In Conversation — Tim Minchin
The comedian and musician talks to Gaby Dunn about hope, evil, feminism, and the internet.
September 26, 2014 | The Coffee Table Book | Fall 2014
Tim Minchin likes to talk.
So do I. The unedited transcript of our interview was 43 pages single-spaced, not including the hour after I shut off the recorder.
We had a lot to discuss. I’d been a fan of the Australian comedian’s brilliant writing and on-point musical comedy for years. Six months ago, Minchin and I met for the first time at the after-party for a play in Beverly Hills. We followed each other on Twitter that night, and have loosely kept in touch. Though well-known already, in the last couple years, Minchin has enjoyed more attention stateside as the composer and lyricist for the Tony-winning Broadway musical “Matilda.”
I arrived at Minchin’s house in the morning and ended up staying until early afternoon drinking coffee by the pool. We didn’t talk about his career, his plans to return to live comedy performance, or his upcoming writing projects. (He was two days back from a summer in London and Australia so you know, cut him some slack.) The conversation veered from his work composing and writing the lyrics for the upcoming Groundhog Day: The Musical (another film to stage adaptation) to internet shame culture, the existence of evil, the state of feminism, misogyny in nerd fandom, and the lie that is the American dream.
Tim: I’m very interested in “hope.” It’s so inherent in American culture; this aspirational hope-filled way of looking at the world. I don’t necessarily think that hope is always good.
In “Groundhog Day: The Musical,” [slated for 2015] the top of the second act starts with a song called, “Hope.” He’s singing it while he’s trying to kill himself over and over again. It’s, “Never give up hope. Never let yourself be defeated.” You just keep trying to kill yourself until it works. That version of hope is so dumb. It’s crazy. It’s pretty good. It’s like, [sings] “Never give up hope!”
Gaby: I’d argue that false hope is the basis of the American conservative party. That’s the reason that there’s these poor people that are supporting politicians that are millionaires, voting against themselves. Because they think, “Well, one day I’ll get there, and I don’t want people to take my money.” But you’re not there. Are you trying to write about hope?
Tim: I don’t know. I’m not quite sure what’s happening in my comedy career. My intention is to start writing again after Christmas.
Hope’s a difficult one. Of course we should always be hopeful, and you should never be apathetic. But telling somebody who’s battling fourth stage cancer to “be positive” is like going, “You know that massive burden you’re carrying? I want you to smile too to make me feel better about your suffering.”
It doesn’t help people to stay positive. Statistically, the data shows that if their positivity manifests itself in always taking their medicine their doctor prescribes, eating a good diet that the doctor said, and going out and doing their exercise they’re prescribed, then that sort of positivity is good. But this sort of trying to manifest health in yourself by thinking your cancer away, if anything it damages people’s sense of their well-being because they feel like they’re failing as well as dying.
My grandmother just died now. She was a bit edgy, my gran. An interesting woman, never watched tele. She just read books. “I like that Obama.” She was conservative, but knew who was good and who was “that fucking asshole.” She’s much better off now than she was. …Where did we leave off? We’ve left something behind. Hope! We were talking about hope. The American dream is as good a way of controlling the population as any religion’s ever been. This is the trouble with democracy. I think voting should be compulsory. Democracy works best when everyone votes from their own point of view having been educated as much as possible about what the facts are.
Gaby: What a beautiful world that would be.
Tim: It’s impossible. It’s a mess. I try to stay really optimistic. I also don’t really believe in evil.
Gaby: What do you mean you don’t believe in evil?
Tim: I don’t believe in evil.
Gaby: I read this article about child psychopaths and how a child immediately displays serial killer tendencies, like some five-year-old that’s psychotic, mentally ill, telling their parents, “I will murder you in your sleep.”
Tim: Evil implies intent and blame. I also don’t believe in good. It’s nonsense. Evil is a religious construct, and it’s incredibly simplistic. It’s hugely damaging, because everyone, most people I speak to, believe people who do bad things are to blame. I don’t believe they’re to blame. How do you argue that they’re to blame?
Gaby: The labeling of something evil erases empathy? It distances and dissociates people from other people. They’re not part of our same species and race.
