Why a 15-minute long comedy performance at an Australian film festival meant so much to me

A few weeks ago whilst blissfully wasting time on YouTube (because let’s face it who isn’t wasting time if they’re on YouTube unless they’re midway through an extensive video tutorial to fix their laptop) I came across a video I really didn’t expect to see. It was a live performance by Tim Minchin at Tropfest 2018, a prestigious short film festival in Australia. Now presented at face value, this live performance wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. He had a fifteen-minute slot where he performed two of his most famous songs interspersed between some light performer to audience banter. Tim is a comedian after all; this sort of performance is the established comedian’s bread and butter. Get booked, show up, preach to the choir, get paid, then leave. But Tim Minchin hadn’t been doing many performances lately. In fact, he hadn’t been in the public eye much at all.

When I was 8 or 9, I would stand beside my brothers whenever they were on the family desktop computer. It was an ancient beast, worn down by years of viruses and un-cleared cache, but to a financially unlucky and stubborn set of parents, this ten-year-old hunk of junk was perfectly fine. To have one machine between three brothers, all of varying ages (my oldest brother being 9 years older than me, my middle brother 6 years older) was a challenge. The attention span of 8 or 9 year old can be astoundingly short, so when the inevitable time came for when I wanted to use our computer, I would just wait beside whoever was on there hoping they’d take the hint. And I’m sure they did take the hint…alongside ignoring the hint altogether and carrying on with whatever they were doing. It meant that I spent a lot of my childhood watching things I really didn’t understand, one of those being the comedy performances of Tim Minchin.

Tim Minchin is an Australian musical comedian who came to prominence back in 2005 with his live album and DVD Darkside. His performances are mainly focused on his songs, which are normally incredibly well written political and controversial satires accompanied by rapidly flowing piano played by Minchin himself. His style is hard to describe but easy to understand if you’ve heard a few songs of his. They can vary from a 9-minute long jazz beat poem, which uses the setting of a dinner party argument to explore the culture of lateral thinking and rationalism, to a happy go lucky 5-minute sing-a-long about sex dolls. Minchin’s vocabulary is so diverse and intricate that I’d often look to it if I felt my own vocabulary had become a little stale. I learnt the word 'avuncular' from his song Mitsubishi Colt and was so happy that I spent a week excitedly slipping it into conversation years before I realised that’s not how you make friends. 12 year olds aren’t normally impressed by language.

Minchin’s multisyllabic rhymes and generally hilarious and sharp wit meant that all of his songs were wonderfully fresh after hundreds of listens. I had a Phillips mp3 player that I used to listen to when delivering my paper round every week (it was a weekly circular so it wasn’t a case of an hours work before school every day as it was six hours work after school one night) On that player (alongside many, many podcasts) I used a 100% legal website to download all of Tim Minchin’s songs for free. Week in week out, I would listen to his words until I practically knew them off by heart. To this day, I know 90% of his songs to the word, which if you’ve heard songs like If I Didn’t Have You you’ll know is no easy feat due to Minchin’s dense and complicated lyricism. In the ways that those teenagers who want to seem a bit 'deeper' than the rest now obsess over Bo Burnham (who is still very good), I obsessed over Tim Minchin.

Of course, the majority of Minchin’s material went over my head. Listening back today, there are so many innuendos and political references in the songs that it would be simply impossible for a pre-teen to understand everything (I thought neck-down alopecia referred to a kind of paralysis). But many things stuck with me. Minchin’s fearlessness to tackle controversial topics like Islam, Christianity and sexism through comedy was coupled with a subtle knack of getting it so right whilst still being really funny. This meant that he didn’t sound like the clever kid in the class showing off on a soapbox. His morbid sense of humour stretched to topics like Palestine, miracles and even his own child. These aspects of Minchin’s comedy ingrained themselves in me, and his complexities in vocabulary formed a barrack of my writing style’s arsenal. In terms of my own personal artistic influences, I think only Charlie Brooker and Terry Pratchett can hold a torch to Tim Minchin (bad for an aspiring journalist I know). As obssessive as it sounds, I cannot exclaim how much of an influence he's had on me.

With many of those first bits of media you fall in love with, you tend to grow out of the phase and lose track of new releases by the artist. But with Tim Minchin, it was the other way around. In 2011, Tim would release the last of his live show specials. Following that, he went into musicals, writing the songs for the insanely successful Matilda and Groundhog Day West End adaptations. In 2013, he began work on a Dreamworks animated film called Larrikins, which he would be directing. It was at this stage that, bar a song and performance here and there, Tim would stop making and doing what I fell in love with him for. His work (which I’m sure was brilliant) was being done behind closed doors. I spent the rest of my teen years not doing a paper round and not listening to his music obsessively. In March 2017, a new production team at Dreamworks cancelled Larrikins, a gut punch of a decision explained by Tim in his recent interview in the Guardian.

When I saw that video of Tim performing at Tropfest it was a burst of nostalgia that was happening right now. The songs were identical (bar a notable tweaking of a lyric referencing Tim’s age) to ones I’d listened to repeatedly years ago. Tim was there at his piano, still with the ‘rock and roll’ hair and notably without the ‘girly’ mascara. It felt less of a comeback, because it wasn’t as if he’d gone anywhere. It just felt as thought I come across an old friend in the high street and spent several exciting minutes finding out what had changed in their lives. One day I’d love to see Tim live on a tour if he ever decides to do one again. Maybe then I can stop being jealous of when my brother saw him at a small venue in Canterbury over ten years ago. In the mean time I think I’ll just binge the stuff I know very well, in the hope that Tim’s ready to give me some material to memorise again.