Keegan-Michael Key on Why ‘Key and Peele’ Has to End, What’s Next and the Comedy Central Series’ Legacy
Draxx them sklounst! After more than 50 episodes, Comedy Central’s Key and Peele says farewell on Wednesday night (10/9c) with two final episodes.
In its short lifespan—the show just debuted in 2012—Key and Peele left a lasting legacy as a smart sketch comedy series that skewered hot-button topics like race, gender and sexual orientation, but also wasn’t afraid to get silly.
Stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele first met on Fox’s Mad TV; when that show ended, they both went their separate ways—until their mutual manager paired them up and pitched Key and Peele as a comedy duo. Fox was interested, but Comedy Central offered to produce a pilot.
As Key and Peele comes to a close, we recently interviewed Key for an episode of the KCRW radio program The Business. In a wide-ranging discussion, Key discussed the state of TV comedy, how his audience sometimes misses the point of a joke, why Key and Peele is ending, and how he hopes to see more diversity in the world of sketch and improv. Here’s an expanded version of that discussion.
First off, it’s Emmy season. Key and Peele received eight nominations total, including variety sketch series, supporting actor in a comedy and writing for a variety series. It must be gratifying to get so much awards attention.
Yeah. They were very, very kind to us this year. It’s been very incremental in the last two years. We got one nomination two years ago, and three nominations last year, and eight nominations this year. It’s interesting to be nominated for the specials too. There were categories, to be quite honest, I wasn’t aware of. A comedy special nomination for our Super Bowl piece.
It’s still so weird to see you nominated for supporting actor given that you’re in basically every inch of that show.
Yeah, it’s interesting. That and of course, the other elephant in the room, which is, there is actually two lead actors.
How do you rectify that, being nominated as a supporting actor?
I’ve been figuring it out for myself in my mind. Part of it is, of course, just being able to say, “I am supporting Jordan in 50% of the roles.” If you were to think of it from an old traditional paradigm, an Abbott and Costello paradigm or a Laurel and Hardy paradigm, one of us is going to be the straight man in the scene ostensibly. One of us is going to be the comic. So I’d say in 50% of the scenes I’m the straight man. Maybe I’m going to accept the nomination in that way.
You keep telling yourself that!
Does it justify? Are you buying that?
We’ll talk later. Of course, all this love is coming down right as you end the show. The love that the fans believe Key and Peele deserves is finally happening, yet this season will be its last.
Our timing is impeccable. Maybe that’s not the word that Comedy Central would use. We’ve decided to go the British route. Of course people go, “You could keep going. You could keep going.” It takes quite a lot of time to film, to do the seasons the way that we’ve wanted to do them and to achieve what we’ve wanted to achieve. It takes about 10-1/2 months to do a season. As popularity was growing, we were getting opportunities to do other things that were really appealing to us.
For me, I fear us repeating ourselves, because I think we have a very, very intelligent audience. I wouldn’t want our audience to look at the material and go, “Wait a minute, they’ve pretty much done this scene before but now it’s an old western town. Now, wait a second, they’ve done this scene before but now it’s in a submarine.”
Did you and Jordan sort of come to this realization around the same time? Or did one of you have to convince the other that it was time?
No. There’s a lot kind of mental symbiosis about it. To be quite honest, both of us were also looking at each other and going, “Those are bags under your eyes right?” “Yeah.” “You’re completely exhausted, too? Okay. I just want to make sure I wasn’t the only one who feels like the walking dead.” We both came to the decision around the same time.
Around the end of season 2, we were saying that maybe there was a way to wrap it all up. We started thinking about that then. Those ideas started to evolve, and grow, and clearly it became concrete.
Was there ever a thought of doing a Louis C.K. or Larry David-style hiatus? Taking some time off, but agreeing to revisit it on your own timetable?
To be quite honest, that’s actually the plan. I’ve been saying to people here and there, “I would really like it to be a bit of a Pryor-Wilder dynamic.” The two of us will go and do our things, but reunite when the time is right and the idea is right that excites us. We have discussed with Comedy Central some of those projects being a special that we would do for them. A reunion special that might involve a tour.
