Tim Minchin: better said than read

In September 2013 the University of Western Australia  awarded Tim Minchin an honorary Doctorate of Letters. In acceptance, he proceeded to deliver this address.

Within a few seconds of his starting, no regular visitor to this blog will be in any doubt as to what I am going to say, so let’s get it over with.

What possessed him to castrate his speech by reading it from a script?

If he and I were sitting across a table and I put that to him I know what he would say – I’ve had it said to me countless times. The script of that speech had to be dragged out of him syllable by syllable, and then pruned, polished and perfected by repeated rewriting. That, he would claim, is what makes it so brilliant. My reply, as always, is that it may be brilliant as a piece of writing, and I’d enjoy reading it to myself, but as a speech it falls pitifully short of its potential. It sounds stilted.

He would reply by citing all sorts of fine details that would have been lost had he not had them to hand on the page; and at that point I would clam up. I always do. I have learnt over the years that there is no point in arguing any of this with anyone unless they have put themselves in my hands in a training room, in which case I tear the paper away from them and go through a careful process of proving to them that they can easily do what they have always regarded as some sort of magic given only to a select few. More importantly I show them how much better the resultant product suddenly becomes.

What about those fine details of which he is so fond and proud? Would he lose them if shooting from the hip? Yes, some of them, but only those whose presence makes the speech stilted.

I have a friend who is a very good speaker indeed, and shoots from the hip. Last year I was present when he delivered an address to a big audience upon receiving an important promotion. Nearly all of it was shot from the hip and was excellent. The first couple of minutes, though, were scripted, unmistakeably aimed at the two or three in the audience still superior to him (I call it ‘playing to the purple’), dripping with affected erudition, and consequently nothing like as good as the rest. And here’s the clincher: I bet those superiors would agree with me.

Back to this speech by Minchin. I invite you to join me in a little experiment. There follows a quote from the speech – a joke. What I ask you to do is read it once (or at the most, twice), remove your eyes from it, and then tell the joke to the nearest wall. Don’t try to reproduce it verbatim, just tell the joke. Not only will you not need the script to tell it, but you will tell it better than he did. He is talking about the meaning of life.

Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook. You won’t find it, and it’ll bugger up your soufflé

He is a professional comedian. He wrote the joke: it is a good joke: he read the joke: he killed the joke. He read it because he believed – really believed – he needed to. He is wrong, but he will go on believing it till someone like me puts him right and simultaneously improves his delivery tenfold.

Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much it goes away.

Can you believe that he read that too? Yep, I’m afraid he did.

It is a very funny speech indeed. It would have been better and funnier if he had known how to leave the script at home and trusted himself, not to memorise and recite it (Heaven forbid!), but deliver it said rather than read.


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