The stars of Key & Peele talk about staying relevant, and funny, in season 2

The stars of Key & Peele talk about staying relevant, and funny, in season 2

Weekly sketch shows don’t have it easy. For starters, Saturday Night Live has been running for so long that every show will inevitably be compared to it. But in its second season on Comedy Central, Key & Peele makes the process and output feel effortless. Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, both alums of MADtv, have a palpable rapport both onscreen and off, and manage to blend timely material (their Obama-Luther sketches, where Key plays Obama’s “anger translator”) with ideas that riff on pop-culture tropes and pure silliness. There’s a lot riding on the success of the in-progress second season: Key & Peele looks to be a legitimate ratings success for Comedy Central, a network generally apprehensive about giving things the long shot. In the midst of a whirlwind press tour between all the presidential debates—the show films Obama-Luther sketches the day after, and puts them online immediately—The A.V. Club sat down with Key and Peele to talk about Obama’s mythos, their envious work relationship, and why Key’s name comes first.

The A.V. Club: The turnaround for season two was quick. Was that by choice, or by necessity?

Keegan Michael Key: Really we had to. I mean, part of our bread and butter is Obama-Luther. What are we going to do, wait until January? 

Jordan Peele: Right.

KMK: I don’t think it’s possible. But yeah, it’s definitely been truncated.

JP: It’s real quick. But one of the things with sketch is that the more someone sees us doing sketch, the more they buy. We’re fans of Saturday Night Live. Will Ferrell, for instance—there was a visceral reaction, as far as most of the viewers, when he initially came out, just because he was new and had a completely different thing going on. A couple years later, lo and behold, he’s the man. You can appreciate all the different places we go once you’ve seen us go a certain amount of places to begin with. It’s one of the same reasons that we have the live segments in our show, because they need to know who you are.

KMK: They need to meet the neutral you before they see what you do.

JP: So we definitely feel [the truncated schedule] is going to let people get used to us, people knowing that we are a source for a very specific kind of comedy that only we do.

AVC: When you started the show, there was a bit of mystique about what you were going to do—you’d never had a shot, just the two of you. Did the recognition change your approach to the show?

KMK: Yes, because it allowed us this time, this season, to do less sketches that have anything to do with race other than the fact that we happen to be black and we happen to be in those sketches. If the show continues, we’ll do more and more of that. I think both of us think that’s kind of groundbreaking, and almost subversive in its own right—“Oh my God, they’re just wearing blonde wings and doing their thing”—and we feel that people should just be able to enjoy the humor without having to tag anything on it. Our hope would be that people would say, “You’ve got to see these sketches these two guys do,” not necessarily, “You’ve got to see these sketches these two black guys are doing.” You can plan something to the T, execute it, feel it has a very specific voice to it, and someone’s still going to interpret it however their brain, however they were raised, however they experience things. There’s 350 million different people in this country.

JP: Yeah, and to the mystique question, we started our careers essentially on MADtv, which my take on that is, you know, call it what you will, but it’s a mystique-less experience. It was loud, in your face, was out there in the open.

KMK: You were super-exposed.

AVC: It seems there’s a discrepancy between how people approach sketch on TV and onstage. On TV, they’re more prone to create a Franken-group with funny people, whereas onstage, they’re more likely to allow people already working together to continue working together. SNL is kind of the classic example of this.

KMK: Which is vintage, because that is of course how we got together. We found each other, and gravitated toward each other to work together. If people felt that what we did together resonated, it was because we started to have a rapport. Whereas you find an inherent challenge if you have a well-known character who is going to be the star of this scene, and you just kind of shove these other people in there and let that happen for about five minutes, and then we go on to the next thing.

JP: The goals changed a bit from first season to second season, and part of that is because of the quick pick-up and the quick turnaround. First season, the goal was to establish ourselves, to make a presence that both the network and the country could understand. So there were a lot of scenes that were sort of a comedic thesis statements as to what Key & Peele is. This season, there’s a little bit of the feeling that we got that out of the way, now let’s have some fun.

AVC: I just watched the football sketch, where you guys just introduce yourselves with increasingly ridiculous names. That’s pretty ridiculous and fun.

KMK: We’re just having a lot of fun. And once again, I still think people will find something—if you look hard enough, whether we intended it or not, you’ll find something socially relevant about that scene if you watch it. I would love to hear what that is. [Laughs.]

JP: It’s a giggle piece. That’s maybe what we should call it. We have certain things that you get giggling almost before you know what it is.

KMK: But I think half the level of the giggling will also be, “These guys are just screwing around, these guys are just having some fun.” You know what I mean? My favorite thing is watching something like Robert Townsend in Hollywood Shuffle. I remember going, “He is just trying to make [his scene partner] laugh!” That the scene’s existing on another level. You’re watching the performers, you’re watching the performance, and then you’re also watching the performers at the same time. There’s this hidden personal game between the two of them that’s existing simultaneously with the game of the scene.

AVC: Is it hard for you to maintain that rapport and danger, let’s call it, when you’re taping the show for later?

JP: One of the changes that we made this season was that we wrote the live segments, and then the idea was we would do them a couple of times to see where the magic was. Then the second or third pass, maybe add a couple of lines, improvise to sort of help the audience know that we’re live performers. Before, it was such a mix between written and improv that people didn’t know necessarily which one it was. Now for season two, we’re just getting up there, and there may be some things that we bring up that we discuss that are relevant, but it’s almost entirely improvised.

KMK: What happens is, one of you has to be a solid straight man so the other one can let loose, and we can do another take where they just get to let loose and you have to be able to be a good straight man, you know what I mean? But we have other scenes, what we call “peas in the pod” scenes, where we both enhanced something with improvisation and Peter, our director, just kept it: “Just roll on it, we may actually use that.” The both of us get to just act fools with each other, and that was a joyous experience.

JP: That was fun. Yeah, not as much first season as this season. 

KMK: Yeah, I feel we didn’t do that a lot first season, and I can think of two sketches right now where he just let it roll. So there are places where you’re seeing it in the edit: “Right there, they’re completely off script and screwing around, and it’s in the episode.”

AVC: You mentioned this season is a lot about Obama and Luther. What role do you see sketch comedy playing in the political climate we have today? 

JP: The thing that has worked with the Obama and Luther thing for us is to try and channel those nuggets of truth that we feel are on people’s minds, but for whatever reason it’s unpolitically correct to have—to have Obama address, “I am not a Muslim.” Obama can’t say that, because that would be alienating the Muslim people that he is, in fact, president for in this country. So with the freedom of expression to explore these things, and to know that maybe we’ll say something that crosses the boundary here, that’s our job. We want to get discussion happening. We look for those things that people are thinking, but haven’t been quite voiced perfectly.

KMK: And I think it’s not that we’re trying to uncover something. I think what sketch comedy can do in a general arena, or in a political capacity, is clarify things. That’s what Obama-Luther does, it clarifies what’s being said. So in case you think [Obama] doesn’t think this, this is what he’s thinking. And by the way, yes, it’s exactly what you’re thinking. Tina Fey was playing an amazing character by the name of Sarah Palin. It just happened to actually also be a human being. What’s so funny is you would have never believed that was a human being.

JP: Right.

KMK: She could have invented that character, you’re like, “I love that stupid governor character from Alaska that Tina Fey plays, it’s brilliant.” And it was so bizarre, and so surreal, because it was a human being. That was a character study, A, but B, they were still clarifying what was happening. I mean the winking and all this stuff, “I wanna give a shout out to my kids,” and you’re like, “Oh no, oh no, that’s happening!” So it would clarify the reality of the world we were living in at that moment.

JP: And I truly believe that the actual person’s mythos is created by these things. You can track elections by who was playing that president on SNL at that time. There’s the theory that the more likable or charismatic impression would help get the president elected. I mean, Sarah Palin would have been an enormous story, and a huge deal and a fantastic trainwreck. But I feel like one of the pieces to the puzzle that made that so special was the perfect timing of Tina Fey—the little nugget that everybody was thinking but no one had said yet was, “Doesn’t she remind you of Tina Fey?” [Laughs.] And they hit that, and the impression was perfect, and I feel like, you know both of those two women became the two most famous women in the world for a minute.

KMK: Of course Tina endures.

JP: [Laughs.] Yeah, Tina keeps going.

KMK: It’s so funny that you say that Jordan, because I think about—one of the coolest things Dan Aykroyd ever did, someone called him, “Sir, you have to talk this kid down. He’s on acid,” and he was playing Jimmy Carter and he said, [Southern accent] “Okay, what you’ve done is you’ve taken some Orange Sunshine, and what’s going to happen is you’re going to feel real weird for a while.” I continue, to this day, to think of Jimmy Carter as a man of pathos. But he wasn’t. Jimmy Carter never did acid, he was a Southern Baptist!

JP: Right, right.

KMK: But you’re right, that created a mythos. Was Gerald Ford that clumsy, like Chevy Chase? It created a mythos for both of those guys, for Chevy Chase—that kind of comedy that’s kind of like slack or slapstick, that he did the rest of his career. And how do we remember Gerald Ford? As a klutz.

AVC: So what is your contribution to the mythos of Obama?

KMK: It’s the coolest motherfucking president who ever lived. To the point where he needs a surrogate to express his anger.

JP: Well, also that he does have these very real, passionate thoughts, but he can’t say them.

KMK: He can’t express them.

JP: And I think if anything comes from Obama-Luther, that’s out there that’ll stay, people will know that there’s an Obama beyond the Obama that America’s privy to.

KMK: In the “Obama College Years” [grainy footage re-creating fake Obama video footage], there’s that one moment where he steals the joint from somebody and he smokes it, and he goes, [Obama voice] “Don’t sleep on Barry Hill.”

JP: [Obama voice] Don’t never sleep on Barry Hill.

KMK: The interesting thing about him is, he looks like he’s in control, but trust me, trust me, he cares about you passionately. He doesn’t just care intellectually, he cares about you passionately.

JP: One of the things that Luther does is be the everyday guy. He’s an average guy. So I think it helps, literally and figuratively, to put Obama’s voice through a normal—

KMK: A regular, frustrated citizen.

JP: I think [Obama] is. He’s gotten painted with brushes of elitist, overeducated guy, but this is, you know, lower-middle-class dude, single mother. He’s seen all the struggles that anyone has seen, and then overcome them, and come out the other side as this awesome character. But I think hearing Luther’s voice, the way he speaks, and knowing someone like Luther even though we don’t—no one knows anyone like Obama. It helps us, I think it helps.

KMK: Given Obama’s background as a youngster, he knew people like Luther.

JP: Well, yeah.

KMK: And certainly in college and high school. And going back to live in Chicago, being a community organizer, he knew people like that. Luther is my father-in-law, my white wife who [watches the debates] and storms out of the room: “Romney!” My wife rants at the TV, “You can’t say that, that’s a lie!” It’s like, “Honey, we got it. Luther’s got it.”

JP: That’s another great thing. It’s hypothetically what the president thinks, but Luther represents more what we think, and what I think a lot of people just watching what’s going on would love to scream over the president’s shoulder as well.

KMK: There’s an über framing too, which is about how we feel about politicians in general. Which is, that’s what they have to do, they got to be politically correct, and that’s why they just never tell us. So here’s this guy who’s telling us. 

AVC: Can you guys effectively write something when you personally are extremely angry about that topic? How does anger meld with your sketch sensibilities?

JP: There was definitely a whole lot of anger that went into them, especially the very first piece. I remember there were several points I was like, “We can say it!” The interesting question, I have to admit, is that I have trust in President Obama, so I give him the benefit of the doubt as far as the economy goes. He got dealt a hand that I don’t believe anyone else could be dealing with better. But if he comes out against legalizing marijuana, there’s a little bit of—in “Obama College Years” there’s a little bit of, “Well, hold on a second buddy, ’cause word around the campfire is, you invented the joint interception.”

KMK: I feel like you can be as angry as you want, and if you want to make a point, you then have to—not jettison the anger, but you certainly have to put it on the shelf so that you can objectify the situation. Some of the most fun time we have at work is sitting around going, “Yep, yep, but the thing is, I guess as an American I would be thinking this at this moment, and that’s what would make me angry,” as opposed to me saying, “I am so angry about this.” Because then I think, you’re right, sometimes you trip over yourself a little bit, emotionally. The funny thing is, Obama-Luther, by virtue of existence, is partisan. The exploration has to be partisan because you could do this for any political candidate as long as they have that kind of disposition. 

You could do it for a white candidate who had that kind of disposition. If there was television in 1928—and if we were alive—we would have written this piece for Calvin Coolidge. Apparently Calvin Coolidge was just like Obama, so it’s like, “On the talkies, Calvin Coolidge has an anger transplant.” He’s “Cool Cal”—that’s what they called him; he never got excited. So you could write it for any president. 

We both try to be guardians of the facts, so we try to say, “Now wait a minute, this is just Luther saying that Romney’s stupid, so cut that. We have to put something in here that is actually factual about something that he said at the debate last night.” It can’t just be, [Luther voice] “Man’s just walking around here looking like a dummy!”

JP: And it’s got to be something that we think Obama would think. Obama’s not thinking all Southern people are dummies, so there’s not going to be a line where he’s, [Obama voice] “Now, I’m going down to the South, y’all people are dummies”—that’s not where he’s coming from. When we wrote the first one, it was in a slightly different time than now. We were dealing with things like the birther movement, the second birther movement, the guy who screamed “liar”—

KMK: I can’t remember that guy’s name, I wish I could remember his name.

JP: Yeah, I can’t remember that guy’s name. The finger wag, the infamous finger wag.

KMK: Jan Brewer?

