“There’s a Reason Famous People Are Often Fucked”: Tim Minchin on Coming Out | Culture
In 2003, I booked a very small room for the Melbourne Fringe Festival, to present a show that I had torturously titled Navel: Cerebral Melodies With Umbilical Chords. It was kind of a dark, ridiculous cabaret, and a desperate attempt to get rid of the pain of all the rejections I had had (agents / record companies / the guy who approves small loans at the bank), in showcasing my various ‘talents’, ”which arguably included unusually clear diction, considerable manual dexterity, and a love of cheap double meaning. (That is, there were some notable jokes about the fingering.)
Navel was a game-changer for me, because I knew I had an unusual toolbox, and while I knew I had a tendency to play the clown, I didn’t consider myself a comedian at all. But that night, everything changed: the thirty or so weirdos perched on bar stools and lounge chairs laughed. A lot.
Seven years later, I was playing in arenas. My 2010 tour involved a 55-piece symphony orchestra and dozens of teams, grand pianos and scissor lifts, massive light shows, tour buses, bouncers, booze, fans with my words or my face tattooed on their legs; in my silliest dreams I never imagined a life like this. The shows were happy and complex, fun and stimulating. The rewards were huge. I was flying.
So I quit. And other than a few spasms of activism, I haven’t written a comedy song for over 10 years.
The reasons why I quit are not particularly dramatic. There was no major crisis or breakdown; no damascene moment of realization that I had suckled the devil’s pacifier. The reason I quit was temperance… at least that’s what I like to say. If I’m honest, that was also ambition. But we’ll get to that.
By temperance, I mean that I saw dangers ahead. I am married to Sarah, my childhood sweetheart, and we had relatively young children. I love my children and I love Sarah. I like the peace and quiet. I like to run and eat sensibly. I like to play the piano on my own and I like being able to walk to stores without being stopped. I love my liver.
But do you know what else I like? Like really fucking like? I really like wine. I really like the tourist buses with cheese platters at midnight, and nice hotels and someone to sort my laundry. I love that 10,000 people stand up to applaud me. I like heads to turn when I walk into a bar and stop in Boots to take pictures. I like hanging out with smart and funny people and being pampered when I leave the Groucho. I like to be respected by the people I admire. I like to end up in nightclubs in romantic towns and have the shock of realizing that a sexy person is flirting with me. Like everyone else, I like to feel wanted.
And I knew that none of this bullshit is good for a person.
All of this is basically (in fact, literally) rewiring your brain. “Fame” takes this internal camera we call “me” and places it on a huge selfie stick. So when you are in public, a percentage of your brain is always busy observing you in the third person. And finally, you don’t know how to roll up this camera even when you are at home with your partner and kids. You start to believe that you are an entity. You learn to love yourself as much as you are loved, which means that when the trolls come in behind you tend to hate yourself as much as you are hated. There’s a reason famous people get screwed a lot: it’s not that wankers get famous, it’s that fame makes you a wanker.
In short: I wanted to get rid of hedonism at the pass. I didn’t want to become an alcoholic, I didn’t want to cheat on my partner, and I didn’t want to become an insufferable tool with a huge, tiny ego.
But I also stopped doing comedy because I am very ambitious. My ambition isn’t for wealth (although that’s another trap I can ring warning bells on), and it’s not for fame (although it’s an addiction that when tasted , most never quite shake), and it’s probably not for power (although some is useful to an artist). My ambition is shameless and obtuse: I want to be irreducible.
I grew up in Perth, Australia. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but being small and secluded, its art scene doesn’t support many artists. It is also not a place from which the path to success is very clear. It was so blurry to me that I never really thought about it. Everything my friends and I did was for himself. We weren’t making art in the hope of being spotted by a talent scout or a movie producer because there wasn’t any, and that gave us incredible freedom. Not just the artistic freedom to do whatever we wanted to do, but the freedom to see our plays and concerts as a rung on a ladder, or even a viable means of making a living. Freedom of self-pigeoning.
So I wrote scores for children’s theater companies. I did improvisation. I had a 70s cover band, a Burt Bacharach tribute band, an alliance. My brother and I recorded an album in our roommate. I have produced soundtracks for documentaries and short films of friends. I wrote songs for cooperative musicals; rigged lights and built sets; played the piano for an Aussie Piaf number in mining towns in red earth; played the eponymous crybaby in a three-handed Hamlet. Throughout my 20s, I was a jack of all trades, the master of not making money.
Then it all blew up and suddenly I was a fucking “comedian”.
I love and miss the UK, and I know I’m incredibly lucky to have been adopted by audiences in all of its countries, including Cornwall. But I have never been comfortable with the label’s actor. “Get up” even less. Mainly because I am well aware that I am not in the same league as my friends devoted to form, but it also rubbed me upside down because it looked like a trap: I was afraid that if I was actor, others closed on me.
Then this six-year-old superhero came along and with her hands on her hips kicked the doors down for me. A song about an inflatable sex doll got me into comedy, and Matilda the Musical helped me escape it. What I learned in the two years I spent helping make this musical made me believe that I could do more. And its success has allowed me to take the necessary risks.
Of course, with the risk comes the pain. I played Brother Tuck in the worst-commented Robin Hood in history. Our musical, Groundhog Day, despite five star accolades and reviews, has taken a bit of a hard time on Broadway (I promise it will be back!). I spent four years in Hollywood working on an animated film that closed when the studio was sold. I had humiliating auditions, I lost thousands of hours of work, I did a lot of hits.
But I sang Judas at Wembley Arena. I played Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and ate a Marcy Runkle chocolate bar in Californication. I wrote scripts for television, dubbed animated koalas, wrote songs for children’s films, and published a children’s book and graphic novel. I performed on the steps of the Sydney Opera House with a band made up of my siblings and cousins. I released an album and streamed it live in the midst of a pandemic. In addition, I have been able to spend a lot more time with my children, I have a wonderful marriage and I am not (yet) a (real) alcoholic. And the way I define myself is no longer important to me because in my head I did it: I am a pigeon without a hole. I am a bird without a box. An untitled tit. An emancipated emu.
But, damn it, I missed the tours. Once you’ve felt that buzz of having a live audience on a string, the sheer, unfettered joy of a perfectly jellied band of musicians, that relief to have got away again – you never forget it. So I decided to come back, with a show called Back.
There was a lot of talk about what this tour was going to be. I knew I wanted it to reflect the journey I’ve taken since stepping away from comedy. I wanted it to reflect the development of my writing since I became a mature composer. My intention was to let the songs speak for themselves and to speak less.
As if! I had forgotten the reason why I became an actor by accident: when I’m on stage, I feel compelled to go laugh. So, within a week of hitting the road again, it had started to sound like what I now realize to be just my “thing”: a ridiculous, dark cabaret show, now almost 20 years in the making.
And over the years, as things have become more complex in my life and more confronted in the world, there have been clarifications. Whatever the title, my job is to engage. Using all the tools I have in my kit, I just want to grab your attention. With my tongue. And my fingers. And my love of the cheap double meaning. I just want to hold you.
Tim Minchin’s Back is touring the UK from October 16 to November 28. RSC’s Matilda The Musical is at the Cambridge Theater in London.