Tim: Exactly. Calling them jihadists or suicide bombers or guerrilla fighters or gunmen empowers them. We should be calling them stupid dickhead nerd who shoots up the school. “Gunman” glorifies. It’s a capital G. He wants to be a gunman. The next kid’s like, “I want to be a gunman.” Look at the respect. Look at the fear. Look at the population caring. The way you do that, and I’m sorry, because these people are sick, these gunmen are sick, and I don’t want to add to their pain. But for the greater good we should be calling them whatever the word is.
Tim: Yeah. People don’t realize that shame is an incredibly powerful weapon.
Shame is very powerful. That’s what the Internet is built on, shaming people. Publicly shaming people. We should be shaming them, not glorifying them.
We should go back and figure out why they were fucked in the brain. But calling them anything but wingy dickheads…Like maybe find a photo of them jerking off or having a poo. “Crying Wanking Loser Goes Nuts,” or something.
Gaby: Yeah, rather than the security camera footage where they look badass holding the gun.
Tim: “Evil” is part of the othering. We other the Taliban. We’re like, “Ugh, they are warriors of the desert and they’re evil.” No, they’re not. They’re just fucking dickheads. They’re the wanker second child of the family who didn’t get the fucking trucks. They should be talked about in the most contemptible terms. Not fear, but contempt. Jon Ronson has just written a book about this, about shaming on the Internet. You know Ronson?
Gaby: I do. I read “The Psychopath Test.” He is great. Someone gave me that book as a gift, and I was like, “What are you trying to say?”
Tim: You’re clearly a bit broken.
Gaby: It was a weird gift.
Tim: The Internet is a court without a jury. As an individual you just go, “That person…” and then the mob comes in, and then the pitchforks come in, and even if you’re right, it’s wrong. Even if the person did something despicable, a mob decides that they need to be shamed, and then of course the papers pick it up and stuff.
If you’ve got 50 friends standing around you in the town square and you go, “That guy said she deserves to get raped.” You know that potential is that they will go, “Come to the towns square, we’re all pointing and shouting at this person,” and it will become a million and the newspapers will pick it up and write about it.
If you know that potential — for the whole town square to now be populated with a million people going, “Misogynist, bad person, evil, evil, evil,” would you still say, “This guy said that?” If you can’t say yes, you shouldn’t do it.
Gaby: I disagree. I don’t care about his hypothetical happiness when there are actual women who are victims of rape culture. I don’t give a shit about his hypothetical feelings getting hurt when what he’s saying contributes to a culture where women are actually physically harmed.
Tim: I do agree with you, and he’s a victim of rape culture too. He thinks making rape jokes is funny. This didn’t come from me reading your tweets by the way. You didn’t do something that sparked this thought. You have retweeted things, sure, but to be clear, I’m not talking about you.
Gaby: I can’t do nothing.
Tim: A young man who has grown up in a terrible culture where we think talking about sexual violence is funny and to be fair, I do believe we should laugh at the darkest stuff, but the trouble with rape culture is it’s always men laughing at it. You can do a funny joke about anything but you need to know what you’re saying and what your subtext is and they don’t. These kids who are like, you’re too fucking ugly to get raped….these are dickheads.
So maybe it’s perfect. Maybe the Internet’s great and it’s about time everyone was caught hold to account. I would argue that sometimes it’s bullying because you don’t know who that kid is. Who the fuck are we to pile on a stranger who is a result of their own culture? But pointing out that people say this stuff is helpful. That’s what I want to know. Is this shame culture helping? Or is feminism in trouble now because of feminism? How does it feel to you?
Gaby: Feminism’s been good for me. I think it’s changed a lot about how I viewed things and how I allowed myself to be treated.
Tim: Maybe it’s a long game and I’m just stuck on the short. And because the fire is burning now, I’m uncomfortable with it. I’ve shut up on the internet. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. I’ve shut the fuck up. What gets written under women’s articles I feel like going, “They’re just doing it because you’re feeding the troll.”
Gaby: You can’t do it for the trolls. You have to do it in the hopes that some young man or woman will read it.
Tim: I see. I see.
Gaby: And it’s even innocuous things. I made a video about being involved in comic book culture and nerd culture and strangely nerd culture is one of the bastions of sexism.
Tim: Fuckin’ that. Gamers. And the fuckin’ athiest community. They’re just acting out. They’re just geeks, little disempowered — and you’ve got to understand and I’m absolutely sure you do: Most of the women writing these articles are much more powerful than the men responding to them.
