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Spreading the Skeptical Word through Music and Comedy

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

April 7, 2011

An Interview with Tim Minchin

When I got a closer look at Australian actor, comedian, and musician Tim Minchin’s eyes, I discovered that kooky contact lenses make his irises a weird shade of turquoise. At the time, I was helping him check his teeth for any residue after his breakfast of toast at the Blue Waters cafe on Cottesloe Beach in Perth, Australia, prior to filming an interview. It’s not exactly typical of my interviews, but it did lead to a conversation on how branding and appearance matter when building a reputation as a polished performer—even if you do play piano with bare feet and have scarecrow-style straightened hair.

My interview with Minchin, conducted on the steps behind the Indiana Tea House on the shores of the beach, was disrupted twice by passersby. One was an old friend of Minchin’s, hailing from his time attending Christ Church Grammar School and the University of Western Australia; the other was a young female fan who knocked over my camera in her wildly excited state.

The “local boy makes good” attitude is something Perth is particularly proud to adopt. Minchin’s endorsement of a new theater named after Heath Ledger was printed in the local paper. His patronage of the WA Youth Theatre Company and his voice-over work on the Academy Award-winning short animated film The Lost Thing (by fellow West Australian artist Shaun Tan) is brought up every time the Perth media promotes his tours.

Over the past two years, Minchin has been on an international tour, featuring U.K. and Australian orchestras in various states and cities. Songs with titles like “Rock ’N’ Roll Nerd” and “The Pope Song” with lyrics about sex, religion, and cheese aren’t the usual fare for fifty-five-piece orchestras, but they’re massively popular. At the time of this writing, all of Minchin’s tour dates were sold out and a live broadcast from the Sydney Opera House was scheduled to air on Australia’s ABC television station.

What Tim Minchin doesn’t discuss much in the media is his atheism and skeptically minded attitude toward paranormal and pseudoscientific claims—although from the lyrics of his songs, these views are fairly obvious. Minchin recently produced the music and score for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (which will now head to London’s West End). I’ve always thought that it might not best serve Minchin’s multitude of talents to pigeonhole himself as a spokesperson on certain issues.

I began my interview by asking him who he thought the likely audience for his kind of comedy.

Tim Minchin: I don’t know. It’s kind of a disclaimer to say that my work appeals to certain people; it’s kind of a defensive position. Not everyone’s going to like my work, even if you desperately want everyone to like it.

I think my stuff has quite a broad appeal; last night I had a twelve-year-old and a seventy-eight-year-old in the queue to get autographs and stuff—and I love that. I think that people who love the show, it probably goes without saying, are people who think much like me. The people who see their own ideas and sense of humor reflected on the stage are the people who are most attached to it. But I don’t know what people like me are. I suppose [they are] people who have a kind of a dark sense of humor and get off on some of the ideas I get across.

Kylie Sturgess: So, how funny is skepticism as source material for your work?

Minchin: It can be very funny watching people respond with absolute clarity and skepticism to strange ideas that are so passionately scatter-gunned—the delivery of them can be so wild and enormous and evangelical.... One fact [is] presented and then other’s respond with [screams of] “But no no no no!” And then someone calmly responds with “Yeah—but [then there’s] this.” I find that very funny. But I don’t know how much [of] that [type] of my material I’m doing in my show... I mean, people do like it; the song that leads many skeptics to find me is “Don’t Open Your Mind Too Much or Your Brain Will Fall Out”:

I got that quote out of Francis Wheen’s book, but I can’t remember the journalist who the original quote came from. But that song isn’t funny; it’s just funny because of the way it is presented.

Sturgess: It’s James Randi’s million dollar challenge but with a piano accompaniment. Which leg would you give away, by the way?

Tim Minchin: Oh, I don’t know! But it’s a genuine offer, you know, and it is absolutely inspired by those kinds of challenges. I just thought it’d be funny. It only took me an hour to write; there’s nothing musically complicated about it. I think there’s one rhyme in it. But what I [was] doing was a little ditty that’s almost like an advertisement that is actually infallible. I think it’s right. I don’t think you can pick holes in it. All I’m saying is that if you can give me one example historically, then you get my wife!

Sturgess: When the topic of skepticism [and its influence] was raised on your website, I noticed that there was a variety of views amongst your fans. Do you get the same kind of differences amongst the public who go to your shows? Those who might get your autograph and yet also go to see John Edward perform?

