Tim Key – poet, savant, imposter and sometime slut is Cambridge’s most recent comedy success story. But for all that, you might still not of heard of him, probably because you’re a blundering ignoramus whose idea of a good laugh starts in The Mahal and ends up in Addenbrooke’s.
Most recently, Key won the 2009 Edinburgh Comedy Award (formerly the Perrier award) for his one-man show The Slutcracker – a blend of poetry and film that took Edinburgh by storm as the follow up to 2008’s The Slut in the Hut, a moniker that Key initially despised but has since taken to.
“The first Edinburgh show was called The Slut In The Hut. Because Slut rhymed with Hut and I was performing in the Pleasance Hut. I instantly regretted it. I phoned up the Pleasance and tried to change it right before they went to print. Then I spent the next three months railing against it in all the publicity. And then I talked about it in the show. It worked out pretty well – I’d accidentally called my show that and now I was backtracking. The vibe for the second show was that I’d accidentally branded the whole thing with the ‘slut’ thing. I kind of like it now. It’s kind of uncompromising. Next show I’m looking at ‘Eyes Wide Slut’”.
He started his comedy career with the Footlights despite not actually being a student at Cambridge, a fact he “didn’t volunteer” when he auditioned for the pantomime. Instead he “volunteered some information about being a PhD student at Sidney Sussex College” which was not at all true. Key’s fraudulence was discovered when he got into the tour show but it was agreed he may as well keep up the charade “right through to Edinburgh”.
It was a bumper year for the Footlights at Edinburgh 2001 with Mark Watson and Sophie Winkleman featuring alongside Key in a tour show that was nominated for the Perrier Best Newcomer Award. Key remembers it fondly: “I loved that time. Not meaning to sound like a dick but it was life-changing.”
When asked, he freely admits that he had his sights set high: “When I first sat around in the producer’s flat with the cast, having auditioned with these people for two weeks I was genuinely eyeing them up and thinking ‘yup, you’ll probably be famous’ and ‘yup, you’ll definitely be famous’ and ‘mm, you’ll actually become a national treasure, I imagine’. They were talented guys, even the ones who decided not to pursue it. By the end I definitely thought I’d give it a whirl. I got an agent in Edinburgh and got weaving. By ‘got weaving’ I mean I worked in Hamley’s for six months and then moved back to Cambridge to have a rethink.”
There were a few more shows in Edinburgh and another nomination for the Perrier in 2002 but it wasn’t until 2005 that Key’s career really started to take off when Cowards was born, a four man troop including Key, Stefan Golaszewski, Tom Basden and Lloyd Woolf, all of whom Key and Watson directed in the 2003 Footlights tour show.
It was also around this time that Key started developing the idiosyncratic style and distinctive poetry that has earned him such acclaim. “The poetry started in a notepad whilst on public transport. I wrote down a four line poem. Then I wrote another one. Then I filled the book. That totalled 228 poems. It wasn’t until a year later that I read them out. Not a great deal of thought went into it. But I had Soviet lounge music underscoring it and I wore a suit and drank beer from a can so the building blocks were in place. It’s undergone some changes – longer poems are now mixed in and I sometimes try and ‘be slick’. But that was a pretty fair marker. I’d tried stand-up already and hadn’t found anything remotely idiosyncratic or original – these foundations meant that whether it was sublime or utter dogshit it would at least be original. I guess I don’t like it when people are derivative. I prefer it when people are doing their own thing. Even if it’s not my scene – try and do something new.”
You may have seen Key’s poems on Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe. It’s certainly poetry that has been at the heart of Key’s solo success though he’s written two genre-shattering books as well. “I might write a straight, flat-out poetry book. I’ve got over a thousand poems now so it’d be nice to crack them out. As for a novel, I think maybe another five years and then I’ll do one. Novels seem a bit difficult. You have to have the right-sized/shaped brain. Mine is quite small and round so currently suited to more minor bursts of writing”.
It’s clear that with a film in the pipe-line (co-written with long-time collaborator Tom Basden), a world tour of The Slutcracker as well as the beginnings of a new live show Key look set to capitalise on his growing profile and exponential success. And does he see himself as a stand up comic? “Not quite.”