Gaby: In some ways.
Tim: In any way that they think matters. You, Gaby Dunn, are privileged, educated, as it happens, beautiful which has it’s own power, you have this thing where you’re a woman which puts you in certain areas, like feeling threatened on the street, in a lower category. You are definitely in a place I acknowledge I will never experience as a man.
Gaby: You’re saying these guys view my situation as privileged because I have a voice.
Tim: All they want is to be loved by women.
Gaby: They don’t want to be loved by women. They want women to be controlled by them.
Tim: They want to be one of the winners and they’re one of the losers.
Gaby: They think that women are a prize then. An object prize they win for being decent. It’s hard for me to feel bad for them even when I understand that objectively.
Tim: You should have empathy for everyone.
Gaby: But I grew up also and I was not an attractive kid at all and was super weird. This is the peak I’ve ever been.
Tim: This is as good as you get?
Gaby: I think so!
Tim: That’s awful. [laughs]
Gaby: That’s what I was leading to. For a long time, those were my friends. All of middle school and high school my friends were these sort of disenfranchised dudes. And then at a certain point, those same people I was like, “Hey remember we’re friends?” and they were like, “No.” They turned on me.
Tim: What’s going wrong?
Gaby: What’s going wrong is they feel entitled to a thing they are not entitled to and when it doesn’t turn out their way they’re angry and that anger compounds on itself and just makes it worse and worse.
The problem for me, feeling bad for them is like, it’s that quote “Men are worried women will laugh at them and women are worried men will murder them.” For me, the more real situation takes precedent. So if some dude is upset it’s hard for me to put that on the same level. If I write an article, yes I have power but that guy who’s like, “I’m gonna find your house and rape you—”
Tim: That doesn’t feel nice but it’s not true.
Gaby: I have no idea. He might.
Tim: That’s not logical fear.
Gaby: It doesn’t have to be.
Tim: I can’t imagine what that must be like. I get death threats, but you know, that’s not the same. There’s no equivalence.
Gaby: I think you’re also part of nerd culture, unwillingly maybe but that’s your fanbase whether you want that or not, and I understand. Those were my friends. Those were the only people who wanted to be my friends. It’s just disappointing.
Tim: There’s another thing which is hysteria, which is what I’m trying to put my finger on. There’s a line between activism and pitchfork-waving. There’s a line between pointing out places in society where things are wrong and ganging up on someone who’s a bit of a fuckwit. The internet breeds something bad in us. I thought Yes All Women was so interesting. Can you understand though as an unhappy man, you might want to say “What about me?”
Gaby: Yes, but that’s the problem. Before you inject yourself, do some research. It doesn’t help the conversation. To me, some guy being sad on the internet is not my concern compared to someone tweeting, “Here’s how I was raped. #YesAllWomen.” I don’t give a shit about the guy being sad.
Tim: You know what? Yeah. It doesn’t matter. Fuck ‘em. This is [men’s rights] stuff. I feel like I’m accidentally slipping into a place where I’m trying to be the voice of men and I’m not. I’m much more interested in feminism than I am in almost all other subjects. But I’m also interested in the internet as a mode of communication. But it slips into “At any cost, we should point this shit out regardless of how it hurts people.”
I suspect there’s nothing we disagree on. I just don’t think just because someone’s a man and he says something dumb, anything goes. But this is part of a broader conversation which I’m interested in about how to have good internet dialogue.
I can’t read the comments under a woman’s blog. It’s men’s fault. There’s no doubt they’re fuck heads. It’s utterly grotesque. How do we stop it becoming an out of control shit fight that has no forward movement?
Gaby: There was a guy who was mad about a video I made about sexism in comic books and he started out being like, “Your complaints are stupid. This has never happened.” And I said, “You may not have seen it happen but perhaps women in the nerd community have. If you want to be an ally, which it seems like you do, you should listen to women who are telling you this does happen.” And it devolved immediately into, “If you get raped, you should relax and enjoy it.” Literally, that is what he said. I retweeted it. It went off the rails. I posted the thread and he used his real name and said, “This guy thinks this doesn’t happen in the community. Please tell me if you’re a woman or a man that’s witnessed it, instances that have happened in the community to you and I’ll compile them and show him that it does happen.” So there were 120 instances so I linked him to it and was like, “Look. I put this on my blog. This happens. Now you want to be an ally, listen to these stories.” And he went immediately into “Fuck you. You’re a cunt.” So I thought, “Okay, maybe this was a waste of time towards you.” He’s someone who sees himself as an ally in the nerd community so even with people who see themselves as good allies, how quickly did it devolve versus someone who is already like, “Fuck women in the nerd community.” How much worse could that person be? Ugh. How can you tell me this doesn’t happen? You’re doing it.
