Tim Key: Single White Slut

The slut in the hut, Tim Key, chats to The Skinny about fitting in, magnum opuses and returning to Edinburgh

Feature by Vonny Moyes | 12 Aug 2014
  • Tim Key

There’s a book that lives in my bathroom: 25 Poems, 3 Recipes And 32 Other Suggestions. For seven years it’s camped out on the windowsill next to the bathtub, sandwiched between other titles – most well-thumbed – of my crappily curated reading material. Most recently it’s been hanging out with Gombrich’s A Little History of the World and Bill Callahan’s Letters to Emma Bowlcut.  It’s a small book; tawny owl brown, all untreated paper and crisp typography. It’s always smelled of old book, though it’s recently taken on the floral soupy notes of too many Lush products.  The Skinny spotted it while dodging an unheralded Edinburgh deluge in Analogue books. With the price tag of £7.99, it was a purchase we could make so as not to seem like another skeevy timewaster, without breaking the back of my meagre disposable income. It’s an unorthodox book from an equally unorthodox man. A man who would go on to become one of the country’s most lauded comic curios.

A quick flick through, and we land on Poem 524 – a pithy verse about mouse death accompanied by a delightfully crap Shrigley-esque scribble of a crudely decapitated rodent. We were sold. The book was purchased, and so began our relationship with poet, comic and lackadaisical recipe suggester Tim Key.

One of the more peculiar exports of British comedy, Key can be found occasionally dipping his toe in the mainstream before shuffling back to a giant bathtub, or some other prop, armed with a little notebook fat with the musings of a man in his late thirties. This is a man whose comedy career began with a ruse; the feigning of a Cambridge education to infiltrate the nebulous breeding ground of tomorrow’s comedy greats, the Footlights. Somehow, he’s managed to straddle both the life of the prime-time comic, and that of the ‘comedian’s comedian.’

“It’s difficult to work out where you fit into things. I like doing small things that hardly anyone likes; but those who do, like it quite a lot. And I also like doing bigger things that more people like. The important thing, in both cases, is that I like it. [BBC 2 comedy] Inside No. 9 was seen by more people than listen to my radio show, but I loved it so I felt very lucky to be involved. I’m lucky that once in a while I’m invited into established, popular things and I can meet highly regarded comedians and hug them and try and sit with them at lunch.”

This year sees Key’s fourth hour long show grace the Pleasance Courtyard: Single White Slut – the follow-up to a hat-trick of titular jezebellery, borne of an easy rhyme.  “Slut rhymed with Hut and it felt like it suited the show, or a section of the show, involving a character who was down on his luck and lived a scaven existence. Then I called my next one The Slutcracker which I stand by, or try to – and after that it was open season. The titles kind of write themselves now. One less thing to worry about.”  

Key’s shows are the antithesis of the exuberant waffling of the prime-time telly fodder. His hours don’t read like the product of a finely honed comedy process, specifically engineered to milk laughter from doting punters. It's interesting to find out how something like this germinates. How do you grow a show from nothing but a pad of poetry?

“I tend to just bring together about thirty or forty poems that make me laugh and do a load of work-in-progress nights. Then I try and talk around them a bit and throw in a few anecdotes. Meanwhile I cultivate some kind of conceit usually involving a large prop. As Edinburgh approaches I mix all this stuff together. Then I hope I get a bit of luck and it all feels like a show rather than a complete car crash.”

This year’s offering promises an hour of stoic recitation and general chatter, gallivanting through the theme of love and life (and possibly owls and fairies). It’s not quite stand-up, and it ain’t no pseudo-beatnik  revivalism. How do you view yourself, when the world doesn’t quite know where you fit?

“I think I’m a comedian, but I think I get asked whether I consider myself one more than a lot of other comedians. I don’t mind people not immediately thinking of me as one though. The poetry thing’s a quite enjoyable smokescreen. It takes the pressure off. I can wear the Poet tag as a cloak and bosh out the comedy from underneath it. I also consider myself a wonderful actor and solid voiceover artist.”

Despite his relative stealth, Key is a prolific creator, contributing to genres that transcend  his idiosyncratic comic-cum-poet niche.  It’s little surprise to those in the know that he’s worked with Daniel Kitson on his 2013 theatre show Tree. He writes for radio. For TV. Then there’s the occasional book. Not to forget  roles in Richard Ayoade’s acclaimed The Double and the role of Sidekick Simon in Alpha Papa, that Alan Partridge flick. He’s become a sort of unsung multi-genre auteur.  When you’ve done so much, what really stands out? I ask him about the best thing he’s written.

“There’s a few things I’m proud of. I wrote a radio show about eight years ago, which I liked. It was called All Bar Luke. The final Christmas special was something I was happy with. It was the last time I’d write for that character and I’d been writing his voice for maybe seven years in various guises. I didn’t want to fuck it up, and I made something that was overly sentimental but that I liked. Aside from that, ideally, the most recent thing should feel like the most exciting. I love my current live show, and I think my texts are quite fun at the moment.”

As much fun as it is to don your poetry clothes and bed down on the middle of a stage for a week, the gloss of returning to the same place year after year must surely lose some of its sparkle. The same place, the same routine. The veneer is bound to crack. When you’ve been coming for so long, is there any allure left? How does coming to Edinburgh feel?

“It’s wonderful. I really want to stop doing it just so I can have a decade without it and then go back there. I really look forward to that day. Smelling the hops and thinking back to when I used to perform there. But at the moment I can’t seem to stop going, one way or another. I love it.”

Our blether finishes on the subject of the Pleasance, the venue that’s hosted  each of his successful solo hours, and undoubtedly had a hand in the cult following and loyal following, despite relatively scant appearances on most consumed comedy channels.   

“The Pleasance is great. I love the people who run it and I’ve always had a good time there. When you’ve been going there a while you kind of build up unreasonably strong bonds with lots of the venues. I love watching shows and simultaneously thinking 'this is funny' but also 'we had a lot of fun in this portakabin in 2006.' There’s also something about The Courtyard. It does feel like a bit of a spiritual epicentre of things. But maybe that’s just because I’ve been in there a lot over the years.”

Tim Key: Single White Slut, The Grand – Pleasance Courtyard, 13-25 Aug, 9.40pm, £10-16