‘We’ve forgotten how to be innocent’: Tim Minchin on comedy, music and the joy of Matilda

I had not expected to cry. I had not expected to cry three times. A screening of a kids’ film, 8.30 in the morning, a musical for Christ’s sake, and out of nowhere, I was crying. “Shall I tell you why?” asks Tim Minchin the next day, leaning forward over a precarious little table of tea. And then he tells me and I have to hold my breath to stop myself crying again.

Minchin is a musical comedian who dissects ideas of romance, monogamy and faith during “logical philosophy lectures described as cabaret shows”, in eyeliner, big hair and bare feet. In 2009, when he was 35, the RSC invited him to collaborate on an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and his career shifted to include composer of multi-award-winning musicals. His life shifted with it – he moved with his family from Melbourne to London to LA (where he spent four years working on an animated film that was rudely canned), and then back to Sydney. The show was a hit – a proper dark and artful phenomenon. Today, Minchin has flown in to talk about the film, a vivid and gorgeous adaptation by Minchin and the theatre team, starring Emma Thompson as a hulking Miss Trunchbull.

We are in a hotel room, traditionally the very worst place to conduct an interview – nobody feels comfortable and the plush room is always vaguely uncanny, the bed removed, soft knocks at the door – but it soon becomes clear that when Minchin starts talking about something he cares about, time and walls fall away and we could be in a kitchen or theatre or sitting on the stairs at the end of a party, surrounded by bottles. He will get in touch, the day after the interview, and ask if we can go again, and I say yes please.

Matilda The Musical Melbourne Media CallThe Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Matilda the musical media call today with Tim Minchin in attendance on March 16, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
Stage and screen: with the cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Matilda. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

His recent tour was called Back – it was his first since quitting touring in 2010 for reasons of “temperance”. He’d seen, he said, “dangers ahead”; fame didn’t suit him. On stage in London he welcomed the audience with the line: “If you’re a right-wing conservative and you’ve stumbled in here tonight expecting the hits of Matilda… I hope at some point in the evening I manage to penetrate you,” which met low laughter. He’s been talking about Matilda for more than a decade and is not bored of it yet. The story, he says, “advocates for a life of the mind. It says knowledge is your weapon and imagination is your escape.” Usually good things have a bad side, “Like, getting famous comes at a cost, and getting rich comes at a cost, but Matilda… it’s just good.” It’s good for the world, but it’s also good for him. “I built a whole career, basically, saying, ‘I’m too middle-class and boring to have anything to say,’ so I made myself a character who’s quite weird and fast. And then, somewhere along the line, I had the audacity to do things like play White Wine in the Sun.” This is Minchin’s unlikely Christmas song dedicated to his daughter Violet, a song which sneaks up on an audience with its raw emotion.

This was the song that convinced director Matthew Warchus to hire him for Matilda. “He reminded me that I don’t have to be fucking meta and ironic all the time. Just, sit, sit in empathy and write for Miss Honey.” He marvels afresh at the thing. “Matilda is fucking wholesome. Which is amazing to me, who managed to get famous for… being a bit edgy?” In America, where his atheism reads as radical, Minchin is seen as so edgy he’s had trouble touring. One night in Dallas a company refused to deliver a piano, telling the venue to “find a better comedian (not a demon)”. Yet he intends to keep performing even when he’s “getting rickety”, as he sings in his song Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long, and “all you pricks are sick of me,” a lyric that doesn’t roll off the tongue so much as clack around on it like dice.

In the godless UK of today, Minchin’s edginess is most evident in such militant ideas as nuance. During Back he delivers a Ted-style talk about confirmation bias and the “bubbles” we choose to live in: “Bubbles within bubbles, like a fucking Aero bar.” It’s a subject he returns to often. “As you get older,” he tells me, comic-weary, “you realise there aren’t goodies and baddies, there are just people on a scale of damage. But the weight of having to sit in the nuance of life is tiring.” Maybe, despite all his railing against God (in the US he became famous for calling the Pope a motherfucker), he needs religion, “So I could just go: ‘This is right, and this is wrong, and all women over 50 are Karens and all straight white guys are racist.’” He pulls a woolly hat off his head and twists cat-like in his chair as he talks about privilege and moral clarity and, then, pausing, “There’s a reason why that monologue in my show is 12 minutes long.” This is an invitation and a warning – Minchin talks, and elaborates, and clarifies so I’ll quote him at length, out of respect for nuance.