Did Comedy Central did know this was coming?
That must have been a tough conversation, because they’re losing everyone right now.
I know. It really is the worst time. They’re putting fingers in dikes and they’re trying to stop all the leaks. That’s what it certainly appears like.
They’re probably dodging Amy Schumer’s calls right now.
Yes. “We’re not here if Amy calls.” But I’m so confident by the people that are running the ship over there. [President of original programming] Kent Alterman is such a wonderfully creative artist who has become an executive. I wish everybody was like him. He’s like a hero to me. He’s so devoid of ego when it comes to developing shows. The same thing with [Comedy Central president] Michele Ganeless. She has a wonderful sensitivity about what’s creative. I think that they’re going to keep finding new, wonderful, unique, shows to put on the air that are going to appeal to different varied audiences. They’re going to be just fine.
It feels weird now like people are abandoning ship. I think it’s a testament to them. To the talent they’ve hired.
We’ve all been talking about how the sitcom is dead. But comedy seems alive and well on TV, between Comedy Central, Adult Swim, IFC, HBO, FX and others.
If I may be so bold, it hasn’t been like this since Sid Caesar‘s Your Show of Shows or The Colgate Comedy Hour. There hasn’t been certainly this wealth of sketch. I’m including the stuff that we’re seeing on Hulu, the stuff we’re seeing on Netflix.
Stand-up specials with people who have really rich, and diverse, and unique points of view. I feel it’s like a revival for sketch. I will call it a second golden age because I can’t get out of my head stuff that has always been so wonderful to me, like watching Jackie Gleason, and watching Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner, and all those people who wrote in the 1950s. I think we owe a debt of gratitude to them.
But it’s an amazing time to be working in comedy right now, because the feathers are off. They’re letting us do what we want and it’s reaping dividends.
In the 1980s and 1990s it was stand-up comedians who got the TV shows. Then it flipped, and now just about everyone you see on TV has an improv background. And they’re all working on each other’s shows. It’s like a television repertory company.
That’s a really good way of putting it. Maybe nobody had yet cracked the code, or didn’t think to see improvisers having points of view the ways stand-ups did. Now, I think we’re discovering that there are sketch performers who also have point of view.
Stand-up also seems so cutthroat and competitive, whereas in improv and sketch, everyone’s helping each other out.
Absolutely. That’s that repertory idea that you tagged. It’s as if we all went to different branches of the same university. There’s UCB College, the Second City College, the Improv Olympic College. I can improvise with a person from UCB and the work can blossom because the foundation is always going to be the same. You see people being wonderfully collaborative.
Because these shows are short to order these days, you’re able to do a whole bunch of things at once. Just looking at your IMDB for 2015, you’ve been busy.
You expect to struggle. You expect to work as hard as you can to do the things that light a fire in your soul. You want to reach out and grab it as much as you can before it all disappears. About two months ago, there was an intervention with my wife, my agents and my manager. They all went, “Okay. We’re the people that make money off of you. We’re telling you to stop working for a couple of months.”
Let’s talk about the end of Key & Peele. How do you feel about when people talk about the legacy of the show? There’s a sense that you’re leaving a void.
I have heard that. I guess I feel a twinge of guilt about stopping. It was not necessarily me and Jordan’s intention to be this thing that was going to be huge and zeitgeist-y. It was always about saying, “Oh, this is probably the best way to implement this joke.”
We didn’t think to say, “Let’s get out there and change the world.” There were times from a comedic point of view where we were saying, “Oh my gosh. This piece feels special.” But we weren’t trying necessarily to get out there and save the world.
Does it leave a void? I think so but I hope that we can inspire others to move in this direction.
Do you feel like we’re seeing more diversity in comedy now?
I’m definitely seeing that in the space. We’re in this new wild west where I can go online and see a Hispanic sketch group. I can see an Indian sketch. The hard part is when you’re looking at a little show in big business. If they think it’s going to make money, they’ll give you a shot. If they think it’s too obscure, they’re not going to do anything with it.