Tim: That’s just an example of you having a public dialogue which would educate observers.
Gaby: But then I got messages saying, “You doxxed him. You put his name on the internet.” What do you mean? He put his name on the internet. But it got shared by anti-feminist Tumblr as an example of a feminist doxxing a man.
Tim: To be analytical and please disagree with me. There were two things you were trying to do: 1) educate him and 2) educate those observing your feed, and also a third thing: to punish him. I learned very early on since I’ve got 750,000 followers that when someone’s rude to me, I would initially just destroy them and people would pile in and I got what I wanted because I made them feel bad because they made me feel bad. Someone said something to me about being a talentless ugly fuck and I felt awful because I believe on some level that I’m a talentless ugly fuck. Doesn’t matter who you are, it hurts. But I realized very quickly it’s not appropriate for me to respond to those people publicly because I have power. If I wanted to make a witty riposte I could retweet their comment with my riposte and blank out their name and I get what I want, they would see it, the public would see it so I get a laugh and I make myself feel better. If it was about an issue, I could also educate the person and the public. You were punishing him. I want you to acknowledge that there was an element to which you wanted to punish him.
Gaby: I wanted people to send him messages saying this is my experience of sexism in the nerd community.
Tim: You could have just gathered them and then DMed him.
Gaby: I only included his twitter handle after he tweeted at me that I should get raped. Then I retweeted that.
Tim: The argument is: is that fair? And yeah, probably yeah. Fuck him.
Gaby: But then he suffers no consequences and I get messages from his co-horts like “You’re a cunt. I’m gonna come to your house and murder you.”
Tim: I totally respect your right and condone your pulling that fucker down. But this is part of a broader conversation which I’m interested in about how to have good internet dialogue and do good things for the world. I believe that if you had not punished that guy or done passive resistance and collected those things and sent them to him and gone — This is almost impossible to do because of human nature. If you’d gone, “I understand you’re angry at me. I just want you to have this data I’ve collected for you because I’m an activist and I want you to know. The rape stuff is awful and you shouldn’t do that to people. Love, Gaby. Ps: I’m not making this public because my mission in life is not to punish you” you would have felt amazing.
Gaby: What a weird high horse.
Gaby: It sucks though because as a woman, you could do that all day every day and not have time for anything else.
Tim: You made time to punish him! But that’s all right. You’re allowed to. It turns out the world is full of awful stuff, and these guys going through their day to day are probably not bad guys. No one is. But that doesn’t excuse it.
Gaby: It gets exhausting. I’m 26. I’m just coming into being very angry.
Tim: I feel like you’ve kind of arrived even since I met you at the theater. It’s quite interesting watching you go, “No. This is how I’m talking about this now.” It’s good. I’m hugely admiring of you. I basically follow feminists and aboriginal activists. I try to make Twitter a diet of hearing what I wouldn’t otherwise hear.
Gaby: But it’s a luxury for you that you can go, “I want to step away from this,” but for me, I’m still a woman off line. You can say I don’t want to be a part of this. I don’t. I am a part of it.
Tim: Well….but…no, you know? Nevermind. You should be doing exactly what you’re doing. It’s awful. It is about womanhood. I’ve been punched in the head three times and as a man, it’s very different. If you get punched in the head as a man, you think I might end up in hospital. If you get punched as a woman, you think I’m going to get raped. It’s very very very distinct. But dealing with shit people being shit is a human thing.
Gaby: I don’t like when people say that because there are gendered specifics to it that do need to be talked about.
Tim: That’s exactly right.
Gaby: Seems to me the burden is on women constantly to be nice.
Tim: The burden is on smart people with a voice.
Illustration by Geoff Bates.
I am a writer, journalist, and comedian living in Los Angeles.
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