Tim Key: A man of his words

It's been quite a year for offbeat poet and comedian Tim Key. Now the winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award is set for stardom. Alice Jones meets him

Every day, for the whole of the month of August, Tim Key followed the same, mildly eccentric, routine. At 6pm, he had a bath. Then he cooked dinner – fish and vegetables – which he ate in front of repeats of Dragons' Den on Dave. Then he would leave his Edinburgh flat and walk – "always the same way" – to the Pleasance, stopping each time at the same mini-mart where he'd buy four cans of Kronenbourg, a bottle of Lucozade, a coconut sponge and a tomato. Once at the Pleasance, he would run through his upcoming show with his technician, poor put-upon Fletch, drink a beer, put on his suit and perform.

"There's somewhere between healthy routine and superstition," says the 33-year-old comedian. Quite. Wherever Key sits on the spectrum though, his little ritual paid off. At the end of this year's Fringe, he won the Edinburgh Comedy Award (previously the Perrier), placing him in a pantheon with Steve Coogan, Dylan Moran and Frank Skinner. His show, The Slutcracker, was an indefinably crackers hour of daft poetry about dew ("the thorniest of issues") and Lithuanian waitresses, skits about crossing a room without touching the floor and gorgeously shot, largely baffling films featuring office-workers squaring up to an eel. "There's an argument for saying the most important thing is that I had a show I was really proud of," says Key. "But that's not quite right because the award really does mean a lot to me. Quite a lot of pretty handy comedians have won it so it's very nice to join that list." The prize brings with it £8,000, high-profile spots at Just for Laughs in America and Canada and the opening of any number of doors. "In fact, I didn't have one meeting after winning it," says Key. "It's possible to march into places and say, 'Well, I won that award', but it's not necessarily what I'd recommend – or what I want to do."

But then Key hasn't needed to. This month he has published his second book, the second series of his quiz show, We Need Answers, is airing on BBC4 while his one-man drama, All Bar Luke, about one of life's perennial losers, is repeating on Radio 4 ahead of a new Christmas special. The Slutcracker has been picked up for a two-week run at London's Soho Theatre in the new year and will tour to festivals in Sydney and Melbourne. He's appeared on Armando Iannucci's Time Trumpet, notched up a successful sketch show, Cowards, on Radio 4 and BBC4 and regularly stole the show as resident poet on Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe and Newswipe with his deadpan verses about Deal or No Deal, greedy financiers ("The banker had swan and caviar around his chops...") and Gordon Brown's glass eye. Add to that a BAFTA-nominated sideline in films in which Rebecca Hall, Anna Chancellor and Flight of the Conchords' Kristen Schaal have queued up to star in and it's clear that Tim Key is comedy's hottest property. You wonder what took the award panel so long.

As a comedian, he's a funny fish, like Vladimir and Estragon crossed with John Hegley. His website calls him a "poet/ performer/ savant" which comes sort of close to his weird polymathic genius. He doesn't tell jokes but he definitely has funny bones: on a good night, he simply walks on stage and the room sniggers. "Sometimes everything comes together and you can touch your nose or drink your beer or lick your lips and everyone laughs," he says. "Marcus Trescothick was talking about when he had a good innings. He said it's like the Matrix – everything slows down. It doesn't matter what anybody bowls at you, you can just slap it for four."

Watching him live can be a thrillingly chaotic if lightly combative experience. His previous Edinburgh show began with him reciting one of his most deliberately awful poems and then strolling over to the door and locking his audience in. At his book launch a couple of weeks ago, he delivered his approximation of a publishing beano, complete with stripper and jaunty trumpeter. As a clock counted down the seconds to launch, guests were each given a page from the first edition to read aloud in a glorious, cacophonous mess. They were then ordered to eat the page, which some shiny-eyed Key acolytes did – with relish. The night before we meet, he headlines a circuit night in Shepherd's Bush, ambling into the spotlight and very, very slowly, putting on his tie. Fishing in one pocket of his brown suit for a can of lager and in another for a small notebook, he finally kicks off with the devastatingly brief poem: "Tanya Googled herself. Still nothing." By the end of his set, around half of the room is in hysterics, the other half quietly nonplussed.

