Tim Minchin: I wanted to make something that makes people laugh and cry

He's faced some challenges in his career in recent years, but new TV series Upright has got Tim Minchin back on track. The comedian tells Georgia Humphreys about the ideas behind it, and blurring the line between comedy and drama

Tim Minchin as Lucky and Milly Alcock as Meg in Upright

TIM Minchin's latest project was a therapeutic process. Upright – an eight-part Sky Atlantic series – is the comedian's first TV show. Not only has he co-written it, but he also has a leading role.

"I came off the back of losing four years of work in LA and having Groundhog Day shut down on Broadway, and I was properly traumatised by those experiences," says the Australian star (44), referring to how Larrikins, his animated musical with DreamWorks, was scrapped in March 2017.

"But Upright wouldn't have happened without that, and Upright is the best thing I've ever been involved in."

In the comedy drama, set in Australia, Minchin, who has also appeared in shows such as Calfornication, plays broke and damaged musician Lucky Flynn, who hasn't spoken to his family in years.

When he learns that his mother has only days left to live, he sets off on the 4,000km drive from Sydney to Perth to say goodbye. The only possession he takes with him? His battered upright piano.

Along the way, in the desert, he meets a fellow misfit; hilarious, tough-as-nails teenager Meg, played by Milly Alcock.

"I would say Lucky is a bit like me if I hadn't been so lucky," muses Northampton-born Minchin, who was raised in Perth, Western Australia.

Minchin – perhaps most famous as the composer and lyricist of the smash hit Matilda: The Musical – is warm and softly spoken. But he is also forthright, and gives emotive, earnest answers.

"Really, Upright is a show about how you contextualise the bad things in your life, once you're past them and can look back, and how humans are very good at being able to say, 'Look, that was that grief or that error or that trauma, but if it wasn't for that I wouldn't have this'.

"Everything that's good that happens in your life is born of everything that has happened in the past. As the show goes on, it says that having a nihilistic world view, or an understanding that the universe is meaningless, doesn't mean that you don't have profundity."

The father-of-two, who married his teenage sweetheart Sarah in 2002, moved his family back to Australia at the beginning of last year, having lived and worked away for 12 years.

He says he was drawn to Upright as a project that was big in scale. He also liked that it shows Australians in a different way to how they're normally represented on screen.

"There's a lot of great stuff coming out of Australia, but our Outback stories tend to be lots of shots of frill-necked lizards and koalas and a little bit broad, and 'How dumb are Aussies?'

"America loves Rebel [Wilson, star of films such as Pitch Perfect]. I like Rebel too, but that's how they want us. They're like, 'Oh Australia, they're real sweet and a bit dumb. And they're funny because they're a bit simple'.

"I can't do that; nothing I've made has played off my Australian naivety, ever in my life. I don't even know what that is, because I'm a nerd.

"So, I really liked the idea of trying to tell an Australian story that celebrated the beautiful landscapes and stuff, without being parochial, and kind of 'Crocodile Dundee'."

In his 20s, pianist Minchin played in bands and for cabaret artists, before debuting his first solo comic cabaret show for the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2003.

With Upright, he was keen to do something with music in it that doesn't fall into the trap of 'music is all about inspiration and the soul'.

"I wanted to talk about music as a real thing that really means something to real people... It's not a panacea. And more than anything, I wanted to make something that makes people laugh and cry because since Matilda, I have only ever wanted to do that."

There's definitely a trend at the moment for shows which are equal parts emotional and funny.

"Yeah!" he agrees. "The line between comedy and drama is disappearing.

"It always used to be defined by length; an hour show is a drama, and half an hour is a comedy. Fleabag [the BBC series written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge] being the big thing in the last year that just slipped into darkness... I mean, my shows do that.

"I've always said about my shows that laughter is not the only currency."

When you've written something, and also act in it, there are doubtless challenges during the filming process.

"You have to manage your desire to control every element," he notes, then quickly quips: "I generally manage my desire to control every element by, controlling every element.

:: Upright is on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.

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