Poetry in emotion

Comedian Tim Key tells Marissa Burgess why the biggest laughs are always off the cuff

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There are some comedians who seem to be continously producing new material and constantly on the road. Tim Key certainly gets around with his as-seen-on-TV and heard-on-the-radio sketch show Cowards, his role as co-host on BBC4’s We Need Answers and his 2009 Edinburgh Comedy Award winning lo-fi comedic poetry show The Slutcracker. But Key is sceptical about how much work he actually inspires and initiates.

“I suppose I’m quite lucky in that a lot of the people I work with and most of the projects that I do seem to come to fruition,” he considers, pondering on why it might seem he’s quite prolific.

Key’s comedic career began with a plenty of ingenuity and a little subterfuge. On returning to his native Cambridge after completing a perfectly respectable degree in Russian at Sheffield University, he decided to try out for a place in Footlights – the prestigious drama club of Cambridge University whose illustrious alumni have included Peter Cook, John Cleese and Stephen Fry. Somehow Key managed to convince the Footlights gatekeepers that he was a student at the university and he began to work with the likes of comedians Mark Watson and Tom Basden.

Clearly, the 34-year old is convinced it was worth the blag.

“Cambridge has a really thriving comedy thing. There wasn’t one in Sheffield. There was plenty of acting if you wanted to do it and a drama club but there was no stand-up or anything like that. At Cambridge it’s quite a big opportunity that those guys have, having a bunch of students watching it and imparting judgement, usually pretty favourably. So you can get good at developing your style of comedy while you’re young.”

For those uninitiated in the way of the Key, he writes poetry – of sorts. Lyrical non-sequiturs, if you like. They’re often irreverent, off the wall and silly – a very different experience from your average poetry reading and one that can easily split a room. As for what goes into his set, he says:

“The only thing is, it’s stuff that I find funny. I think that’s all you can do and if after ten years no one has come to any of your gigs and if the only person that did come didn’t laugh then you’d probably have to stop doing it. If you can just do stuff that amuses you and people keep watching it then there’s no reason to change that philosophy. It doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t give you intergalactic fame if you can earn a living from it – that’s enough.”

Part of Key’s unique style is possibly due to the fact he doesn’t redraft his work.

“When I used to write sketches for Cowards a good part of what we did wasn’t redrafted. If it wasn’t good enough we just didn’t do it and we wrote tons and tons and tons of stuff. The idea was that the 10 per cent of stuff that we used would be really good because it’s the best 10 per cent but also feels really fresh and just kind of uncynical – dashed off. It’s definitely the same with poems. I wouldn’t understand what I was doing. I wouldn’t know how to go back and see how to change it.”

It’s a method that seems to work for Key. The work keeps coming, in the form of a collaboration with Steve Coogan on Mid Morning Matters and Never Mind The Buzzcock, as do the plaudits, and it doesn’t look like they’re about to run out soon.

“The tour’s the main thing. I’m writing a book at the moment – the deadline for that’s next week. What else am I doing? I just want to get the tour done, which I’m looking forward to because it’s quite hard work and lots of yomping around but in terms of head space I can start jotting ideas down in my notepad and start building up the Edinburgh show. Then maybe write a film. I have an idea for a play, that’s another thing I might do. It’s all there, isn’t it? It’s all out there.”

We’d best leave you to do some writing then. “Well it’s not going to write itself,” he laughs as we sign off.

The Slutcracker Tour, 1 March, Carriageworks, Leeds and further northern dates throughout March.

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