounter it in social settings.

Anyway, here’s Minchin on ambition:

My aspirations grew bigger very gradually and were always pegged to what I had already done. I often talk about the danger of long term goals and big dreams. And the reason is that I’ve been very well served by focusing on working hard at short term goals without regard for audience eyes or potential financial gain.

This makes a lot of sense to me. While I don’t claim to be nearly as successful as Tim Minchin, my occasional successes have always come from tackling the matter at hand rather than staring off into the distance, and it seems to me that even the most brilliant careers usually grow organically through a series of modest little steps.

Minchin on the Pope:

He seems a hell of a lot better and I have no doubt he has a good heart. He suffers slightly from a belief that Jesus was magic.

Again, this seems about right, although it has to be said that the Pope has shortcomings beyond believing that Jesus was magic. For instance, he also goes in for the devil and exorcism, beliefs that are linked to the idea of a magical Jesus but don’t exactly follow as inevitable logical implications.

Minchin on not hating Christians:

If any of my songs seem personally vitriolic, I’d need to know which lyrics because I’m generally at pains to ensure the target is the damaging belief not the personal [sic] who holds it. I know that sounds like the ridiculous distinction between “the sinner and the sin” trotted out by homophobic Christians!

Yes, it does sound suspiciously similar, which could be taken as an indication that distinguishing between the Christian and the Christianity really is parallel to distinguishing between the sinner and the sin. Both involve a sensible and rational acknowledgement that disliking something a person does, believes or desires is not equivalent to disliking the person.

Minchin on writing songs for musical theatre:

You have an obligation not only to serve the story and the character development but also to say something broader about the way the world is or the human condition.

I think Minchin and his songs would both be better off if he could bring himself to kick that particular sense of obligation to the curb. If broader truths emerge organically from a song that serves the story and the character development, fair enough, but to treat them as essential is to risk reducing a perfectly good theatrical performance (although I have to admit that musicals aren’t really my own personal cup of tea) to some kind of tiresome, contrived morality play. If analysing the human condition is so bloody important, become a philosopher, a sociologist or a self-important blogger and leave the artistic stuff to people who are more concerned with narrative and aesthetics. Fortunately, I’m able to distinguish between the sinner and the sin in this case, so I can continue to think highly of Tim Minchin as a writer and performer even though I don’t think much of his didactic impulses.

5 thoughts on “Tim Minchin Answers Questions

  1. Are you suggesting that musical theatre should be fluffy and light and void of cerebral stimulation? If you are, and if that was the norm, we wouldn’t have the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Of Thy I Sing’ , the groundbreaking ‘Oklahoma’, and the extraordinary vault of classics by Rodgers and Hammerstein which includes ‘The Sound of Music’ , ‘The King and I’ and ‘South Pacific’ among many others. All of these stories dealt with serious ‘adult’ themes through satirical execution that forced the audience to think while being entertained. They have left an indelible mark not only on the history of theatre, but one could argue, on society and culture itself.

    • I think art of all kinds can be complex and cerebrally stimulating in ways that don’t depend on trying to convey a definite message about anything external to the work of art itself. If you’ve got interesting characters, an intricate plot and a colourful setting then you’ve got loads of cerebral stimulation, even if what’s happening on the stage (for instance) is so divorced from contemporary social reality that it doesn’t “say” anything meaningful about the world or the human condition.

      There are other possibilities, of course. I’m not opposed to satire and allegory, although I think they’re both difficult (maybe impossible) to pull off without detracting at least a little from the richness of the story itself. The evil pigs in Animal Farm would probably be better evil pigs if they hadn’t been explicitly crafted as reflections of Soviet leaders.

      What really bothered me about that quote from Minchin, though, was the word “obligation”. There’s nothing wrong with crafting a work of art to convey a social or political message if one is prepared to accept the aesthetic compromises that such an approach entails, but to imply that all artists (or at least all people who write songs for musicals, if Minchin was making the point more narrowly) should be doing that all the time seems like the attitude of a moralistic philistine.

  2. I guess I was defending the value of the musical as an honest societal mirror. There are plenty of ugly things about humanity. Things we don’t want to look at and admit, and I think musicals have been quite cleverly used at times to advance the zeitgeist which allowed or encouraged thoughtful debate about the ‘unspoken.’ The very fact that these stories were written at all is where you’ll find the “richness of the story…”

    We’d have to ask Minchin himself if his use of the word “You” was a command to wouldbe writers or a judgment on the quality of lessor (than his) works. However, I do think that he was speaking for himself and his objectives.

  3. You must excuse our German friend. He gets easily flustered by superfluous amounts of the copious.

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