Now he is talking about human belief and the flaws in our thinking – in the way science attempted to take our biases into account, and how social media shot that to pieces. In Storm, a beat-poem he later turned into a book, Minchin says: “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed. / Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”

“And these machines,” he says now, pointing at his flaccid phone, “reward us for our biases, they push us further down the path of our prejudices.” He sounds angry; he’s not. He’s energised. “My daughter’s autistic and gay, so I can speak to that a bit, because it’s in my home. Trying to make a better world for ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] people is a really interesting project because we need to acknowledge the different neuro tribes, right? But online you’ll hear most from neurodivergent people who are furious. And that doesn’t necessarily represent nor do the best for neurodivergent people. The algorithms only hear from the people who use the most angry language and that feels to me existential.” It’s a bigger change than any revolution, he says, the ways our phones have shaped us. “I think we have underestimated the profundity of the digital age.” He turns his phone over, face down.

He’s agitated by tribalism, he says, and uncomfortable with the idea that he might ever be pigeonholed. What about if that tribe is a tribe of Minchin fans, “Minchkins”, who sell out his arena tours and watch the TV shows he writes and acts in and call him a genius? “Interesting,” he says, deflecting. “I don’t think you actually want to meet your idols. You want them to meet you.” Later, I realise, I feel met. This doesn’t feel like an interview. What is it? “I sometimes use these press periods as therapy,” he says. “But if you’d asked me what my favourite film is, or for ‘funny stories’, I’d have no answers. All I know how to do is unpack ideas.” This can be exciting, but it can also leave him spiralling the next day, “Because I don’t know when to stop, or how to slow down.” Does he think he’s neurodivergent? “My daughter thinks I could be, but I think I’m hyper normal.” He grins. “I haven’t always had this fast-talking thing – I’ve been enabled into it. I wasn’t very smart at school; I was aspirational. I wanted to be good at articulating ideas. So I worked on it.”

Barefoot warrior: performing during the Elevate Sydney Final Night on 5 January 2022.
Barefoot warrior: performing during the Elevate Sydney Final Night on 5 January 2022. Photograph: Don Arnold/Getty Images

Which led to this, a career articulating ideas barefoot with an eight-piece orchestra. “It self-perpetuates,” he goes on. “People take an interest in your work and tell you you’re smart. Then, what do you think happens to a human?” Nothing good, he says, nothing good. “So I’ve tried to withdraw from that.” From fame. “It’s hard not to get into a bit of an ebb and flow of self-importance and self-loathing, because you’re oversteering all the time.” It suited his personal narrative, he says quietly, to say that he wanted to stop touring to spend more time with his family. “I think the truth is more that I’m hugely ambitious and I didn’t want to just be one thing.” So, he came back.

Increasingly, Matilda seems neurodivergent to Minchin. “That’s not who she is. But – it’s the Quiet thing.” “Have you ever wondered,’ begins the song Quiet, which Matilda sings to the audience, ‘Well I have, About how when I say, red, for example/ There’s no way of knowing if red/ Means the same thing in your head/ As red means in my head/ When someone says red?” Dennis Kelly, the writer of Matilda the Musical, remembers Minchin playing it to him and director Warchus for the first time. It felt “like Tim made a song out of silence,” Kelly tells me. “It’s very uniquely Tim. It expresses something profound and simple, but beautiful, too, and I think that’s the stuff that really… helps us.”

When Matilda first came out, “I got letters from parents and autistic kids about that song, how it reflects their experience, and then, with my daughter…” Minchin says. Violet, now a teenager, was a baby when he started working on Matilda. “When I wrote that song, I remember thinking what it would have been like to be as smart as Matilda – it must be tiring for a kid to have a head that busy.”At some point, a cream tea has arrived in the hotel room, tiny sandwiches, tiny cakes, and it seems important to eat at least one scone. I do my very best across our hour together, spreading cream, jam, etc, but (and this proves it is not an interview) Minchin keeps asking me questions, about my kids, my work, and I manage a single bite during a pause while he thinks about privilege. He promises to eat the other half, but we both know it’s unlikely, in this climate.

“I’ve always written about people not being aware of the ways their brains trick them,” he says. “It used to be religiosity and now it’s silos. What I find infuriating about the Left is they can see what happens when the Right get stuck in a silo” – QAnon! Trump! – “but they think that doesn’t exist on their side. Just hypothetically, that algorithmic whirlpool pulling them into a silo of ideas where they dehumanise people who don’t agree with them? Just hypothetically, what would that look like on the Left? It can’t not be happening to everyone.” This is how Minchin relaxes: first, he’ll listen to a load of podcasts where people are, say, criticising critical race theory, and then he’ll listen to a load of podcasts arguing for it. “It’s tiring. Because it’s so addictive to be in a tribe. I am consciously trying, though. And I think a lot of people aren’t conscious at all. That they’re… that they’re falling down.” I put down the scone.

A week after we meet, Minchin Zooms from his office in Sydney. His son’s practising guitar downstairs and a keyboard waits behind him, like a loaded gun. It’s nighttime there. He’s asked to talk again: “And I’ll try to be less… divergent? I know sometimes I’m unnecessarily long and digressive, but sometimes that’s the time it takes to say something and I don’t really know what to do about that.” He’s worried he’s said too much. Last time, I asked if he liked talking about himself. “It’s a bit like sex,” he’d replied, eventually. “It feels good at the time, but you feel guilty after.”

