Tim Key has a hyena's laugh. It's a shrieking cackle of a sound, unleashed seemingly at random – which isn't surprising, because "at random" is the territory this hot-property comic has staked out as his own.
His random performance poetry has earned him a regular BBC slot on Charlie Brooker's Newswipe, and the 2009 Edinburgh Comedy Award for his show The Slutcracker. His random career path this past year has meandered past a Fringe theatre take on Franz Kafka, the publication of a volume of "poetry, prose and tense conversation", his own TV panel show (which was attacked by a right-wing think tank), and a job as Alan Partridge's co-presenter in an online sitcom. This is a man going places – albeit by a very circuitous route.
Which is odd, in this era of get-rich-quick stand-up megastardom. Why not just appear on Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow, book an arena tour, and watch the big bucks accumulate? "I'm not returning Michael McIntyre's calls," says Key, over a beer at the British Film Institute on London's South Bank. "Primarily, because I'm not getting any."
The new online Alan Partridge vehicle, Mid Morning Matters, is, so far, as close as Key gets to the big time – he plays "sidekick Simon", quicker-witted foil to Steve Coogan's foot-in-mouth radio host. The character is an awful lot like Key in person, who professes himself "delighted" to be riffing alongside one of his comic heroes.
But the mainstream isn't Key's natural milieu. That would be experimental stand-up, a comedy genre distinct from the alpha-male-at-a-microphone tradition, a creative subculture whose practitioners twist the art form into ever more surprising shapes. Think Mark Watson's 24-hour stand-up show. Think Alex Horne's comedy-impro-jazz confection The Horne Section. Or think The Slutcracker, whose unheard-of mix of suburban haiku, experimental film and playground stunt bagged Key the most prestigious prize in comedy. Two years on, Key – whose favourite poem in the show concerns a man called Carl who collects two litres of dew to prepare a romantic dinner – still can't pinpoint precisely how The Slutcracker works. "I'm often asked if the poems are deliberately bad, or deliberately funny, or what game I'm playing." Pause. Then: "I don't really know."
Key's poetry habit, like much else in his life, sprang from quirky whim, not careerism. This is a man who joined Cambridge Footlights while an undergraduate at Sheffield, not Cambridge, University. Who studied Russian and was heading for a teaching career until comedy intervened. I first saw him, half a decade ago, as the silent sidekick in live shows by both Horne and Watson.
The trio went on to make the BBC4 panel show We Need Answers, which was criticised as an example of BBC profligacy by the think tank Policy Exchange. ("They might have been right," says Key. "It depends which episodes they saw. I'd have been offended by some.")
At that same time, Key was honing the kooky poetry that would make his name. "I'd be on the Tube," he says, "and I'd stop reading for a bit and start writing poems. They looked quite nice in my notepad, so I thought I'd fill the pad up. I had no intention of performing them – and when I did, I was quite happy just to get a beer out of it."
There's nothing conventionally poetic, or indeed comic, about these miniature word-pictures, which cross-fertilise Ivor Cutler with Gary (The Far Side) Larson. "Pat blew a bubble," goes one. "Then he climbed into it. And he floated out of the orphanage." And that's it. Sometimes, as Key admits, the humour is in his apparently taking these wafer-thin odes seriously. At other times, the poems more closely resemble actual jokes – and Key sells them on stage with a knowing twinkle. But often, his "poems" aren't funny, but tender, or odd. "It's always interesting when something happens [in comedy] which isn't funny but is still engaging," he says. "That's the most interesting part."
Not that Key wouldn't like to be more traditionally comic. "Primarily," he says, coming over all confessional, "my book of poems is there as a crutch, a safety blanket." Is it a crutch he wishes he could toss away? "I don't know. I'm not sure what an hour of me doing pure stand-up would be." The comics Key admires – Daniel Kitson, his friend Watson – are those who reveal their lives in intimate detail. Imagine doing that, marvels Key. "It'd be spectacular for me to talk about my life for an hour, to go really deeply into it. But it's easier to just do the stuff you're good at, like writing a poem about some idiot who's just eaten a narwhale."
He hopes, though, that narwhale poems can be meaningful too. When I ask Key, at random, whether he'd prefer his books to be sold in the comedy or poetry section, he's appalled to think of himself as – dread word! – a humorist. "I'd much prefer it to be in Poetry," he says. "That's quite significant. I mean, I'm doing my best. If it's filed under Humour, that says that I'm just toying with poetry to make people laugh. But genuinely, I really like these poems." His abiding regret about The Slutcracker, is that "I wanted to write one genuinely poignant, breathtakingly sentimental poem for it, about my dad or something, that just knocked you to the floor. If I was a better writer, I'd have done that. But I've not been able to."
You'd feel sorrier for him if he hadn't been hugely successful. Aged 34, Key spearheads a generation of comics which seeks to do much more than make us laugh. The last time I met him, he was starring in fellow stand-up Tom Basden's play Joseph K. "I love that it's difficult to peg exactly what we do. That one moment I'm on screen on a TV show, and the next we've adapted Kafka's The Trial." And at the next, he and Basden get Bafta-nominated for their short film, The One and Only Herb McGwyer Plays Wallis Island. "I love the variety," says Key. "I might write a Bible next." Then he cackles. This is a man going places – but whether to Nazareth, the Poet Laureateship or to Live at the Apollo, it's too early to say.
15 Feb, Norwich Arts Centre (01603 660352) then touring
When comedy becomes art
Key's fellow Footlights alumnus who recently directed a site-specific comedy event in several rooms of an Edinburgh hotel.
The doyenne of DIY comedy does it with crayons, scrapbooks and (as of recently) anti-Tory agitprop.
Key's collaborator, a PowerPoint-toting stand-up and songster, doubles up as the playwright of West End hit Party.
One half of situationist art-comics Noble and Silver, now purveyor of a scarifying multimedia stand-up documentary about his own depression.
Actor, indie theatre-maker, character comic, and the man behind the 2004 Perrier-winning spoof motivational seminar Jackson's Way.
Publicity-shy comedy shaman, a foul-mouthed Alan Bennett de nos jours creating soft-hearted monologues for the theatre- comedy crowd.