“Strained,” agrees Minchin. “What about Chris standing on my neck?”
“That is our relationship,” agrees Taylor.
The correct answer to Brickwood’s question, however, is a word beginning with “c” – and it’s not the one Minchin, the Rock and Roll Nerd singer-comedian who is also behind the internationally award-winning musical Matilda, regularly throws into his songs and uses liberally on his Twitter account – but the more prosaic “colleagues”.
The pair have just collaborated on Upright, an eight-part Foxtel show in which Minchin plays Lucky, a desperate man making the long trip from east to west across the Nullarbor to see his dying mother. The catch? He’s towing an upright piano and has a mouthy 16-year-old runaway, Meg (Milly Alcock), in the passenger seat.
It’s a road-trip comedy with a heart as big as the desert it crosses – flashing between drama, thriller, heartbreak, comedy and the downright delightful as the odd couple navigate each other and the demons driving them towards and away from family.
The show marks Minchin’s first major starring role on Australian TV – he was part of the ensemble cast of another vehicle-based comedy, Squinters, in 2018 and played the murderous Smasher in 2015’s The Secret River – while for Taylor, who came up with the concept and is one of the writers and producers, it’s a dramatic change from the satire he is most well-known for as a member of the Chaser.
The idea came to Taylor in 2016 , when he was at Los Angeles International Airportwith bad Wi-Fi. Scrolling through news stories on his phone, he started reading about a man who was travelling across the US with nothing but an upright piano for company.
“The pictures didn’t load in the article, so I imagined this guy sitting at the Grand Canyon, with a piano with the most wonderful, haunting landscapes,” he says. “And when I finally got back to Sydney and looked him up later, I realised he was just in malls in Nashville and San Francisco.
“But thank god for the Wi-Fi because my mind naturally went to an image, which I guess was the germ of Upright, where I imagined a guy in the Australian desert and that just struck me as a very poetic and comedic image.”
Photoshoot over, the pair are now sitting in a conference room only slightly less inspiring than a Nashville mall and certainly a lot less scenic than the rich desert landscapes Minchin spent three months filming Upright in.
Minchin has ever so politely carried in the tea tray and as he and Taylor continue to banter, it’s obvious they are more than just colleagues – their friendship having grown throughout the development and filming of Upright to Minchin’s recent critiquing of Taylor’s own family heirloom piano (“He advised me it needs a desperate tune,” says Taylor. “I always thought I was nailing it but maybe it was because I was hitting notes that were out of tune”).
The pair first met when Taylor was co-hosting the Triple J drive show in 2004 and Minchin was a musical guest. Taylor remembers being a “bit overawed” because “Tim was the first person, and this was before you were really big, and you just knew what you wanted. You had very set ideas, particularly about the sound and all of that, and that impressed me a lot.”
But it wasn’t until Taylor began throwing ideas around for Upright with Lingo Pictures’ Jason Stephens, that Minchin came to mind again.
“Tim was always at the top of our list,” says Taylor. “That’s not a surprising casting move, at that stage it was a comedy about a guy who could play the piano very well, it was a pretty short list.”
For Minchin, the timing was perfect – not only professionally but personally. He was recovering from a couple of stumbles – the early closure of his Broadway musical adaptation of the film Groundhog Day and the termination of his multimillion-dollar animated film project Larrikins by Dreamworks.
“I was very attracted to the idea of making something good, with nice people,” he says. “Because I’d made good things in hard worlds and it was, ‘I can’t do something that someone can take from me again’ and so I said yes to getting into development.”
With writers Kate Mulvaney and Leon Ford also on board, the pieces began to fall into place, and Taylor’s original idea of an absurdist, Waiting for Godot-style comedy gradually morphed into a tale of redemption, a story Minchin felt keenly.
“I was depressed, facing coming home and contemplating what it is to be away from family and prioritising family over career,” he says. “That was profound. And, particularly for me, the theme of how do you deal with your stumbles.
“Whether it’s something incredibly privileged, like having your $100 million cartoon taken off you, or having made a terrible mistake or having lost someone, how do you integrate that into your future, how do you forgive yourself or get over it?
“So I was a bit like Lucky at the start of Upright when I came to you guys, so I probably brought a bit of that to the [writers’] room and then all of it ended up in Lucky.”
The results can clearly be seen onscreen and off – Minchin’s tour de force performance is only matched in its intensity by his young co-star Alcock, while his writing was recognised in August when the Australian Writers Guild awarded him the AWGIE for best comedy for Upright’s final episode, which he also co-directed.
“I think we thought we were just getting an actor,” deadpans Taylor.
Minchin shoots back: “No, you were getting a despot.”
Upright premieres on Fox Showcase, December 1, 8.30pm, when the full series will be available on Foxtel On Demand.
Louise is Editor of S and TV Liftout at The Sun-Herald