Tim Key is an unusual comedian. His shows, which have at their centre Key reading his own poems, have at last made poetry funny. And yet he remains something of an anti-comedian. Despite having accomplished much that would count as traditional success: he has had his poems published in a book but also in publications as (and we must suspect comically) diverse as Vice and Reader’s Digest, has featured on TV shows from the glamorous heights of Newswipe and Screenwipe to the pitiful low of Skins (ah, the regrettable ‘down-with-the-kids’ cameo), and has written a fair deal for Radio 4. His comedy goes against standard stand-up. He delivers his poems (one of which has been written for Cherwell, to our great honour – see below) with a beer in hand off the back of a pornographic postcard and his poetic persona seems to have little care for the audience. His poems themselves play off poetry: they bounce against its pretension and incomprehensibility. His poetry takes the piss out of poetry.
Key’s career has, from the start, line between the comedy establishment and anti-establishment. Playing a crucial part in the greatest success of the footlights since the Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson days, where he and his group won the Best New Comedy Award at the Fringe, Key was nonetheless not a member of the University and had to blag his way in as a Russian grad student. Likewise, despite his three sold-out Edinburgh shows and winning of the Edinburgh comedy award, he remains a figure to the side of the limelight, his name not as well known as many less critically acclaimed comics. He has worked with Steve Coogan, Charlie Brooker and Armando Ianucci, and yet he has managed to keep his comedy unique and maintain his own influence as an individual comic. He blends genres, parodying art-house film on stage instead of more banal videos, and includes physical comedy in his shows. Is he an anti-poet and anti-comedian? And should we seen him as a poet being funny or a comedian writing comic verse and performing it? Cherwell has asked the man himself about the line between comedy, poetry, and more.
How did you get into comedy?
I auditioned for a pantomime. It was very badly written – by Alex Horne – and I was terrible in it – my great aunt walked out. But I loved doing it. And at some point I think I made someone laugh and got a surge of joy and primeval power that I decided I needed more of. Me and Alex Horne have worked together ever since. He’s getting better.
When did you decide you wanted to work as a comedian?
2000. I’d graduated from Sheffield and waddled home to Cambridge, fatigued and directionless. I applied for some jobs and started temping. I got involved in the above pantomime and met some people who were doing comedy. I muscled in.
What role did being at University have on your development comically, does any of the Russian that you studied come into the works?
I did plays in my first year and liked it. That kept my onstage attention-seeking side ticking over. Russian writers can be funny. Dostoevsky’s The Double was amazing – stayed with me – and [Nikolai] Gogol is still very funny. I’ve just made a radio documentary about him because I love him. He was a sneaky piece of shit, not boring like some olden-days writers.
Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?
I always had a pang that I needed to do something like this. I didn’t know what. But I think if I wasn’t doing it I’d still have that pang. If I was doing something else I would be drinking wine and writing late into the night. I’d be watching more comedy. I’d be jealous that I wasn’t involved.
Would you say Cambridge was a unique environment to be involved in comically?
Difficult to say. Other universities have some comedy, but it did feel pretty vibrant. And there was some amazing talent there. Also, it was an environment where people could try out some stuff and see if it was funny – with an audience. That’s invaluable. It makes doing comedy that much more worthwhile when there are some goons watching you.
How does it compare to Oxford, is there a difference between Oxford comics and those that come from Cambridge?
Nope, don’t think so. It’s all about getting in a room with a few people with a similar sense of humour. I met Tom Basden, Lloyd Woolf and Stefan Golaszewski through Cambridge and it came clear that we all had a similar approach and similar taste. After that it has nothing to do with which city you’re in – we migrated to London and got busy. I’m sure this sort of thing happens in Oxford too.
Did you ever write serious poetry?
I think I do. I sometimes write about orphanages and love. I’m trying to be serious in some of those cases.
How do you feel about other comedians being influenced by your work with poetry?
Flattering! I wouldn’t recommend it though. And they mustn‘t overtake me. That would be rude.
Were you inspired by any particular poets?
Daniil Kharms. I read him at university and loved him. He’s off the hook. I know some of that’s slid into my work.
How do you feel more generally about the state of comedy in the UK?
I think there’s some good stuff. Difficult to generalise though as I don’t watch ‘enough’ of it. But there’s a lot of people I love. Daniel Kitson, Nina Conti. Tim Vine, Alex Horne. And new guys. Sheeps are amazing. But to be fair I don’t watch much. It sickens you after a while.
Tim’s poem for Cherwell
before his death.
I need to read more editions of
Cherwell.I’d like to meet a few more famous
people too including the woman
from The Killing.
I’d like to go camping with her and
cook with her and read the paper
Just the two of us.
Leafing through the paper.
Starting fires with it.