Keegan-Michael Key: There Might Be a ‘Key & Peele’ Revival
If it feels like you’ve been seeing Keegan-Michael Key everywhere, you’re not far off the mark. The former MADtv cast member has been keeping himself very busy since he and Jordan Peele ended their hit sketch show, Key & Peele, in 2015. This fall alone, he can be seen in two movies: Mike Birbiglia’s improv comedy Don’t Think Twice, and Why Him?, which stars Bryan Cranston and James Franco. He’s also starting a third season of the USA comedy Playing House. Finally, he’s the voice of American Ranger in the Crackle animated series SuperMansion, whose holiday special, War on Christmas, was released on the streaming service last week.
We talked to the super-busy Key about getting into his SuperMansion character, a 1940s superhero who came out of a time pod in 2015 and is still trying to adjust, as well as his other projects … including whether he and Peele will revive their show now that Donald Trump is about to be president. We also ask him about the Jabs Dave Chappelle has taken at Key & Peele, and got a surprising response.
You’re trying to play American Ranger very, very straight while being funny at the same time. What are the mechanics for you that go into doing the voice? What was your planning when you got the role to how you’d go about doing it?
I sat with Zeb and Matt and what we started doing was a kind of Dudley Do-Right type character. Even holier than thou than American Ranger ended up being, and we kind of modulated from there. I think we realized that that original voice was matching the fact that we were dealing with a cartoon in a manner of speaking, or dealing with animation, but it wasn’t grounded enough. He’s the one character who understands what he used to be when he made propaganda films in the ’40s. That’s kind of what I’m working from. I wanted to make sure it almost had a little bit of a newsreel quality to it. [In newsreel narrator voice] “We forward against the Japanese and went island hopping with General MacArthur.” I wanted to have that newsreel sound because he is a real person, but he also is/was a persona back then. I tried to put a little bit of gravel, I have a natural rasp in my voice, a little bit of gravel into it so that you get just a small, little tiny hint of PTSD as well. I wanted a little bit of that in there, too.
It’s always interesting that when you play these heroes they’re never effected by anything. It’s such a big thing with him to take the extraordinary and the ridiculous and make it mundane. That’s where they find their comedy from.
The character obviously cannot go through 13 episodes and the special sitting there going “Barack Obama is our president, how’d this happen?” How does the character change? Is it through the friendship with Titanium Rex that he develops?
You’re saying some tolerance for what’s happening now? I think it’s through his relationship with Titanium Rex, but also through watching all the other ones behave. There’s a couple of episodes in the first season, where really, he goes through really life changing experiences. There’s one where he has to go out to the desert to find himself and he’s confronted with the world in a way that’s very uncompromising and he just has to deal with it. Funny stuff happens, like you know he sniffs glue and gets high and does PCP and starts to find himself.
I think that part of the journey of American Ranger is … Like you said, the challenge of 13 episodes is, if you’re just making a movie, you can spend half a movie with a person just adjusting to a new reality and they start to evolve and grow; actually with a television show it seems like you almost have more time to do that. You have more time to say “We’ll only spend three episodes with him going ‘What do you mean a black man’s the president?'” and then start having him evolve. It can go slowly. Hopefully, in a manner of speaking, the challenge is that you can do it more slowly so that it feels more human and real. I believe that there’s some part of him that does thirst to learn. He’s just in this constant state of new stimuli all the time. It’s a tough thing.
Is it also because you have to find the different layer of what he’s going to defend to the death that’s completely outdated now? Is it sometimes tough for Matt, and Zeb, and you to find that layer after a season and this special?
You know what, it is. That’s a really good question. I think it is difficult. The other part, the other challenge is that we have to write the piece as 21st century liberals. That’s what’s difficult, right? Maybe it’d be interesting to go the opposite direction and go “Is there some kind of traditional tower that we can agree with that we don’t want to topple?” I don’t know the answer to that question yet.
I think that it’s, we all want to be inclusive and open minded, but there’s also this … I would love to have American Ranger have a monologue one day in an episode where he just talks about “Can’t we just be comfortable? Can’t I just be comfortable in the things that I want?” If that could be a thing. It’s like, look, you guys do what you want, because that’s another kind of sentiment of an older time in our country. Everybody’s like “That’s the best part of America is you can do whatever you want.” Not everybody felt that way. It’s not that you can do … There’s a difference between you can do anything you want and you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t do it in front of me. I think that there might be an episode there to explore that with American Ranger. Which is that he’s “They’re perfectly fine doing whatever they want as long as it’s not near me.” Then they’re not perfectly fine to do whatever they want. It’s like almost explaining to him that juxtaposition, or explaining to him that dichotomy.