Thank God we have YouTube. I think it’s becoming more equitable because of new media platforms. I hope it just continues that way.
Let’s go back a little bit to when you guys got your chance. After MadTV, you parted ways. It was your mutual manager’s idea to reunite?
It was. Our manager Joel said, “I think we have a chance for some leverage here.” It was between Comedy Central and Fox. He said, “Would you guys be willing to do this?” I said, “I’m all in.” But it was Joel. I just thought it was very wise of him to try, and it worked.
Do you think the show could have worked on a broadcast network?
I don’t know because I just think that there are other factors. I have to plead ignorance.
Obviously, budgets are less in cable, yet you manage to stretch your dollar. The wig budget alone must just be astronomical.
Peter Atencio is our director and I don’t know how he manages it. We have a really fantastic cinematographer and director of photography, Charles Papert. I wish I knew more about the magic of how they did that.
I’m trying to imagine the day that you guys shot the East vs. West college football players sketch. How many different hairdos did you guys go through?
36? 64? No, 36, I think. Also the first time we did it, it took less time to do it than the second time and the third time we did it, because we did a third time for the Super Bowl Special. It was like a dance. I’d be bald with a Van Dyke. Then I’d run off and I’d do my thing. Jordan’s getting ready. Then we’d switch places. Sometimes I think we even flipped wigs. That’s where so much of the imagination comes from. Necessity is the mother of invention. We didn’t have the money. You have to use more mental real estate to figure out how to make everything happen.
I didn’t realize you guys shot those sketches so quickly. Two in one day?
Oh, yeah. The Les Mis sketch was shot in one day. From our first season, the dueling magical Negro sketch was shot in one day. Any of the big action movie sketches we would dedicate an entire day. Even then, sometimes that was just 11 hours. Where somebody,
What about the editing? How involved are you there and how difficult is it to edit down the show?
It’s a fun challenge. We have to treat it in a democratic way. Sometimes, four hands go up and one doesn’t. You go, “All right. I guess we’re doing it that way.” You’ve got to kill your babies but it makes it easier in the long run. Jordan and I both very often have the same sentiment about a sketch, or the same feeling, or the same pacing that we like for a sketch. The editors are very involved.
Did you ponder what made the show so successful? Your sketches start in a familiar place before things go in either weird, or absurd, or heightened places. It’s a formula that really worked for you guys.
If you watch sketches from the first season, a lot of that was forming then. There’s a term that Jordan coined for it, “Comedic judo.” We figured, “Let’s take all the forms that everybody knows or thinks they know about sketch, and then find a way to use their expectations against them.” The perfect example would be early on, we had a sketch called “Movie Hecklers.” There are two black guys that look look thugs sitting in a movie theater. “Man, I know this sketch. They’re going to talk while everybody else is watching the movie.” Of course these two guys clearly went to the American Film Institute. They’re just like, “Man look, the scene doesn’t make any sense as we’re moving through the narrative. It’s a spotty narrative.” You screw up the audience’s mind. You give them on a silver platter what the expectation of the sketch should be, and then you flip it off.
You have a lot of fun calling out society and pop culture tropes.
That formula has served us really well. Let’s not necessarily shock the audience. Let’s surprise the audience. Our writers are so phenomenal.
Most viewers are watching these sketches online. Does that change how you write the show?
A little bit. We stuck by our guns and continued to make the episodes with a beginning, and a middle, and an end to them. Knowing full well that the majority of the people consuming it are consuming it online. We still made an effort to say, “This scene which is the most energetic scene is going to be the crest of the episode.”
I wish more people were watching the entire piece every week on television to see the movements. Here’s the adagio. Here’s the andante. Here’s a retard. That it feels like a piece of music.
What’s so interesting is the demographic. They’re young people. That’s how they consume entertainment these days. You can’t argue with the fact that it is part of the success of the show.
Your show averages about 1.2 million people on Comedy Central on its first run. But the videos have been streamed hundreds of millions of times.
