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Could this be comedy's next superstar?

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IN its time, the now-disbanded U.S. Comedy Arts Festival held every March in Aspen, Colo., earned a reputation as the launching pad for offbeat comedians. Each year, the lanes of the mountaintop sky village hummed with Hollywood agents, network executives and producers buzzing up the latest discoveries from the festival's tented stages. Acts such as the Flight of the Conchords and Sarah Silverman got a running start there.

This March, the talk at Aspen was about two 20-minute midnight shows by a bizarre and indescribable musical-comedy performer from Australia, making his first appearance in the U.S. The groundswell of excitement was "the biggest for any performer that I've ever seen -- absolutely groundbreaking, instant celebrity," said J.P. Buck, who coordinated talent for USCAF and also does the Vegas-based Comedy Festival.

At the center of the hoopla, Tim Minchin tried to sort out what it all meant. Just over 30, his long blond hair ironed straight, Minchin builds his act around a set of dark, manic songs and comedy bits, delivered in a tailed Beethovian coat, eyeliner and bare feet. His haphazard, slightly crazed appearance clashes brilliantly with his songs' incisive parody of obscure rock genres and with the virtuosity of his playing. Barely a year earlier, he was scraping by with gigs at a 40-seat bar in Melbourne. Now he was fielding queries from seemingly the entire comedy-industrial complex.

And his answer to them was that he had to get back on his tour. He left Aspen and America, dealless and agentless. Minchin was not to be seen again until a week ago, when he returned to America to play a few shows (two in New York, one in Las Vegas and two in L.A.) and perhaps take the next steps into the showbiz labyrinth, the promise of stardom dangling before him. But as he knows, these are steps on a road littered with cautionary tales of quirky buzz-generating acts for whom things never quite came together.

Chatting at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas, as he prepared for his show at the HBO co-sponsored Comedy Festival, Minchin bristled with amazement at his first contacts with industry players. "They all talk in a way that I've never experienced before. 'Well, you're going to be a huge star. What do you want to do? I'll introduce you to Steve Martin. He'd love your stuff. You want to direct films? We can make it happen.' The hyperbole is extraordinary," Minchin said. "Extraordinary in that it is kind of [nonsense] but sort of true as well."

With the legend of his March Aspen show still lingering, the question of whether it was a fluke or the real thing had grown in Minchin's absence from the U.S. And unlike the Aspen crowd, which was always rife with comedy professionals, the Vegas festival is an extremely mass-market event, drawing in tourists with big-name headliners like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Eddie Izzard, all playing 2,000- to 6,000-seat arenas. Whether Minchin's off-kilter, often dark comedy would play to this crowd was an open question.

Like many a great breakthrough act, Minchin's routine, delivered in his eccentric outfit on a stage dominated by a grand piano, is nearly impossible to describe and do justice to. Minchin explains his character as "a sort of classical composer hobo" or "a rock 'n' roll nerd" who behaves as though he has hijacked a stage to live out his musical fantasies. He tries to bring the world together with his "Palestinian Peace Anthem," then a song that pleads for shoppers to use canvas bags. Then he starts straining to generate depth and darkness beyond his married, buttoned-down life, inadvertently revealing true glimpses of darkness with lines such as these, from the song "Rock and Roll Nerd": "He's a victim of his upper-middle-class upbringing, so he can't write about the hood or bling bling / So he goes and imagines his girlfriend is dead, to try and evoke some angst in his middle-class head / but the bitch is always fine at half past 9 when they go to bed."

The off-kilter stage persona belies, however, the driven battle-hardened theater pro beneath. Three hours before the Vegas show started, Minchin worked frantically through the tech rehearsal at a pace he labeled "happily tense," plotting lighting and sound cues and fretting about problems with his smoke machine. "This 45 minutes is not my make or break," he emphasized. "That said, this would be a really good one to do well on."

Starting in theater

Minchin's journey to the doorsteps of fame and glory began after a decadelong apprenticeship in local theater. Growing up in the buttoned-down western Australian city of Perth, Minchin got involved in theater after college, writing songs for local productions and beginning gingerly to pursue acting, as well as performing with a cover band (not to mention getting married at age 17, a marriage that survives and the angst of which fuels many of the darker numbers).

As recently as a few years ago, he recalled, "I couldn't get an acting agent. I wasn't getting any acting work. I went on a couple of auditions for ads which I failed to get. I was just so depressed. I was heading toward 30. I was starting to think I should probably become a teacher or do something worthwhile for the world instead of sitting around worried that I wouldn't be able to support my family."

Having quietly written satirical songs since he was 11 ("I wrote funny songs, but it was just the thing you do at parties when you're drunk, you know?"), Minchin began to feel the "silly songs" were overshadowing his "serious" music. Largely to get the silliness out of his system, Minchin put himself on stage at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2003. "I had booked this space. I thought, 'I'd better write this show.' I wrote it, panicked, thought I was garbage, got on stage the first night and then just went, 'Aahh, hold on. This is cool. Like, I'm doing everything I want. I'm playing. I'm acting. I'm making people laugh.' "

The experience led to a yearlong residency at a local bar with the nascent composer-hobo character. Eventually, he came to the attention of a producer for the influential annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, who booked him for the 2005 series.

"Somewhere in the ensuing months between Melbourne and Edinburgh," Minchin said, "a show had dropped out of the big room, and fate conspired that I ended up being in a 350-seater in the biggest festival in the world, and I was a totally unknown act. Now that is economically suicide, putting an unknown act on at 9 o'clock, the biggest time." Minchin and his sister, flown in to provide backup, filled the massive room by papering the streets with free-ticket fliers. Paying crowds soon followed the buzz, and ultimately Minchin won the fest's coveted Best Newcomer Award -- a prize that has led to significant renown in the UK theater and comedy community and a nonstop performing schedule, including shows at some of England's grandest venues. He bought a flat in London and moved his family there.

