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Interview: Tim Key

Alan Partridge’s on-air sidekick on internet sensation Mid-Morning Matters, resident poet of Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and one third of BBC4 comedy quiz show We Need Answers: Tim Key has become a popular figure in the British comedy landscape. We caught up with Tim in the middle of the UK tour of his Perrier Award-winning stand-up show The Slutcracker.

You were a member of Cambridge Footlights without having attended the University, how did you manage that?

I just had to say I was at Cambridge. Nobody really questions you about it. If you say you’re doing a PhD, most people will just accept that you probably are. It was pretty problem-free.

Nobody ever asked you specific questions about your thesis?

Well, I said my thesis was on Nikolai Gogol. There was one awkward evening when some guy putting on a Gogol play wanted to get a bit more information from an authority on the subject, so I just had to evade the question, head to the bar and avoid him for the rest of the evening.

Can you remember your first comedy gig?

Well there were six of us on stage (amongst them comedians Mark Watson, Alex Horne and Sophie Winkleman), so I felt very insulated. There was safety in numbers. Doing a sketch show like that is a very different thing to just standing alone in front of people holding a microphone. That’s a much more arrogant situation.

Do you think that comedians need to be a little bit arrogant?

Yeah, I think there does need to be a bit of arrogance. I mean, everyone makes each other laugh. But, as a comedian, you’re sort of saying: “look, I know we all make each other laugh, but I’m the best at doing that, so everyone should sit on a chair and face me, and pay me money”. So I think all comedians are probably a nice mix of arrogance and brittle insecurity.

What is the worst heckle that you have received?

One time, when I was performing The Slutcracker at The Arts Theatre in London, somebody shouted out “What does it mean?”. It was brilliant. It’s nice when a heckler throws open a whole debate about what art is, and what comedy is. Of course, the woman was absolutely lashed.

Did it lead to a bit of an existential crisis on your part?

Well, I had to try and unpick what it did mean – it was a very philosophical question. The thing is, it doesn’t really mean anything, so it was a bit redundant.

You recently played the role of Alan Partridge’s radio co-host “Sidekick Simon”, was it daunting working alongside Steve Coogan?

It’s pretty much impossible to overstate how daunting that was. He’s obviously a hero of mine. I was 16, 17, 18 when Knowing Me Knowing You and The Day Today came out, and my friends and I would always listen to his stuff on the radio, so I’d say he’s been quite an important person in my life. And then you suddenly find yourself in a room with him. It was a pretty surreal experience.

What was he like to work with?

He works incredibly hard. When filming you’ll sometimes witness a moment of genius, and think “yeah, that’s very, very good”. He leaves nothing in the locker.

You got away quite lightly in the wardrobe department.

Yeah, his wardrobe was pretty spectacular. That was a real highlight, at about 10 o’clock every day, seeing him emerge from the room as Alan Partridge.

Did you not demand your own sheepskin waistcoat?

I don’t think I was in any position to demand anything.

Frankie Boyle recently reacted angrily to a blog written by Mark Watson which questioned Frankie’s refusal to apologise to an offended audience member. Can I ask what you made of their public spat?

I think it was a misunderstanding. I’d be furious if I felt another comedian was criticising my work, but the point is Mark wasn’t doing that. Mark was talking philosophically about what comedians should do. So I don’t think there’s any blame on either side. It’s just a shame really, because they’re both very good at what they do.

Should comedy be an unrestricted art form?

I think comedians can get away with a lot as long as they’re making people laugh. Audiences are quite forgiving if they really like what you’re doing. If someone starts making jokes about still-births, you might think that’s outrageous and they shouldn’t be doing that, and yet you can watch that occur in Jam, and Chris Morris is universally heralded as a genius, and rightly so.

Finally, what can we expect from you in the future?

Hang on, let me think if I can give you an exclusive – that would be good. Okay, here we go. I think what I’m going to do is an album of children’s songs with Alex Horne. I visited his outcrop a couple of weeks ago to see him and his little boy, and we hatched that idea. We already have a couple of titles: Mummy’s Make-Up and Dancing with the Ducklings.

When I asked what we could expect I didn’t expect you to say that!

I don’t think I expected to say that either. I don’t know if that’s something that I should have been keeping a secret.  But you’ve got it now. That’s the thing with you investigative journalists – you trap people. Oh well, it’ll force us to do it now. 

Tim Key is currently touring the UK for his Slutcracker tour. You can catch him at the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton on Monday 21 February. Go to www.timkey.co.uk for details.

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