Tim Key: Deadpan poet's society

Steve Coogan is a big fan, but Tim Key doesn't do sold-out arenas and TV stand-up – and he loves it when no one laughs at his verse

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

Mark Watson

Key's fellow Footlights alumnus who recently directed a site-specific comedy event in several rooms of an Edinburgh hotel.

Josie Long

The doyenne of DIY comedy does it with crayons, scrapbooks and (as of recently) anti-Tory agitprop.

Tom Basden

Key's collaborator, a PowerPoint-toting stand-up and songster, doubles up as the playwright of West End hit Party.

Kim Noble

One half of situationist art-comics Noble and Silver, now purveyor of a scarifying multimedia stand-up documentary about his own depression.

Will Adamsdale

Actor, indie theatre-maker, character comic, and the man behind the 2004 Perrier-winning spoof motivational seminar Jackson's Way.

Daniel Kitson

Publicity-shy comedy shaman, a foul-mouthed Alan Bennett de nos jours creating soft-hearted monologues for the theatre- comedy crowd.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence