He’s the Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning comedian best known as the deadpan poet from Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe and Alan Partridge’s sidekick on Mid Morning Matters. So why, asks IdeasTap, does Tim Key say there’s no such thing as a big break?
Tim, you’re a poet, comedian, writer and filmmaker. Why do you do so many things?
I imagine I’m not quite successful enough at any single thing for it to see me through. I mean, as you say, there’s poetry, radio, film, stand up and records, but also fruit picking, child-minding…
I spent several years in a peculiar wilderness doing all those things for free with different people. There never really seemed to be a moment when I wanted to give them up because there was always something interesting around the corner.
Also, there’s always some idiot emailing you asking for things.
Do you think, as an emerging artist, you just have to suck it up and work for free for a while?
Yes, definitely. I mean, I didn’t do it out of volition; I wasn’t constantly turning down lucrative offers. But I don’t think it’s done me any harm.
If you’re not being paid, no one can tell you what to do. You work out how to get out of scrapes and what works for you before someone sits you down and tells you what kind of performer you should be.
I mean, there’s still enormous pressure. Even if you’re not getting paid, you go on stage thinking, “I’ll try to do this as well as I can, otherwise these people will hate me.”
Did you want to be a comedian or a poet?
I knew that they weren’t serious, world-changing pieces of poetry; just quirky little things. But I was interested to see what people would think about them. So stand up was a useful way for me to say them out loud.
Bits and pieces are based on things that I might overhear, but mainly they’re just odd thoughts that come in to my head. You know, like, “it would be quite funny if that misunderstanding happened”. I guess everyone has these thoughts – I just have an outlet for them.
Can you remember the first time that you made someone laugh?
I remember sitting at the back at primary school and horsing about a bit. Not literally riding on a horse; that didn’t happen until sixth form.
When you write something that you think might be funny, do you have a trusted person who you show it to?
If I’m writing a book or something then obviously someone will look at that before it goes out in to the world, but if it’s a stage thing, then no, not really. I never run a joke past a friend – that would just be awful for everyone concerned.
Is the Edinburgh festival life as unhealthy as we are led to believe?
It’s horrific, yeah. But if you’re drinking until four in the morning and you love your show, it’s very different to drinking until four every morning after a really horrible show.
How did you get your big break?
I had no big break. It was just a gentle curve. I suppose you could say a big moment was getting the job on Newswipe, or with Steve Coogan [online series Mid Morning Matters], and they were both lovely moments. But actually the biggest breakthrough is when you think “this might work” because you’ve gone down really well on stage for the last 10 minutes.
If you could go back and give your 16-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t expect it to get any easier. There isn’t that moment when you break through. You will always have to try to make it work.
Tim Key’s show Slutcracker is on national tour until 23 March. To see Tim’s tour schedule, watch his films, read his poems and buy his record, visit his website.