Tim Minchin on his sold-out Comedy Proms: converting audiences one joke at a time.
The Proms is a grand tradition: a 116-year-old annual series of classical music concerts; a quintessentially English institution aimed at bringing music to the masses.
I am an idiot: a 35-year-old hack musician, unable to sight-read or even play the same thing twice; an emphatically Australian artist who aims to mock the grand institutions of the masses.
Grand tradition and idiot will be combined this Saturday night, on the occasion of the first-ever BBC Comedy Prom.
I have managed in recent years to stumble upon a lovely and fun career by getting onstage and saying whatever I like in whatever form I enjoy. And what I like to say is often “motherfucker” and “pope” and “cancer” and “cheese” (among many more esoteric appellations), and the form I enjoy is often disco or funk or beat poetry or shouting. So you can understand why I am quietly shocked that people choose to buy tickets and watch me at all.
But more surprising has been my slow a-/de-scent into the very bosom of my adopted home’s apparently conservative establishment. In the last year, I have written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, toured withthe Sydney Symphony, and performed at the Royal Albert Hall (on the day of the Royal Wedding, no less). And now this: the chance to host and perform in the BBC’s Promenade Concert series, which is
broadcast live on Radio 3 (average age of listenership: 63) and subsequently aired on national telly.
Then again, it does make some kind of sense. Musical comedy is pretty trad. You can – if you wanted to bore yourself – trace my genre back to the Music Hall tradition of the turn of last century, and although musical comedy has moved (hopefully) beyond relentless pastoral double entendre, there is still something very consumable about comedy and satire put to music. People, you’ll find, like rhyme and regular time, and (if you want to push it furder), if you’re clever enough with your stuff, you can get away with murder.
I recently wrote songs for a stage musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and a lot of journalists asked how hard it was for me to “tone down” the language and content in order to appeal to a family audience. My answer: not hard at all, silly! I don’t have comedic Tourette syndrome; rather I use blue language very deliberately when addressing subjects that ask for a little anger or darkness. In contrast, I use a sunnier palette when painting word-pictures for kids. The same goes for the Proms; I have no problem resisting bad language and I have no problem putting my raging atheistic tendencies to bed for a night. And I don’t feel I’m being compromised, because I understand context and I like the challenge of trying to appeal to different audiences.
Having said all that, I do believe my job in situations such as these is to see how far I can push against the boundaries of convention in the hope that the boundaries widen a little. Or, to use a simile I won’t get away with on the night, I want to massage the sphincter of the BBC’s audience in the hope that it will become more receptive to broader humour. Why not?
Having worked with orchestras a lot in the last 12 months, working with the BBC Concert Orchestra has been a breeze. They’re incredibly good readers, and although some of the swung phrases are sometimes a little more laidback than a white boy like me would prefer, their flexibility is incredible. And the show has been sold out for weeks, so the energy in the Royal Albert Hall is going to be wonderful. It’s an incredible place to play; although it’s pretty cavernous, the circular design makes you feel like you’re walking onstage into a massive hug. (The acoustics are a bloody nightmare, but happily, someone else has to think about that.)
Spoiler Alert! I’ve written a new number for the opening of the show, and will be performing it as a character other than my own. Gulp. I’ve never really dabbled in character comedy… But I figured a show at the RAH which will be watched by millions and can’t be edited is probably about the right place to try it out.
In my experience, all the good stuff comes from taking big risks. Hopefully the risk the BBC took on me will also pay off for them!