Minchin: “You’re my second favorite comedian after John Edward!” That would be a good joke! I surprisingly don’t get many people challenging the ideas I’m always interested. Last night there were twelve hundred people in the room and they’re all laughing at my jokes about Tony the Fish and evolution gags and Jesus being punished for having a schizophrenic discourse with a God that is created by man to explain the existence of feet and all that—and I wonder. But statistically, something like fifty percent of those people are meant to be Christians. This is my big problem with all of that: I don’t actually believe in people’s belief very much. When people tell me they’re Christians, I sort of, in a horribly condescending kind of way, feel like saying “Really? Are you? What do you mean?” And part of my reason [for finding] that difficult to get my head around is because they’re my jokes and because everyone laughs and because surely you’d stand up waving your fists and stuff [if you disagreed].

But I get letters saying things like “bashing religion isn’t funny or interesting and it’s boring,” and I got one that tried to say “You think you’re cool bashing religion but it’s been done,” and that’s a really interesting thing to me too—because I agree. We shouldn’t be having this discussion anymore all these years later.

I do a joke in the show: “The theory of evolution: not only is it… how would you say... right!” and people laugh, and sometimes I say during the show, “I cannot believe that people are laughing two hundred years later...”

Sturgess: When Charles Darwin has already done that joke so often...

Minchin: Yes, was it Woodrow Wilson who said something like, “I don’t think any intelligent or rational person could question organic evolution in this era”?—And that was back in 1922.

Sturgess: You’ve said online that “love is completely observable and explicable in the context of what we know about humans.” As an actor and musician, did you nearly feel like you had to hand in your actors’ union card for not perpetuating the mystery? You’ve even done Shakespeare, so it is not killing the poetry.

Minchin: I write about love all the time. It’s one of my favorite topics. I try to address, not love specifically, but in my shows, the misconception that to be skeptical is to be cynical. Or that to have no religious belief is to see no beauty in the world. For me, to observe a sunset and not attach to it any supernatural or mystical significance is to see its true beauty. You can be completely overwhelmed by beauty and the inexplicable nature of a sunset. There [are] degrees to which it’s inexplicable, I mean [there are] the ongoing questions about why.

I know that there [are] X billions of years and this is a rock that orbits [the sun] and so forth. But still you can be overwhelmed by the beauty and by love, and there’s poetry in the world that is not influenced by stripping away a god or whatever. To add to it a whole lot of rhetoric, which are old ideas that are not particularly interesting or clever, I don’t see what [the idea of God] adds to it. To see the sunset and see God—that’s just confusion.

I’ve written a Christmas song that has a verse that says “I don’t go in for ancient wisdom. I don’t believe that just because ideas are tenacious it means that they are worthy.” I like that line, but I think only fifty percent of the audience know what tenacious means, but I can’t articulate it more succinctly than that.

I think I constantly allude to that, that such tenacity makes no sense whatsoever. If you know even the slightest bit about the history of Christianity and its ebbs and flows—how much of it was promoted for non-charitable reasons and the things it stole and the people killed in religion’s name, how much it usurped the spiritualities of other people, polytheistic religions it overtook—you’d know it’s because it’s been promoted. It’s still around because people have had self interest and have promoted it, the same way you promote Coca-Cola. It’s stupid to ignore that. To say that Christianity must be right because it’s been around so long is to completely dismiss that it’s an Abrahamic religion out of which has also come Judaism and Islam.

Sturgess: What would you do if you were requested to lose the references to challenging people’s beliefs—particularly in America?

Minchin: Now that I’m getting a wider audience, I understand that perhaps I do have a forum in which to maybe spread some ideas that could be helpful. My primary aim is to entertain, and the way I entertain is to discuss ideas that intrigue me. The more true you are to your interests, the better you can be at your job. If you try to discuss things that don’t interest you, you don’t have an interesting take on [anything].

America is interesting to me because it is the next market for me. People are worried about it because of how much religiosity and conservatism there is over there. But there’s also fifty million-odd extreme lefty-liberal minded people. There’s always going to be people like that; you just have to find your audience. Like all [others of] this sort of thing, you end up preaching to the converted. The type of people who are going to come to my shows will tend to be the kind who don’t mind swearing and don’t mind talking about the non-existence of God. So mostly you’re not going to change anyone’s opinions. But just like all art, cumulatively it has an effect. Like, going to James Randi’s website showed me that there [are] others out there and encouraged me. I think it’d be a great pity if I was shot by a radical Muslim as I don’t think it’d be worth it—I don’t really think what I’m doing is that important.

But I think if you keep putting out your ideas, you’ll attract like-minded people and hopefully make some almost-like-minded people more like-minded, and maybe one in a million times the cumulative effect of all art that addresses these issues might just change the balance in the world of people who like thinking in an exploratory manner rather than in a small way.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.