I think we’re very quickly approaching a billion hits overall. It’s been very informative and exciting to watch this new thing happen. How are we going to deal with it in the future? It’s funny. This year, we got emails that said, “Okay, guys. Here’s how the ratings are going to work this year. We’re not going to give you any same-day ratings anymore. We’re just going to give you live plus 3 and live plus 7 because that’s the nature of how people are watching television.” It’s the nature of how people are consuming shows.
Do you do ever pay attention to what people say online? Do you read the comments?
I can’t read the comments. I’m too fragile of a person because I’ll look at my wife and go, “Now, why would they say something that cruel?” I read comments a little bit before and said, “No. I can’t do it anymore.” Now, this people are casting aspersions on my mother. My mother has nothing to do with the show.
According to one Nielsen metric, your show’s viewership is 74% white. Do you ever wonder if some of your audience misses the point of what you’re doing?
Oh, yeah. To be quite honest, there are times when I have come across people who will be talking to me about the substitute teacher sketch [in which an inner-city teacher moves to a mostly white school and mispronounces the kids’ names] and tell me, “It’s just like, that’s what they do, man. Those are the names they give their kids.”
Those are the names they give their kids? I’m them. If I had a kid, I would give my kid a name that I would enjoy. Maybe these people are giving their names to the kids that they would enjoy. I think I’ve said this before, that sense of, there’s not a single story in the black experience. You have to look at it as a mosaic. You can’t just look at this as a single thing. When I hear the word they, my neck bristles a little bit. I think some of the audience is getting the joke, but they’re not getting the underpinnings of the joke. This is why Jordan and I are passionate about finding a way to have people of color enter the realm of sketch and enter the realm of improv.
Another wonderful observation my partner made was that young African-Americans do improvise. But they don’t know they have this comedy avenue available to them, so they go into hip-hop. They go into freestyling. They don’t know that improv even exists. It’s anybody’s fault. We’re the ones that need to take up the mantle.
I’m very involved with an organization back home called The Detroit Creativity Project. We’re trying to get improvisation in curriculums in the Detroit Public School System. That kids from lower class families or lower middle class families would have this kind of outlet that they didn’t know existed a year ago.
This has been again such an interesting year for you. We can’t not mention that earlier this year when your character Luther, Obama’s anger translator, showed up at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
It’s just one of the most sublime experiences of my life. Jordan believes this and I believe this, I don’t know if there would be a Key & Peele if he had not been elected the president. Here’s a person who’s raised by a white mother, a single parent. That’s part of our fabric as well as any other immigrant story, or rags-to-riches story. Pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap story. His story became international news. Then Jordan and I were allowed to ride those coattails and say, “Hey, guess what? That’s my story.” I feel very akin to the president for real because we literally share a story; so does Jordan. I think we really, really owe him a great debt of gratitude.
Both of you guys have been busy with your own solo projects. Where does your partnership go from here?
We just finished shooting a movie in New Orleans, which will probably come out in April next year. There may be certain situations where you’ll see us again. Maybe the live arena, maybe not. Jordan is very focused right now on producing and directing. He’s discovered that this is something that he really, really enjoys and wants to do more. We have a couple of television projects that we’re going to executive produce. I think we’re going to put that glove on right now and see how that fits.
Then, when the right idea drops from the muses, we’ll hunker down again and do that. If somebody’s asking us to do something together as a duo, it’s got to be just the right thing. Jordan has more discerning tastes than me. He might be a little more finicky than I am. I’m still trying to transform into that person who can go, “No. I’m not going to do that.” I’m still saying yes to everything.
As kind of an artistic spouse, I have to respect Jordan’s process in how he chooses things and the way he processes things that are presented to him. The one thing that we have discovered is, the more stuff that seems to resonate with people is the stuff where we’re two peas in the pod, two characters that share a point of view.
If there is a President Trump, you’ll come back and do something about that.
Oh, we’re going to have to. We’d be being really irresponsible if we don’t do that.
Key & Peele, Series finale, Wednesday, September 9, 10/9c, Comedy Central