The Keegan-Michael Key Interview

Keegan-Michael Key is the co-creator of Comedy Central’s sketch comedy show ‘Key and Peele.’
Keegan-Michael Key is the co-creator of Comedy Central's sketch comedy show 'Key and Peele.' Flickr/Isis Masoud
Keegan-Michael Key is the co-creator of Comedy Central’s sketch comedy show ‘Key and Peele.’
Keegan-Michael Key is the co-creator of Comedy Central's sketch comedy show 'Key and Peele.' Flickr/Isis Masoud

The Keegan-Michael Key Interview

Keegan-Michael Key is the co-creator of Comedy Central's sketch comedy show 'Key and Peele.' (Flickr/Isis Masoud)

Today I chat with one of the stars of Key and Peele, one of Comedy Central’s most popular new shows, which features sketch comedy that tickles the funnybones of people like me and Barack Obama.

Prior to K&P, Keegan-Michael Key was best known for his roles as a cast member on MADtv for six seasons. He has also had recurring roles on Reno 911! and Gary Unmarried. He used to be the host of The Planets Funniest Animals. Prior to that, Key was a member of Second City Detroit’s mainstage cast as well as the Second City Chicago’s e.t.c. theatre, where he wrote and performed shows “Holy War, Batman!” and “Curious George Goes to War” for which he won several Joseph Jefferson Awards (which honor excellence in Chicago theater).

Congratulations on Key and Peele’s recently-announced second season. Do you have ideas for the next season already?
Thanks. We’re more than halfway through the writing process.The show got picked up about two weeks after the series debut so we never took a break.

Do you feel freed up to try new things in the new season?
The network has actually encouraged us. They said you can be edgier if you want. You can push boundaries. It’s been interesting because we’ve come across people of different races who have said, “You can push the boundaries more.” We’re on a cable network so we do have a niche—but that’s the wrong word, it makes us sound super small. We do have a particular type who watches our program. People who, for lack of a better way of saying it, kind of like to get beat up by our comedy. They’re like, “Go ahead, hit us.” I think now from the network’s point of view, they thought it was important to give us that note because we’re following South Park now. So let’s go from biting satire in a narrative form into biting satire in sketch form is what they want to happen so we can get more audience from the South Park audience.

It seemed like the first half of the debut season you introduced yourselves to the audience and established who you were, but the second half you were freer.
That is exactly what we were trying to do. We really think of ourselves as comedians first and harbingers of a new post-racial world second. We’re trying to make that a little more important—but we’ve had focus groups and we’ve analyzed the data and it’s really interesting, ‘cause the people in the focus groups say as long as it’s funny we’re not too concerned about the racial stuff. Apparently across the board there was one scene everybody loved which was the gay couple where one is like “Oh my god what have I gotten into?” And the other is like “I’m getting married!” Everybody enjoyed that scene and it doesn’t have anything to do with race. But you’re right, that was exactly our tactic. Hey, please feel comfortable watching this, we can do comedy and then go with us here as we challenge you a little bit. Like Forest Whitakers head on a baby. Welcome to the inside of the brain of my partner.

If someone reading this hasn’t seen your show, what sketches would you tell them best exemplify the heart and soul of what you do?
Probably the bitch sketch and the soul food sketch. I keep saying the bitch sketch is our favorite but it’s our favorite because we’re subjective about it, a sketch that we kind of cracked open. I love people to watch, like, the commercial parody. In season two there’ll be that signature subtlety but there’ll be more nail-it-on-the-head stuff going on. So as much as I enjoyed performing the Black Jeff/White Jeff scene, where he’s kind of flip-flopping back and forth, that to me is a flavor-giver more than speaking directly to what our pocket is. But that soul food sketch is right in the pocket. It’s partner stuff.

You’re not going to see a lot of scenes on our show like you would see on Mad TV, like, here’s a character and we’re going to plug that character into all these situations. You’re not going to see that on our show. You’re going to see, here’s two people living in an existing current world, working off of each other. Oh, and slave auction-there’s a complete lack of self-aggrandizement for us. We’re always getting our comeuppance. That’s where a lot of the criticism from black people has come from, why make black people look bad? And it’s like, because if you don’t make anybody look bad it’s not a comedy. And if you want to really get a sense of us, I invite anybody who reads this to go onto and look for our Vandaveon and Mike videos. We play these two characters that criticize the show. Two guys, clearly arrested in their maturity who make vlogs, video responses to each episode about how they could make the episodes funnier and apparently the recipe for making the episodes funnier is to put more d*cks and p*ssies and fart jokes. They’re like, “I don’t understand why you don’t know that d*cks and poop will always make any scene funnier. You should always put more of that in your scenes. I would not call the scene Black Jeff I would call it D*ck Jeff and Black D*ck Fart and everybody would be laughing. Y’all almost got it, like it’s funny to me but it could be funnier though.” It’s very meta. That’s us.

That’s like a 21st Century Waldorf and Statler.
Well, we’re huge Waldorf and Statler fans. It’s funny, I look at all of my writers and I’m going, wait a minute, none of you were alive. I was a little seven-year-old kid playing on my books with my drumsticks cause Animal was the coolest thing in the world and none of them were alive. It’s so funny. But they’re influenced by the things I am.

