Tim Key interview: the poet discusses Edinburgh, Alan Partridge and 'sexy baths'
Comedy Award winner brings his Masterslut show to the 2011 Fringe
This article is from 2011.
In 2009 Tim Key’s poetry show, The Slutcracker, earned him the Festival’s Comedy Award. Now he’s back as the Masterslut, with a new poetry collection in tow. Is he still the best in Edinburgh? Does he really not like other people’s poetry? And can he cope with The List’s fact attack?
The List has just presented Tim Key with two pages of facts about himself. ‘This is a very good piece of research,’ he says, commending the 16-year-old work experience person who compiled them. ‘I didn’t get to do anything like this on work experience. I delivered dartboards to pubs. That wasn’t when I knew I wanted to be a poet, but it was when I knew I did not necessarily want to be a white van man. Although I was quite young and I did get to see a lot of spicy newspapers and magazines.’
Key has come to be interviewed at a café in London’s Soho, having just been interviewed for Radio 4’s Loose Ends at the nearby BBC recording studios. Coming up, he has two of the most significant events of his career as a poet-cum-comedian: he’s preparing both for the debut of Masterslut, his most anticipated show yet at the Edinburgh Fringe, and for the publication of his first proper collection of poems, The Incomplete Tim Key.
Both are considerable milestones, though that’s not to say that he hasn’t already had moments in the spotlight. In his last full run at the Fringe in 2009 he walked off with the Edinburgh Comedy Award for his show The Slutcracker. His screen credits include two seasons hosting the BBC 4 quiz show We Need Answers alongside Alex Horne and Mark Watson, a regular slot on Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe, and a role next to Steve Coogan as Sidekick Simon in the internet series Alan Partridge’s Mid-Morning Matters, which is pencilled in for a BBC airing this autumn. This is good going for a man who, according to fact number three, writes poems that are, ‘not actually poetic. They are sometimes not funny, but odd.’
‘Yeah that’s definitely true,’ Key acknowledges. ‘But I don’t mind that. On the cover of the collection, at no point does it say “300 rib-tickling poems”.’ He inspects the dust jacket of his newly printed book with unconcealed pride. ‘This doesn’t say “funny” anywhere … I see this as a book of poems some of which may make you laugh, and some of which may not make you laugh but you might still like them.’ If he’s feeling any pressure to be funny, not only in print but also in his show, it’s not apparent. ‘Honestly the only thing that matters is that I have a show that I love.’
Key is relaxed, but not in the way his press photos present him – droopy eyes, mouth lolling open gormlessly, a scruffy beard and a cheap suit hanging off his shoulders. Apart from the beard, this is just the image that Key has given to his stage persona as the country’s bard of the innocuous: a shambling writer and performer of unfortunate poetry, whose themes include sex, caravans, wizards, ants, snooker referee Michaela Tabb (who he describes as ‘Ideal. It’s an authority thing. And a gloves thing.’) and more sex. The poorly kept secret is that Key is a brilliantly intelligent comic. His poems are hugely skilful, and often funnier in five lines that many comedians can manage to be in an hour on stage. In performance he’s in complete control, with every fumble, swearword and non sequitur fitting perfectly into the spontaneous feel of what, in actuality, is a meticulously constructed set.
Even that Marks & Spencer suit is a carefully considered part of the act. ‘When I did The Slut in the Hut [his 2007 debut Fringe show] that was me falling on my sword and realising I couldn’t do it the way I was doing it,’ he remembers. ‘I had six notepads with different poems in each all over my body. So I’d go to one, put it back in and get another one, not knowing where I was going or what poem I wanted next. It went so badly on the first night that from that point on, during that Festival, I packed my suit like a parachute. At that point I moved into a new realm of playing more disorganised than I was. Whereas before, I was genuinely disorganised.’
Despite swapping the suit for a maroon zip-up top, and the sagging jowls for a wide-eyed enthusiastic grin, he still presents much of the character – the Masterslut – for interview, and deals with the worst that The List’s work experience can throw at him with stage-ready calmness.
Fact six: he’s not really into poetry but loves AA Milne. ‘I do love AA Milne. And I’m not really into poetry. Not including my own – I love my own. But mine’s not really poetry.’ Fact eight: he snuck into Cambridge Footlights after finishing university at Sheffield. ‘That’s definitely true. Though “sneaking” isn’t the right word. I got into Footlights and no one questioned this. I did the tour show with Mark Watson and Sophie Winkleman in 2001.’ Fact fourteen: he gets his characters from scouring the country making love, then sits against a tree and writes it all down. ‘I think, when I said that, it was maybe tongue-in-cheek. I don’t even sit against a tree half the time. Maybe about 30 per cent of the poems in there, I wasn’t even sitting against a tree.’
He clarifies that he prefers writing poems, ‘in a pub, with a pint’, often taking as his starting point just a funny name. Such as? ‘Tarzan Turner, I really like that one … but I like a basic name as well. A Steve West-style name is good. There’s room for all of them.’
He continues, ‘Sometimes I can write, maybe, three lines which build a little, insignificant world. It’s just a moment in time and then it goes. And that’s OK. Sometimes there can be two or three lines, and then it’s the last line that hooks it all together, that makes it funny or satisfying. There is a third version: a couple of lines and then a third line which tries to make it more pat and conclusive and funny than it really should be, and then the poem fails. When that happens I just don’t put it in my book. I put that in a fire.’
Other poems are drawn from personal experience. Like witnessing a beautiful girl crying on the N15 London night bus. ‘I just felt sorry for her,’ Key recalls wistfully. ‘She was so forlorn. She was broken. You can only do what you can do, so I thought I’d at least immortalise her. That’s all that’s within my powers. Whether she’ll ever know will depend on how big the book gets. I’m sure if she reads that poem she’ll put two and two together. She must have seen me writing … she must have wondered why I came round to look at her face-on for a moment and then carried on.’
The beautiful blonde girl is one of the few women in Key’s poetry to escape an unexpected sexual twist. The Key universe is full of infidelities, spur-of-the-moment advances and, in the case of ‘Together’, adults taking baths together. ‘Why didn’t you pick that one?’ he asks, deflecting a question about adult baths and instead pointing to the poem adjacent to ‘Together’ – a single couplet about an unstable table. ‘That’s a good rhyme!’ His disappointment is obvious. ‘There’s no more psychoanalysis to be done about the girls than there is about the unstable table,’ he suggests, seemingly trying to distance himself from the material. ‘I don’t think this collection is a cry for help to find someone to grab me by the neck with a shepherd’s crook and pull me into a deep-freeze and start ravishing me. There are a lot of poems where people suddenly die, and it doesn’t mean I want people to suddenly die. If anything I think it suggests a slight lack of imagination where sometimes I’ll write something and by default it will go towards death or screwing – though there’s also a bit of love in there, and tenderness.’
Key checks his phone. He has to head to another meeting. If the interview has made him consider anything more deeply, it’s his need for a work experience person. ‘There’s not that many jobs in poetry,’ he says, reflectively. ‘I reckon I could get a really good work experience poet. Just a little work experience who sits on a beanbag. And occasionally I say, “I need another word for ‘beautiful’”, and she says, “pretty”. And I say, “That’s perfect! Now put the bins out.”’
Tim Key – Masterslut, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 6–29 Aug (not 15), 9.45pm, £12–£14 (£11–£13). Previews until 5 Aug, £6.50. The Incomplete Tim Key is out now, published by Canongate Books, £12.99 (hardback).