JP: Yea, from Jan Brewer. So there was a lot of time we were noticing the president was being treated differently, because he was a scary individual to a bunch of people. I mean politically scary. It’s much more complicated than a racial issue. Of course, it has to do with his name as well. You know, the fear of somebody with this type of swagger, this type of ability that he could come and succeed, I think that’s the scariest thing about Obama, right?

AVC: At the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, I randomly walked by a restaurant and saw you guys eating dinner together. I thought it was nice that you guys spend so much time together working, then when you have some free time, you still choose to spend time together.

KMK: Here’s the thing: I see him more than I see my spouse, he sees me more than he sees his girlfriend. But what’s interesting is, when we have time together, we spend it together. I enjoy spending time with him socially, which happens few and far between, we don’t do that a lot. But my favorite time I spend with him is time alone with him creatively. That’s my favorite time. Writing our pilot. I love, I adore all of our writers. I love our executive producers, but writing our pilot was one of the most pleasurable creative times in my professional life, and that was me and him sitting in an apartment. And of course, we can’t do that, we never would have written 200—if you add it all together, between the surplus that we had after the first season and existing surplus after the second season, we’re looking at 500 scenes that are sitting on the back burner still in the vault. That kind of prolific-ness would not have taken place, we couldn’t write the show by ourselves.

JP: And then we’re fans of things in common. We just nerd out together on fantasy football or—

KMK: We text each other.

JP: Game Of Thrones.

KMK: “Nigga, did you just see that?!”

AVC: It makes sense that the pure friendship has to happen less just by virtue of you guys working so much together.

KMK: And there’s always something to be said about the old adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Here’s the other thing: It’s very important to us that the work always comes first. So everybody supports everybody else. We try to make it as collective as the Jim Henson model or the Pixar model. Why are those movies good? Because the people in the accounting department are just as important. Everyone all has to exist in the same space, and they all know it. And it’s not about taking sides, or you winning, or this was my movie. It’s everybody’s movie. So Key & Peele is everybody’s show, and as long as you’re on board with moving through our vision, then let’s do this together. You know what I mean? For us it’s not a matter of ego, so what would I have against him? I don’t have a show without him. So why would I not like him all the time? I don’t get partners getting rifts, and it’s not fun anymore.

JP: Well, that’s not saying much for him. I don’t know that you don’t like anybody.

KMK: There’s people that I don’t—whose company I don’t enjoy. But the thing is, I give everybody the benefit of a doubt. I assume that if I walk a day in that person’s shoes, I understand where they’re coming from or why they act this way. So I guess that is my natural disposition. I don’t like conflict, and I don’t know the need for it; I don’t think it breeds creativity, I think it shuts down creativity, and there are people who I know who believe the opposite.

AVC: Well, the entertainment industry as a whole, for one.

KMK: Yes, exactly.

AVC: A place where ego fuels the engine.

KMK: It never fixes anything.

JP: And the best stuff is a well-crafted collaboration, and it’s a hard thing to balance, I’m telling you, but it’s so powerful.

AVC: How did it become Key & Peele, and not Peele & Key? Or some other random name?

JP: Well, this was a legal battle that I lost… [Laughs.]

KMK: No, it was interesting. Well, first of all—

JP: Key & Peele sounded better.

KMK: We love Mitchell and Webb and I love Fry and Laurie. We thought it’d be cool if it was called our last names, like a comedy team, and we had bounced around Keegan and Jordan, and Jordan and Keegan. It felt like Keenan and Kel, or felt like Malcolm and Eddie. It didn’t—it felt like, “Oh, these two guys are going to be oddballs, and one’s probably really fastidious, and the other one’s probably a slacker.” It felt like that instead of a sketch show. We went to the writers and said, “What do you guys think if it was called Key & Peele?” and they all kind of thought on it, and they came back and said, “God we just think it should be called Key & Peele.” Also it’s alphabetical. I don’t have a linguistic explanation for it.

AVC: It sounds like it’s a name, like someone was named Keeyon Peele.

JP: A lot of people don’t necessarily know it’s our names or anything. We just have people come up to me,“It’s the dude from Key & Peele!”

KMK: There’s been times when people maybe think it is a name, or maybe they think it means something, or it’s a product name… There were names we explored a lot. We thought about calling it Beige.

JP: Everything felt stupid.

KMK: It sounded silly or it felt stupid, because we were trying too hard.

JP: You don’t want to try to get a laugh in the title, because if it doesn’t work, it’s the equivalent of taking a super-wacky picture. You don’t want to put a rubber chicken in your mouth.

KMK: And then that exists. And then you’re like, “Why did we do that?”

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