How did you decide to shoot the interstitial moments between the sketches?
The original idea for the show was a huge departure from that. We originally pitched a narrative where every week we would be driving to our offices to go write and we’d walk to lunch and that kinetic energy is actually what makes you go “Ooh ooh I have an idea. When you’re grocery shopping, that’s when you go…then the dude pulls off his face and you realize…” But when you’re sitting in front of the computer often there’s nothing—so we’re in the car driving to meetings and we’re like, new ideas, new ideas, so that was going to be the beginning.

Then what would happen was, in the middle of the conversation in the car, we’d start playing characters and then scenes would just start happening. So the transitions were going to be our brainstorm process and then the end of every episode was going to be us pulling up to the office. We’d open the door and as the credits rolled you’d hear us say “Hey, we have some really good ideas for the show today.” But I think we wanted to make sure the audience was familiar with what was happening before their eyes, so they wouldn’t have to get used to a new thing.

The other thing we always think is, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. It wasn’t broken during the Colgate Comedy Hour, it wasn’t broken during Laugh In, why would we not do it? In the next season it will be different; the live stuff is going to be a lot looser. Literally it will be us improvising on stage.

Are there any famous fans of the show you were excited to learn about?
It’s funny the people that tickle me. Sinbad, who said he is a big fan, makes me really happy. David Allen Grier—that means a lot. Someone who is a progenitor of what we do. When you get a Tweet that says “I gotta get me on Key & Peele,” I was walking on air for three days.

The big one for me was when a friend of mine who does Hugh Laurie’s hair said Laurie said that Key & Peele was the funniest thing on television. Now I can commit hari-kari. I did that Hells Kitchen parody and we got a tweet from Gordon Ramsay. It said “Unbelievable…it’s impossible that this scene is not funny.” He was very clever. That was nice.

What was your path from Mad TV to this?
Jordan left a year before I did. I guess it was ‘09 that we finished. I went to a sitcom on CBS called Gary Unmarried. He did a pilot for Fox called The Station. My show got canceled and his show didn’t get picked up. We share a manager and our manager said, “Do you want to do a show together?”And we said, “Absolutely that would be great,” ‘cause we felt we were a really good team. That was it. We pitched the show, Comedy Central loved the idea and we went from there.

Are there any characters you worked on for Second City or MadTV that you’d like to resurrect in any form for Key & Peele but haven’t yet?
If I have my druthers I would just find a different venue for those characters. There are also litigious issues. We’d prefer to move away from Mad TV, since it’s a different animal all together. The show is a different species; if these two animals could be in a different genus or phylum, we’d appreciate that. As an academic exercise, always Coach Hines. It’s always been my favorite thing to play.

What do you look at as the predecessors of the show?
In Living Color. I was in college then and my mind was blown. Part of our heritage is African-American entertainers. If you’re a comedic African-American entertainer, your heritage is standup, so to actually watch those actors performing, that made me go, “Oh now that’s something I might want to do if this whole Shakespeare/Greek/Absurdism Theater thing doesn’t work out.” Had that worked out I certainly wouldn’t be talking to you, I’d be living in some studio apartment but I’d be fulfilled.

Not that I’m not now. For me the biggest influence is Mr. Show. If we were going to emulate any sketch show it would be Mr. Show. Bob [Odenkirk] and Dave [Cross] are really up our alley. Our director—we’re really on the same page—he tries to make every sketch look like a genre. So Mr. Show, The Ben Stiller show, these kind of shows—we’re more influenced by the programs that focused more on the game of the scene, the comedic engine of the scene and then you layer characters on top as opposed to the way we did things at Mad where it’s a very conventional sketch form, you start with characters and then you put that character in different situations a la Pink Panther or the Groundlings. I also really admire Dave Chappelle. It wasn’t just crazy raucous celebrity parody. I feel like Jordan and I are trying—this sound so obnoxious—by being ourselves we’re trying to usher something new into the world. I just don’t know if celebrity parody is going to hack it anymore.

My husband and I have a special place in our heart for Planet’s Funniest Animals. What was that hosting gig like?
It was a delightful job. I think I shot 150 episodes in 10 days. It’s fun. It’s a cast and crew of 18 people and you put on a shirt you read the teleprompter, take off the shirt, put on a different shirt, read the teleprompter. It’s so lovely and simple but it’s a great challenge. You never see the sketches before you talk about them or comment on them. It was crazy. They didn’t do this with Matt [Gallant] but they did this with me, on the last day of shooting they bring in a loop audience and I would talk to the audience during the commercial throws. You think there’s an audience ‘cause you see them on these crane shots, but they’re not really there. I guess it was really effective because people would ask me all the time, what about the audience? But when I got the job I decided I wasn’t going to phone it in. I’d be as cheesy as possible and just love it. It made for an easier time.

Would you see the videos?
When I did voice over, I’d be in the booth cracking up and they’d be like, we have to shoot this over again and I’d be like, I’m so sorry, this is hilarious, that chimp is smoking a cigarette.

