I really like Jonathan Ross. I think he’s a funny, interesting, kind person, and an excellent interviewer. I also really like his wife… But let’s not get back into that.
Jonathan and his wonderful producer, Suzi, have been incredibly supportive of me and so when they asked me to write a song for their pre-Christmas show, I didn’t hesitate. It was the worst possible time to be writing a new song – I’ve been overworked and ill, was on tour, and was really feeling the stress. But I wasn’t going to say no… it’s Jonathan Ross! And my fellow guests were to be Tom Cruise, the divine actors from Downton Abbey, and the ace Inbetweeners boys.
So I got to writing. Being Christmas, I thought it would be fun to do a song about Jesus, but being TV, I knew it would have to be gentle. The idea was to compare him to Woody Allen (short, Jewish, philosophical, a bit hesitant), and expand into redefining his other alleged attributes using modern, popular-culture terminology.
It’s not a particularly original idea, I admit, but it’s quite cute. It’s certainly not very contentious, but even so, compliance people and producers and lawyers all checked my lyrics long before the cameras rolled. As always with these bespoke writing jobs, I was really stressed for about 3 days, and almost chucked it in the bin 5 times, and freaked out that it wasn’t funny and all that boring shit that people like me go through when we’re lucky enough to have with a big audience with high expectations. And if I’m honest, it ain’t a world-changing bit of comedy. Regardless…
On Tuesday night last week, we taped the show. I met Tom (he’s nice and quite laid-back off camera, and not very short) and the divine Downton ladies (swoon) and the lovely Inbetweeners chaps (yay) and I did my song and everyone laughed and Tom said it was great and when it was done I ran off set onto the back of a waiting motorbike, got from South Bank to the Hammersmith Apollo in 13 minutes, walked into the building, straight on to stage to sing White Wine in the Sun with Professor Brian Cox. Rock n roll.
Subsequently, Suzi and her team edited the show and everybody was happy. Suzi felt it had a nice balance of big-ticket celeb action, local talent, and a nice bit of that cheeky, iconoclastic spirit for which Jonathan is known and widely loved.
And then someone got nervous and sent the tape to ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham.
And Peter Fincham demanded that I be cut from the show.
He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.
Yesterday I wrote a big rant about comedy and risk and conservatism; about the fact that my joke has no victim; about sacredness (oh God, not again!) and about the importance of laughing at dumb but pervasive ideas. But I trashed it because it’s boring and takes it all too seriously. It’s hardly the end of the world.
But I have to admit I’m really fucking disappointed.
It’s 2011. The appropriate reaction to people who think Jesus is a supernatural being is mild embarrassment, sighing tolerance and patient education.
And anger when they’re being bigots.
Oh, and satire. There’s always satire.
Anywaaaaaaaaaay… the fun news is that I already had the footage of the song when they cut it. Yay. And so you can decide for yourself how offensive it is! Yippee.
Oh, and although I can’t think why anyone would have a problem with me posting this (Peter has covered his arse, the protection of which he is rather nervous about) but I suppose you lovely tech-geeks might want to grab a copy or mirror it, just in case I get asked to take it down.
I hope you enjoy my silly, harmless, accurate song of praise, “Woody Allen Jesus”.
And I hope you all have wonderful Christmases.
BONUS MATERIAL IF YOU’RE NOT BORED OF ME BEING OPINIONATED YET
Below is a column I wrote for the latest edition of the New Statesman, which was guest edited by our greatest living evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. It is about my daughter and Santa and belief. I hope you enjoy.
In the lead-up to last Christmas, when my daughter Violet had just turned four, she looked me in the eye and asked, “Is Father Christmas real?”
This was a problem for me. I had up until this point convinced myself that telling my kid a lie about the origins of her scooter was part and parcel of parenting – that denying a child the idea of Santa would be Scroogian in the extreme.
The trouble is, I have no memory of believing in the physics-defying fatty myself. One of our classic Minchin family tales is of Christmas eve 1978, when I was 3 myself, and my mum asked me in an excited voice, “Who’s coming down the chimney tonight?!” To which I replied, after a brow-creased pause, “Gran?”
