Tim Key: interview and poem

One of our finest comic wordsmiths, Tim Key explains to Ben Williams why he writes a lot of his work on pornographic playing cards and pens Time Out an exclusive poem.

Tim Key Tim Key - © Rob Greig

Is Tim Key a comedian who writes poetry or a poet who tells jokes? It’s difficult to tell. A Tim Key show isn’t a standard man-and-a-mic comedy gig. His performances are ambitious, inventive, shambolic, theatrical and strangely beautiful – a mixture of pithy poems, exquisitely shot short films and peculiar challenges. Adam Buxton put it best when he said, ‘Key locates the spot where poetry, comedy and art intersect, picnics there pleasurably, then takes a crap on it.’

Key hasn’t starred in a sitcom; he’s not appeared on ‘Live at the Apollo’ and you won’t see his DVD in the shops this Christmas. Yet the 35 year old is playing to more than 3,500 people at the Soho Theatre with his third solo show, ‘Masterslut’. This isn’t a sudden swell in public interest, either. More than 6,000 Londoners saw his previous hour, ‘The Slutcracker’, which featured, among other things, the comic precariously clambering across his audience to sit on a fridge.

Tim Key hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He joined the likes of Lee Evans, Frank Skinner and Steve Coogan when, in 2009, he won the Edinburgh Comedy Award (formerly the Perrier Award). ‘It was very pleasant to win the award,’ he tells me when we meet at his north London flat, Handel’s ‘Messiah’ playing in the background. ‘It was a nice recognition that I had a good show that year, but things were okay by that point. I would’ve quite liked to have won it in about 2005, to be fair. That would’ve helped. But after I won, people were interested to see what all the fuss was about.’ By the time he was awarded the prize, Key’s career was already on the rise: BBC4 had commissioned a series of his quirky quiz show with Alex Horne and Mark Watson, ‘We Need Answers’, which was shot shortly after his win.

The Masterslut corkboard The Masterslut corkboard - © Rob Greig

He was then asked to write topical poems for Charlie Brooker’s ‘Screenwipe’ and ‘Newswipe’, whose viewers happen to be exactly the kind of comedy-savvy folk who appreciate something a little different. A role as ‘Sidekick Simon’ in the web-based return of Alan Partridge gave Key’s profile another boost. And working with production company The Invisible Dot, he gradually built up a vast and loyal following by performing low-key work-in-progress gigs at its Camden offices. Which is where the writing process begins.

Coming up with poems and stories isn’t an issue for Key. ‘I have a lot of material,’ he says. ‘Not all of it very good, but I’ve got a lot of it.’ But as there are several different elements involved in his shows, putting the various parts into a cohesive format is the challenge. ‘Once I have all the bits, I then put it all on a corkboard [pictured above] – into the categories of: poems, talking, ideas that may or may not fit, and films – and then work out how they can fit into a structure that will hold it all.'

When Key performs his poems he insists on reading them rather than performing purely from memory. Previously he would read them from a collection of notebooks, but recently he switched to sticking them to the back of pornographic playing cards which he then laminates. ‘I hit a sweet spot in my first Edinburgh show where I had six notepads: exactly the same as the amount of pockets,’ he explains. ‘But by the time I did my second show it was becoming unmanageable: something like 12 notepads and not enough pockets.’

Tim Key Tim Key - © Rob Greig

So why cards? ‘It was a way of easily separating them when trying out material: the poems that were definitely going well I would continue to use, the poems that weren’t I’d put to one side.’ The cards are laminated, to stop them being damaged (beer and water tend to slosh about alarmingly on stage). ‘I now have about 300 laminated pornographic playing cards with poems on them. Which is a pretty poor reflection of the direction my life is going.’ They’re dropped, thrown and discarded during the show, and then collected and put back in order for the next performance, so it doesn’t help when audience members endeavour to keep one as a memento. But it has cured the problem of fans attempting to steal entire notepads. ‘If I lose one now it just means I have to fire up the laminator, locate some porn that I haven’t put any poems on yet, and get busy.’ So why choose cards of a pornographic nature? ‘Because they’re really horny cards! No, I just thought it would be funny. They’re all quite tasteful porn. Except one pack, which I got off the internet. I think it’s called “Men”, and one of those got some amazing reactions the other day: people sort of spasming on the front row. There was a gentleman on the card who was very, let’s say, proud. He was pleased to be there… He had a very big erection.'

While many comedians are using projectors and Powerpoint these days, Key projects beautifully shot, minimal budget arthouse short films. ‘They’re completely different in terms of tone and pace to the rest of the show,’ he says, ‘but I think they work. I’ve shot about 20 over all and, apart from the last batch, the average budget for each was about £50. The most expensive one was £150, and that was only because we had to buy and slaughter two eels. The new ones are pricier, but look quite spectacular, I think.’

Along with Key himself, the star of ‘Masterslut’, it could be argued, is a ruddy great big bath. We won’t spoil the show by revealing what it’s actually used for, but it’s quite remarkable. (Several cans of Ruddles beer and a few strawberries are also used to sometimes disturbing effect.) ‘The first idea I had for this show was to start with a bath on stage as the audience came in, and then a spotlight appear on it and I appear from the bath,’ he says. So why didn’t that happen? ‘I felt that it would be a lot of fun at the time but it would be a bit miserable afterwards because I’d just be standing there, drenched, for an hour. But I was excited enough by that to start moving down that road: writing material about a bath and working out things I could do with it. Now the show is increasingly obsessed with baths.’

Don't forget to read Tim Key's exclusive poem for Time Out in the sidebar of this page.