"It is divisive," says Key. "A lot of people say, 'I really love your show but there was a guy next to me who was not laughing at all'." His last show, The Slut in the Hut, saw him adopt a dishevelled, aggressive guise – half-buffoon, half-tramp. For Slutcracker, he put on a sharp suit and tried out a more affable persona. "It meant I could sell slightly edgier material. I don't think I compromised but you can get away with quite a lot if you've got a glint in your eye."

Off-stage, Key is softly spoken, polite, a little diffident. He looks utterly ordinary – jeans, trainers, holey red jumper – but there's something just lightly off-key. As with his live shtick, you never quite know where you are. His head is clearly crammed with very odd things. Never without his little hardbacked notebooks, he dashes off doggerel while waiting for friends in the pub. Spare as haikus, rude as limericks, he's now written around 1015 of his micro poems (read them on Twitter, @timkeypoet) and is just back from filming some in New York with the up-and-coming director J van Tulleken.

He started writing his new book, Instructions, Guidelines, Tutelage, Suggestions, Other Suggestions and Examples Etc., as "light relief", an outlet for some of his more peculiar thoughts. The result is a slim, aubergine-coloured volume filled with surreal snippets – an imagined conversation between Jennifer Aniston and John Craven, a recipe for cannibal salad and tips for "how to behave on an island with a giant (but the giant is ill)". He writes longhand, in a café near his flat in Limehouse, East London and never redrafts. "Each piece should feel like it's quite fresh and throwaway. There's not much substance there." But it is very, very funny.

For all that Key's writing might be "bashed out on the tube", it's part of a precisely managed (by him) machine. The book is beautifully designed by The Invisible Dot, the excellent company who produce his shows. His films are all shot in the same, archly pretentious, black-and-white style. Every flyer is written meticulously in the house style "of an obsessive person who loves writing copy." There's something of the obsessive about Key, too. By the time he'd been nominated this summer, he'd worked himself up into "a dreadful place, mentally. It got to the stage where if I hadn't been nominated, I would have been disappointed, which is stupid."

Apart from his father's penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan, there's no comic Key gene. Until the age of 24, he was headed for a career in teaching, having spent his gap year in Kiev, teaching English, before studying Russian at Sheffield. After graduating with a first, he drifted back home to Cambridge to work in schools administration. "I was so completely rudderless," he says. "And I thought, I wouldn't mind doing some amateur dramatics."

So he auditioned for Cambridge Footlights, though he wasn't a student at the university. Is that allowed? "Not so much," he mumbles. "I might have mentioned I was doing a degree... " In fact, Key faked an entire PhD thesis subject – on the possibilities of translating Gogol's short stories – and landed a part in Footlights' 2001 show Far too Happy before he was found out. The show, also starring Mark Watson and Sophie Winkleman, was nominated for the Perrier Best Newcomer award. Key got an agent and moved to London but, rather than taking the comedy world by storm, ended up living with his just-married brother and working in Hamleys demonstrating a fancy yo-yo. "It was bleak," he says. "Very bleak."

Back in Cambridge, he continued to work on his game with Footlights and formed Cowards in 2005, with Tom Basden (Best Comedy Newcomer in 2007), Stefan Golaszewski (currently winning five-star reviews at the Bush Theatre) and Lloyd Woolf. He's now working on another film with Basden (their first, The One and Only Herb McGwyer Plays Wallis Island, was nominated for a BAFTA) and is the owlish quiz-master on We Need Answers, an oddball show with Watson and Alex Horne based on questions texted in by the audience ("Can Germaine Greer change a car tyre all on her own?" being one example). All together, they're a close-knit gang: he was Watson's best man and is godfather to Horne's children.

"I've got quite a lot of things I want to do next," says Key. "I'm always aware that the sacrifices I made in my twenties by not getting a proper job were so I could do something I really love. I've always slightly erred on the side of thinking this might work out. So I think I'd feel a bit of a spoon if I stopped now."

Tim Key headlines The 100 Club, London W1 tonight ( Featurespot.co.uk); 'The Slutcracker', Soho Theatre, London W1, 9-20 February ( Sohotheatre.com). Signed copies of 'Instructions...' can be bought from Theinvisibledot.com. 'We Need Answers', Tuesdays, BBC4; 'All Bar Luke', Wednesdays, Radio 4

What was the most memorable arts event of 2009? In the comments form below (or via email to arts@independent.co.uk) nominate your favourite - in film, music, theatre, comedy, dance or visual arts - with a brief explanation as to why it tops your list and we'll print a selection in The Independent Readers' Review of 2009.

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