Not surprisingly, Australian entertainer Tim Minchin initially struggled to find his niche.
“I’m a singer-songwriter pianist rock star” who also acts and composes musical theater scores, he said. “I had a lot of trouble convincing people I wasn’t a weirdo.”
Minchin, who brings his solo cabaret-style act to the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday, has since found his place in the entertainment industry.
He wrote the lyrics and music for “Matilda the Musical,” which won five Tony Awards, and he has another stage production set to open this summer. In addition, Minchin is working on a DreamWorks animated movie that takes place Down Under.
“I’ve never thought the arts owed me a career,” said Minchin, who’s temporarily moved his family to Los Angeles in order to work on the film, “Larrikins.” “I think that’s helped me (in the long run).”
With his acerbic wit and superb musicianship, Minchin, 40, invites comparisons to Tom Lehrer, the satirical singer-songwriter behind “The Old Dope Peddler,” “The Vatican Rag” and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park.”
But Lehrer never created a hit Broadway musical, or got tapped to direct an animated film. And he certainly didn’t start out in standup comedy — as Minchin did.
Minchin grew up in Perth in western Australia, nearly 1,700 miles from Melbourne, considered the nation’s cultural capital.
The musician longed to play professionally. But, he said, “It took me a while to learn I was allowed to. I struggled with a sense of my own legitimacy. Always, on some level, I assumed I would hit barriers I wouldn’t be able to traverse due to my lack of training.”
Then, at age 26, he headed to Melbourne in search of a record deal and acting gigs — shortly after wedding his college sweetheart, Sarah.
A year later, in 2003, Minchin debuted his first solo comic cabaret show, “Navel — Cerebral Memories With Umbilical Chords,” at the Melbourne Fringe festival. The success of that show and other solo efforts led him to premiere “Dark Side” at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland, where he won the Perrier Best Newcomer Award.
The wonderful thing about music and lyrics is … there’s joy in the dance of words.
Minchin seems as surprised as anyone that his stage persona — a puckish pianist with bare feet, kohl-lined eyes and a long, combed-back mane of hair, playing rude ditties about sex, racism and religion — caught on with audiences.
“Standup wasn’t part of my cultural diet. I was a theater head,” Minchin said.
Besides, he said, his songwriting style doesn’t lend itself easily to radio-friendly hits. “My songs are very wordy and very didactic,” he said.
“The wonderful thing about music and lyrics is … there’s joy in the dance of words — just phonetically, just orally,” Minchin said, a delight that’s doubled by the subtext of those words. “Those phrases have value even if you’re just half getting them.”
Minchin’s talent for linguistic acrobatics helped make “Matilda,” based on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, a success. The musical, which debuted in London in 2011 and opened on Broadway two years later, follows a precocious little girl who is bullied by her boorish parents and terrifying headmistress.
Some might find it odd that a man associated with mature-audiences-only entertainment is now known for children’s theater, Minchin acknowledged.
“Conservative people … find the idea that you swear and blaspheme at odds with intellect or philosophical curiosity, but they’re not (at odds),” the father of two said. “Many great artists in the last century have been foul-mouthed alcoholics and iconoclasts.”
“There’s an absolute continuum,” Minchin continued, from his obscenity-laden, Catholicism-skewering tune “The Pope Song” to the thoughtful number “Naughty” from “Matilda,” which argues that “Just because you find that life’s not fair, it/ Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it.”
“They say exactly the same thing,” he said, noting that both songs encourage listeners to stand up against the strictures of society. “The only alteration is the story you’re trying to tell and the point of view you’re telling it from.”
More recently, Minchin collaborated with the “Matilda” team on a stage version of “Groundhog Day,” the Bill Murray movie about a cocky TV weatherman who relives the same day over and over again. The musical is set to open in London in July before beginning its Broadway run in March 2017.
Minchin compared “Groundhog Day” to Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” in which two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” experience an existential crisis.
“It works as an explanation for life,” he said. “We’re thrust as characters upon the stage. ... We don’t understand the parameters of our personal drama. We’re not in control of our fate.”
Even when tackling such heady ideas, Minchin said, he tries to keep things entertaining.
“(My) job is to make sure (I) don’t turn it into a wankfest — just a lot of navel-gazing,” he said. “It still has to be funny and ironic and dark.”
In addition, Minchin is working on “Larrikins,” about a bilby — a marsupial native to Australia — who leaves his family burrow and ventures into the Outback.
In addition to directing “Larrikins,” due out in 2018, Minchin is also acting in the animated movie and contributing several songs. “I’ve never done something that uses as much of my skills as this one,” he said.
Despite his packed schedule, Minchin said he’s always happy to spend time on stage with his “weird and lovely fan base.”
“To be able to go back to theater is wonderful,” he said. “I’m having a really good time performing. … (And) people seem to like it.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Facebook and Twitter.
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$26 to $36, $20.80 to $28.80 students and Cal Poly faculty and staff
756-4849 or http://www.pacslo.org/