You do character based impressions. What have been the hardest to nail down?
On our show Jordan is the impression guy. It’s not even really been for me, Key & Peele, it’s not an issue. I actually can’t answer the question since I haven’t done any. That was a requisite at Mad TV. Of course impressions are great because they’re quantitative. You can watch one and be like, oh yeah, he’s doing the same thing that the fat guy does. There’s a kind of satisfaction you get from watching a person do an impression. I did the president at Mad, there’s a couple components you have to pull together and I thought I did okay at that, but it took about three scenes for that to click in. But on our show, that has not fallen to me.

When you were a kid who were your comedy idols?
A Peter Sellers, number one. Also, the Muppets. I loved Animal, so I guess you could say by proxy Jim Henson. My dad really loved Flip Wilson and I loved anything my dad loved. Richard Pryor. In the pantheon of comedians, if they’re the Olympians, he is Zeus. I devoured Lenny Bruce when I was in college and I’m a big Cosby fan. Pryor is the Athena that is born from Bruce and Cosby’s brain. I just mixed my metaphors, but all he wanted in his career was to be a hybrid of Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby in terms of social satire. He ended up being this super nova; the hybrid created something even better. He was doing satire by telling stories and it was amazing. Every comedian with melatonin in their skin owes him a debt.

As a kid lots of movies made me laugh. I love The physical stuff Mr. Bean does—thoroughly British. My stepmother is from Northern Ireland so I’ve been exposed to a lot of British comedy. When I was a kid I loved Sanford and Son, I loved Red Foxx. I’m also a big fan of the silent masters, so I’m a big Harold Lloyd fan, I loooove Buster Keaton. This may sound like sacrilegious, but I might like Keaton more than Chaplin. It’s ‘cause I’m a nerd and I’m the kind of weird person who reads essays on laughter and why it happens. Greek comedies like Aristophanes. My partner is a great student of human behavior, like the British Office, that kind of uncomfortable, documentary, style behavior. He can’t get enough.

What TV shows do you try to watch?
I watch a lot of television. I’m a huge Modern Family fanatic. Love it. I watch a lot of procedurals: Criminal Minds. I like Spartacus. Comedy-wise, I like The Office. I watch a lot of Netflix. I watch a lot of British stuff, like, do you know Mitchell and Webb?

Oh, Numberwang, of course.
Yeah, Numberwang. We’re trying to figure out what our Numberwang is. We love that so much. Katherine Tate. She’s the new Tracey Ullman. I’m a big Tracey Ullman fan; I watched her in high school. The shows I haven’t had an opportunity to watch which everyone keeps telling me would be up my alley are all on NBC. I love 30 Rock and I have old colleagues who are on that show. I need to hunker down and watch Community, watch Parks and Rec— all those shows that are made for comedy nerds that I’ve not been watching. And you know what show makes me laugh? Workaholics. I have no business liking that show. I’m 15 years too old, but those three gentlemen are genuinely and intrinsically funny. I’m 41 so I’m supposed to go, “That’s puerile that’s sophomoric,” but I’m laughing the whole time. But really, if there’s SWAT gear and lawyers or gladiators, I’m your guy.

I’ve heard you say in another interview that you listen to a lot of public radio. What shows are you the biggest fan of?
I can’t get enough of Ira Glass. I’m a Michael Feldman fan. I’ve been listening to Prairie Home Companion for about 26 years. There’s a great show called The Madeleine Brand Show in Los Angeles. There’s also a cooking show that’s really terrific.

The Splendid Table?
Yes, My wife was a sous chef and my mother-in-law was a chef. We listen to that. This was all foreign territory to Jordan and I was going, “Dude, we’re going to be on Morning Edition!” And he was like, “You seem to be excited.” I’m going to lose my mind if I ever get to be on Fresh Air. I will lose my bloody mind if I ever get to talk to Terry Gross. Or David Bianculli. I will click my heels.

Where do you hang out when you’re in Chicago?
Our favorite restaurant on earth is Rose Angelis on Wrightwood. It’s a little house these two lawyers bought and decided to open as a restaurant. If I’m going to eat pizza, I will pick Lou Malnati’s. There’s a place in Evanston called The Lucky Platter, My wife loves that place. One of my best friends grew up in Wilmette, so we’ll go up to Walker Brothers. Downtown, for some reason even though it’s a chain, I like the Ruth’s Chris in Chicago better than any other. I also think that the Mia Francesca on Bryn Mawr is really great. Of course I go to the Old Town Alehouse. I go there when I’m at Second City. I like the salad and meat at O’Brien’s.

How does it feel to be the 312th person interviewed for
Of everything I’ve experienced this year, this is by far the biggest honor and I’ll tell you why. Do you see the symmetry here, Claire? 312 guests and you are in the 312 area code. This is going to result in some kind of fortunate behavior. I guess it is kismet.

Or maybe a rip in the space/time continuum.
If it is a rip, I’m very glad it’s you and I that put it there. Your baby is going to be born and it’s going to be a super baby.