(It is also part of Minchin lore that I was a very boring and quite dim kid.)
Regardless, our Violet had seemed quite excited the previous year when we had left a mince pie and a beer by the blocked-up chimney (Violet: But there’s no hole, how will he get down? Me: That’s the least of his worries…), and I’d felt great when she’d squealed with glee at five in the (fucking) morning upon discovering the comestibles had been consumed and that a reindeer had left hoof-prints in the icing sugar by the piano.
But now something in the assertion of the existence of this bearded philanthropist had given her pause, so she’d come to me for clarification. I wasn’t surprised – earlier in the year I’d overheard a conversation she’d had with her friend Alice as they sat by a lake in a playground in Melbourne:
Violet: If you fell in there, you’d die.
Alice: Someone would come and pull you out.
Violet: Yeah, but if the grown-ups weren’t around, you’d die.
Alice: (Pause) When you die, you go somewhere lovely.
Violet: But how would you know it’s lovely? You wouldn’t have your eyes and ears.
… an incomplete but still pretty damning analysis of the infantile idea that we (to quote my editor) survive our own deaths.
She’s always been obsessed by what is “real”. Figuring out what truly exists seems to be the way she deals with her fears. Most of the time when she asks if something is real, she’s hoping it’s not; trolls, dragons, witches have all been happily relegated to the fiction bin, and she sleeps pretty well in the knowledge that they’re not going to crawl back out and attack her in her bed.
And so I face a dilemma: I had sold her the myth of Father Christmas in the spirit of allowing a child her sense of wonderment, but I felt that lying to her face when she asked me point blank about the veracity of my claims was a step too far. I fumbled around a bit before opting for:
“Father Christmas is real… in the imaginary world.”
This didn’t really satisfy her, and nor should it have. Like so much language in theology and philosophy, that sentence has the odour of wisdom, but is a load of old bollocks. Quite nice as a phrase, but pure sophistry, like a lot of the stuff I say on stage, and like nearly everything religious apologists have ever said. It is the stuff of obfuscation – words to divert, like the passive hand of the magician – not the clarification Vi was seeking.
But I think it was the right answer. She went along with the story last year and I reckon she will again this year. By offering her the paradoxical notion of a non-real real, I allowed her the opportunity to just “go with it”, and hopefully she’ll happily do so until her friends find out it’s a myth, at which point she can quietly slip back into knowing what she suspected all along. There’ll be no crushing blow of revelation seven.
Weirdly, I have felt no compulsion to obscure answers to the more serious questions. Vi was very young when she asked what happens when you die, and I told her, “You just stop”. I see no problem at all with that answer. Not only is it demonstrably true, but it also has the wondrous quality of not eliciting a whole lot of further annoying questions.
I was asked recently how I reconcile my reputation for promoting a naturalistic world-view with the fact that I have co-written “Matilda” – a musical based on a Roald Dahl story about a girl who is preternaturally gifted and, eventually, telekinetic.
What an odd question. Do people really think that living a life unencumbered by superstition necessitates the rejection of fiction?
I adore stories. Our version of “Matilda”, even more so than the original Dahl, is a story about stories. About the importance of imagination, and of fiction’s ability not only to educate and enlighten us, but to free us; to set our minds soaring beyond reality.
My daughter will grow up reading stories, and I hope she will have a rich and lifelong relationship with the imaginary. But I will not try to train her out of her clear instinct to define for herself what is real.
I adore Christmas. The fact that I know that Christianity’s origins lie more in Paul of Tarsus’s mental illness and Emperor Constantine’s political savvy than in the existence of the divine has no bearing on my ability to enjoy this age-old festival of giving, family, and feasting.
Our lives would be empty without stories, and the story of this Jesus character is quite a nice one. One that – in theory, and sometimes even in practise – promotes compassion and humility and wisdom and peace.
Jesus is real… in the imaginary world. A five year old could tell you that.