There is a constant defensiveness buzzing inside him, he explains, “which I think is 30% environmental and 70% just me”. His daughter used to have an extreme reaction when a teacher raised their voice. “She feels like she’s being shouted at because of her sensory sensitivity – she feels like she did something wrong. And I think that’s what I do. I hear the justified shots of rage against “pale stale males” and I deeply feel like it’s about me. So my answers get longer and longer, because the message I’m getting is that if I’m not going to shut up I’d better be very careful about what I say.”

The idea with this second meeting, I think, is to offer some succinct, interview-style answers: his inspiration, his childhood. But he’s in a different time zone not a different brain, so he again slides quickly back down the streams of thought, back into ideas and vulnerabilities, and the burdens of the Left, like declaring all your allyships before every comment, this “new bureaucracy”. Every great philosophy and religion has had the idea of the scales at the end of one’s life, he says. “You’re judged. And now perhaps for the first time in history, no one gives a fuck what good you’ve done, if once you get it wrong.” This is what we call “cancel culture, but what it actually is is an enthusiasm for discarding everything a person did before”. A deep breath. He apologises for the emotion. Since a couple of online “pile-ons”, he has, he says, “basically a type of post- traumatic thing that I need to work on.”

Talking about yourself is a bit like sex – it’s good at the time, but you feel guilty after

It’s odd to me that these things are so present for Minchin, because I imagine most people see him simply as the Matilda guy now, bringer of straightforward joy. “I think that’s right. I should just take my golden ticket and swan off to my seaside house and shut the fuck up. But I’m deeply agitated by it.” He apologises again. “I’m unpacking in front of you in a sort of terribly unfiltered way.” I tell him a) I love it, let’s go again next week; but also, b) I’m worried that he might be just digging himself deeper into the hole he was worried about. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing. But it’s all right. What’s the fucking point in talking about anything except ideas where there’s friction?”

He’s been writing a new song on the keyboard behind him. It’s rare that he’ll write something spontaneously these days, but a phrase dropped into his head. “It’s actually around the sort of topic we’ve been talking about, a lyric that goes, ‘I’ve been biting my tongue lately. It’s hard to tell. I know I’ve been having less fun lately’.” I guess this is how it works: his agitation becomes his art. “I always want people to go, ‘Ah, I’ve never thought of it like that.’” His songs compare love to cancer, or discuss how monogamy relates to temptation. They turn over our favourite rocks and marvel at the woodlice beneath. “That’s the main role of art. But I also think – and this is probably the most pretentious thing I’m going to say in hours of saying pretentious things – that I am obsessed by the question, ‘How are we to live?’”

How are we to live, how are we to find happiness in a meaningless and often devastating world? “I believe you should laugh at the absolute worst stuff. I think you should laugh at the possibility of your baby dying. It’s what we do in our homes. So why are we performing purity outside?” The question of how to live in a meaningless universe runs through all his work – his Broadway adaptation of Groundhog Day was a Beckettian romcom about depression and the search for meaning. “That’s all humanity is. We tell stories so the shit means something. And my work is almost ghastly obvious about that.” In the poem Storm, an imagined argument with a homeopathy fan, he asks, ‘Isn’t this enough? Just this world?’ “The problem is,” he leans in, “this stuff does make me boring at dinner parties.”

One of the songs that made me cry during that screening of Matilda was called When I Grow Up, sung in the movie by children cycling home from school. “When I grow up,” it goes, “I will eat sweets every day / On the way to work and I / Will go to bed late every night…”

“You cried,” says Minchin now, “because it’s about how we have let ourselves down.”

Our Zoom ends with his head in his hands, laughing at his inability to keep it light. And once I’d closed my laptop I felt slightly dazed, like when you come out of the cinema and it’s dark outside. We were meant to have fun when we became adults, he had said back in the hotel, but, “Then we got there and it was really fucking complicated. And we forgot to lie in the sun and climb trees. We forgot how to be innocent.” We sat in silence for a minute, the cakes spread out pinkly between us.

Matilda gave me permission to take myself seriously,” he smiled. “I could be an artist.” Being a comedian is usually about mocking yourself, so to suddenly become earnest was a risk. “If Jimmy Carr wanted to write a tone poem about his inner feelings, you’d be like, ‘Get back to the rape jokes!’, right?” He laughed. “I feel like I’ve almost pulled off something that’s very difficult to do, which is to start as a comedian and then go, ‘OK, now I get to do it all.’”

Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical will be released by Sony Pictures in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 25 November. It is also released on Netflix next summer

Styling by Bemi Shaw; grooming by Erica Schlegel using Armani Beauty; shot at Lordship Park Locations