Although Minchin enjoyed his growing acclaim in the UK and quasi-celebrity status in Australia, the challenge of cracking the U.S. loomed. Then came Aspen. But the heat generated there also brought an object lesson in the fickleness of show-business tastes. After the initial flurry of intense U.S. interest, nothing. "The thing is," Minchin said, "their memories are short. They move on. So, I just got back to the UK. Nobody kept ringing me. It was just, 'Oh, he's gone. Next.' "

To Las Vegas

As the very mixed crowd of tourists from across America and comedy fans began to file into the 400-seat Emperors Ballroom, backstage Minchin's happy frenzy continued. He was concerned that the tech rehearsal had been too brief, the smoke machine wasn't working, and he hadn't figured out what he was going to say in his monologue. In the final minutes, he explained, "my brain pings around on what to say in the first bit. That sets the tone for the show." Sinking his mind into the character, Minchin begins the reverse evolution from detail-obsessed, tireless theater professional whose wife and child await him in a room upstairs to the impish, flailing, moderately demented genius the audience will meet on stage.

The more particular the character, the harder it is for Hollywood to shove it into a pre-carved hole, and Minchin's stage persona doesn't lend itself to the more obvious missteps -- say, a best-friend role on a doomed sitcom. Still, the lack of obvious paths makes it less clear what the route will be for Minchin. His dream at this point is ultimately to win a TV series while continuing his live performance career, but TV shows aren't handed out like candy to unknown foreign acts, however great the buzz.

And then there's also the other musical-comedy act from Down Under, Flight of the Conchords, whose cult-fave HBO series has alternately opened doors for acts with similar origins or closed them, in that TV executives will think the "offbeat" category is filled already.

Los Angeles promised another baptism of fire. Two shows at the 90-some-seat Acme theater were sure to be filled with industry types. And then there were two days of meetings with agents, managers and network executives. Looking ahead to it while still in Vegas, Caroline Chignell, Minchin's UK manager, said, "I'm realistic about what the networks are going to say. You know how hard it is for them to commit to anything. My feeling is they'll probably have a meeting and say, 'Let's stay in touch.' " As for the agents, "I want to hear an idea from them. Should we build up the live side and see what we can really push, or should we be looking for a TV deal? So either we decide and commit, or we wait until the next time. I'm comfortable waiting."

As the Vegas show started, Minchin walked on stage in darkness. Suddenly, a spot lighted him up, and he gave a stunned double-take, as though he'd just been caught sneaking around. He begins his introductory song, "I Am So . . . Rock," playing imaginary air instruments to recorded bits of music.

A group of vacationers from Jacksonville, Fla., who stumbled into the festival and bought tickets for Minchin only after Chris Rock was sold out, looked at each other in confusion, perhaps wondering whether to bolt for the doors. Soon, however, as the lyrics, sprinkled with laugh lines, accompanied the infectious beat and melody, they began to bop in their seats. At the song's close, Minchin attacked the piano in a captivating (and shocking given what the audience knew about him at this point) display of musical virtuosity. By then the Jacksonville group was completely with him, erupting in applause with the rest of the room at the song's close and following him willingly into more intimate territory with song No. 2, "Rock and Roll Nerd."

Before the show, Minchin spoke of his fears of plunging into American entertainment. "I want to have a long, interesting career. I mean I'd like to make a really nice living as well, but I'm not trying to become the biggest thing ever. I want to be respected enough to be able to make creative choices. That's what everyone says in the beginning of their career, and then they get their first Jacuzzi and they want another one. You just keep wanting to do more. There's a healthy version of that, and I'm the healthy version of that. In the moment, I think I'm healthy in that my aspirations are artistic.

"I'm extremely grateful for opportunities, but I'm going to be as strong as I can about making sure it works. Not because I think I'm the king of the world. Simply because I want a long, varied career, and also America's not my home. It's a . . . long way from my home. I'd love to spend some time here, but my lifelong ambition hasn't been to live in L.A., far from it. I'm only going to be here if it's real and if it's going to make my wife happy. There are more important things in life than climbing the American entertainment industry ladder."

Future so bright

Forty-five minutes after "Rock and Roll Nerd," the show came to a powerhouse close with Minchin's environmental anthem "Canvas Bags." The room exploded in a massive standing ovation, by Buck's estimation as big and sustained as he'd ever seen for a non-name act at the Vegas festival.

Whether climbing the American entertainment industry ladder was what he had intended to do, Minchin had just leapfrogged up another six rungs.

Then it was on to L.A., where the shows were again brilliantly received. The local blog LAist.com enthused, "I can't rememer [sic] a recent comedy show that I enjoyed as much . . . ever [sic] there was a time to enjoy a top-notch comedian in an intimate setting, this is it."

After the show, Minchin described the pressure he had felt: "Tonight I felt, 'I've got to nail this show.' But from the moment I walked on stage, I felt I knew what to do at each moment."

And after all of the meetings, as he prepared to return to England, he was still trying to sort out whether he needed an agent and a manager, or an agent, or a manager. "Two years ago, it was just me," he said.

The House of Minchin will almost certainly grow in the coming months, perhaps bringing him that much closer to the burning light of fame, American style. But with every step, of course, the chance for missteps also grows.

"He has amazing potential and a great head on his shoulders. Audiences love him," said one manager whose firm met this week with Minchin. "But he needs to carefully navigate the waters here and get into business with people who see his unique potential, not just what they think they know."

richard.rushfield@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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