Things like gay marriage or being transgender?
Yeah, I think so. That’s something I’d really be looking forward to exploring.
They’re using what I call the martian template, which is that you have a martian, and however the martian gets taught, he is being taught, “This is what the world is like here on Earth.” That’s going to be a completely different story depending on who you’re talking to. The martian will come down from Mars, teleport to Earth and either become a racist, or an activist. It’s nice when you take a person who’s a blank canvas. What they did is they put the extra wrinkle in for American Ranger. He’s not a blank canvas, he’s a preconceived canvas. He has a preconceived notion of what the world’s going to be when he comes out of his cryo sleep. It’s a real fun character to play because he’s almost constantly having an existential crisis.
On to a different topic… Have you and Jordan, knowing that race is a big part of how Trump got elected and how he’s creating his cabinet, thought “Maybe we should do another series. Maybe go do something on the road.”? Something to address what’s going on now because it seems like race has very much, over the last few years, bubbled back to the surface.
First of all I think it’s very accurate to say “bubbled back to the surface” as opposed to … I think for young people it must be very shocking right now, because this is something that we’ve been watching our whole lives. When you say “bubbling to the surface” that’s very accurate, I think, as opposed to a new phenomenon. It’s not a new phenomenon.
It’s funny, I’m going to see Jordan this weekend. That I think will probably end up being a topic of discussion for us. I don’t know what it is yet or what the platform is, I think I am looking forward to seeing what the reaction is, given our new political climate, to Jordan’s new movie [Get Out]. He and I have discussed a few things, but I think you’ll find his movie very, at the very least, provocative, but in a very Key & Peele way. It’s not very “hammer you over the head.” It’s “Look at these given circumstances he’s created and what does this say about our society?”
I think it’s a really, really interesting, a really interesting piece of art. I cannot wait for people to see it. We’ve already been in preliminary talks with each other about what’s next for us and how hard do we want to go or how light do we want to go? These are subsequent conversations that we have to have.
A couple of times over the last few years, Dave Chappelle has taken light jabs at you guys. It could be maybe all in good fun, I don’t know, but he’s saying things like “I’m seeing Key and Peele do my show for five years,” things like that. I know your show was compared to his show a lot when it first came on, but he really wasn’t doing much in public so he didn’t really have much to say about it. How do you feel now that he’s coming out and taking these jabs?
I cannot speak to the jabs so much. I do know that when he hosted SNL a couple of weeks ago that he had asked for Jordan and I to come on and help with a sketch. I’d like to make sure that people know that that happened. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you there, but it’s just that I don’t know how to really respond to the jabs. I don’t know him. All I can say is that I respect him so very much as a comedian and he was a great influence on me and Jordan, he was very helpful in allowing us to go “Oh, this is something we can do. Oh this kind of intelligent humor can be offset with body humor and all exist in the same space at once.” He was quite frankly an inspiration to me.
I cannot speak to what’s in his mind. I cannot tell you whether or not it goes one way or the other, whether they’re meant in fun or I don’t know if they’re meant as jabs at Comedy Central, and he’s using us as the conduit. I really don’t know. The only thing I have to go on are the facts on the ground which is that we couldn’t make the scheduling work, but that there was a request to have Jordan and I come and hopefully participate in a sketch on SNL when he was hosting. Unfortunately it just didn’t come to fruition.
Is Playing House is coming back for a third season?
Yes. I’m very excited about that. The girls are so good and I wish the whole world would watch it. They’re so good in it and they’re so good, the writing is so solid and I appreciate them giving me the opportunity to be in the show; it’s nice to play the put-upon straight man, but also the romantic lead, and every now and again they let me do some fun physical comedy. It runs the gamut. I’m allowed to do just about everything on the show. The crew over there is just a crack team; the writers and the directors, they really have a lovely vision for what they wanted and they’ve achieved it. It’s got this rabid, rabid following. I just think lots more people, if they saw it, would really appreciate it and have fun watching it. That’s coming up. That will start probably airing in March or so.
So no vacation until 2018 is what you’re saying?
No vacation. I’m looking to maybe take a vacation March or April of 2018. Maybe May. As I’m looking at my schedule in my mind, May of 2018 is when I see my next break. [Laughs]
SuperMansion: War on Christmas, Now available, Crackle