Tim Key is lost in one of Brighton\’s many one-way systems when he answers my phone call. A self-confessed ‘shambles\’, such an incident seems perfectly fitting for Key. But one should be wary of underestimating the poet-comedian, as he has taken the comedy world by storm over the past couple of years with his niche, nuanced persona channelled through the medium of his uniquely unassuming poetry. Key has brought a whole new interpretation through his fusion of comedy and poetry, and has developed a unique wit which conveys hilarity whether in performance or in writing. Despite his recent flurry of success, Key is affable and more than approachable on the phone, though he is initially guarded, not aware of the name of the publication and ‘worried I had done something wrong to somewhere called Cherwell\’. Key is just under halfway through the tour of his award winning show, The Slut Cracker, and admits that he was naturally pessimistic about it, as he has never toured before. He began ‘just assuming that it would be absolute horseshit\’, but so far it\’s all gone well.
Despite his heightened recognition and success, Key insists that the nature of his work has really not changed that much. ‘It\’s been really similar; a mixture of stuff that I work on my own projects along with my usual collaborations with people like Mark Watson and Tom Basden and once or twice someone asks you to do something special but broadly it has stayed the same\’. However, winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award back in 2009 has certainly increased his opportunities: ‘The main difference is that show had a life after Edinburgh, which the other show hadn\’t, meaning it has been the first time I have been able to tour really\’. Touring is just one of the many fields into which Key has delved, with his CV including poet, comedian, writer and recording artist. When asked about the breadth of his work, he has a laid back, logical approach to his various crafts, insisting that such variety is essential to the continuation of his work. ‘If you\’re backstage waiting to go onto a gig, you kind of think, \”Why do I put myself through this, why don\’t I just stick to writing?\” And then you think, \”Well, I can\’t think what to write, so then I think I\’ll just go along and do some acting\”.\’
Key begins to analogise the variety of his work. ‘You start off with lots of different fingers in lots of different pies, and then gradually as you move through your career you get each of the pies being slightly more succulent and thus slightly more interesting things in each field\’. Key\’s characteristic faux-scepticism is shown when he describes these fields as ‘a fabric of exit options\’. When pressed to name his preferred medium or piece of work to date, however, he insists that there are no such easy conclusions to be made. ‘I absolutely adore the show I\’m doing at the moment… I\’m lucky in that I work with the people I want to be working with on the projects that I actually enjoy\’.
It is his poetry which defines his career, as this is the medium through which Key channels his witty observations of the world. He talks me through his creative process, though he admits it is a loosely structured one. ‘The main thing about it is that it\’s very throw-away I suppose, and I don\’t put too much thought into it; so it comes down to the little bits and pieces which come to mind and I just whack them down\’. He points to his unique poetic form as ‘the prism that I put these ideas through,\’ and likens it to drawing, stating that ‘I just do a little sketch alone in a cafÃ©.\’ The striking feature of his poems is their paradoxical nature of at once having such a casual air and yet, particularly in his performances, making one sure that a significant amount of veiled thought is bubbling away. Key admits, ‘I guess there\’s quite a lot of quality control, but then the result of that is that I\’m performing something which is also throw-away.\’
A distinguishing feature of his poetry has always been his ability at once to envisage ridiculous characterisations and parodies of eminent figures in society – as in his poem Politicians – and yet also to revel in the polar opposite of this in the anonymity of characters such as ‘Amanda in HR\’ or ‘The Banker\’. Key warms to this: ‘That\’s a good description of what I actually do; I like a kind of variety.\’ He admits that ‘one or two that are more recognisable,\’ such as his use of the Milibands – ‘they ate their little yoghurts they\’d stowed in their little briefcases\’ – but that ‘the bread and butter is the ordinary going about their daily lives.\’ When asked whether his observance of the farcical nature of the mundane world reflects his actual world view, Key admits that, ‘I do find it funny, to be honest. I guess I\’m slightly more alert to it.\’
Such a large part of Key\’s recognisability comes through the performance aspect of his poetry, in shows such as Charlie Brooker\’s Newswipe and Screenwipe. Measured glances, and witty, almost inaudible asides have defined Key\’s performances, and one could imagine the process of perfecting such a technique takes considerable time and effort. Key, however, maintains that it takes just ‘two or three takes for each… I just do it the best I can.\’ He explains, ‘The director has a very simple way of getting things down for the faux artistic angle, but there is not a great attention to detail… If it\’s working then he\’ll be trying not to laugh and if it\’s not we\’ll try something else.\’
Something of which he is undeniably in control, though, is his appearance, which he has shaped into a particular brand of shambolic-yet-stylish. Key claims it has come about gradually: ‘I think what happened is it works from the inside out; when I first did it, it was more shambolic, I had a more shambolic presence on stage, drink more, have an ill fitting suit, gradually the suit became more and more ripped, and I thought that can stay.\’ For his Slut Cracker Tour, he has cleaned up his act a bit, experimenting with being ‘more presentable and charming\’, though maintaining a slight dishevelment at all times.
Key\’s work is never allusive to other comedians, and it is difficult to pinpoint specific inspirations. Ever self-deprecating, Key jokes, ‘When I see someone who does something interesting, I think I need to think again about doing something that\’s useful.\’ In particular, it is his regular collaborators who he naturally draws upon, such as Mark Watson and Alex Horne. He pauses, before admitting that their main effect is to remind him that ‘I need to make sure I write something.\’