Spreading the Skeptical Word through Music and Comedy

Kylie Sturgess

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”:

    And if anyone can show
    me one example in the history of the world of a single homeopathic practitioner
    who has been able to prove under reasonable experimental conditions
    that solutions made of infinit
    ely
    tiny particles of good stuff dissolved repeatedly into relatively huge
    quantities of water has a consistently higher medicinal value than a
    similarly administered placebo… I will give you my piano, one of my
    legs, and my wife.

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.