Ask the taller half of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele to name his favorite sketch or character, and Keegan Michael Key’s animated face turns a bit reflective, and a tone of wistfulness enters his throat. Then he recalls his days with the legendary Second City comedy theater in Chicago, where he and fellow troupe member TJ Jagodowski, a legendary actor and improvisational comedian who found fame as a familiar and funny face in a series of Sonic commercials, crafted a two-man scene called “Rake.”
It’s his favorite because he said it is the one time that his first draft went from the page to the stage without almost no changes and to hear him tell it, it’s not hard to believe.
Key sat down with me during an appearance at the Dallas Comedy House with his improv group The 313 to talk about his path as a dramatic actor and how it brought him to comedy, his personal and working relationship with his former MADtv co-star and current comedy partner Jordan Peele and the birth and future of characters like Luther and Mr. Garvey, the “substitute teacher.”
From The Motor City to The Second City
The Detroit native originally planned on having a more serious, dramatic career after earning acting degrees at the University of Detroit and Penn State “doing Shakespeare for the rest of my life and that will be great.”
Key said he didn’t consider comedy as a career option until his first audition for Detroit’s Second City. That earned him a three-year run with the theater in Detroit and another four with the original theater in Chicago.
Second City alumni Dick Blasucci, a writer and producer with credits on SCTV and The Larry Sanders Show, went back to his old home to find performers for a newly revamped MADtv and picked Key from the group. He also brought Peele from the Boom Chicago comedy troupe in Amsterdam.
“At that point, it was seven straight years of doing nothing but comedy so I thought this is OK,” Key said. “This is working and it’s TV. It’s making money.”
When Key Met Peele…
Key and Peele didn’t earn the ampersand that would bring them together as official comedy partners until after their run on the Fox comedy show.
“We weren’t super close (on MADtv),” Key said. “We met each other and liked each other a lot right before we both got off the show.” The two agreed to write some material together “because we were super comfortable with each other and enjoyed each other’s work and then became really good friends.”
“Now I spend more time with him than with my wife, more than with my family,” he added with a laugh.
Key said besides all the usual similar likes that cement friendships, he feels he and Peele work well together because of “both of us having an enormous fear of conflict, so we try to work everything out in the most civilized way possible.”
“He’s very thoughtful so he says thought-provoking things and think about that before you do that,” he said. “I’m more impulsive than he is but we are different types. If we were a psyche, he’s very much the superego and I’m very much the id.”
In fact, that’s part of the reason for their show’s title along with the fact that they are big fans of British comedy duos like “Fry & Laurie” and “Mitchell and Webb” and the name “Key & Peele” carried “a decidedly British feel.”
So how did they decide who’s name would be first on the marquee?
“We just said let’s do it alphabetical and there’s no politics in it,” he said with a laugh.
A big component of Key’s comedy is physical because, Key said, “I think there’s an efficacy to it and what I mean by that is that it’s global. A person in Nigeria and a person in Norway and a person in Malaysia should all be able to understand what you’re doing physical so you can tell a story physically.”
“I’m big for cataloging behaviors that I see people exhibit in life and trying to emulate those behaviors or amalgamate a couple of behaviors together and making a character out of that or just look at a person’s point of view and play a character completely different from what their point of view is and I like it because it’s real,” Key said. “Then you have more confidence playing in the character because if a person goes, ‘That’s so crazy,’ I can go, ‘Trust me, it’s a real person.”
Coach Hines, for instance, is actually three real coaches from Key’s days in the Catholic school system with some help from fellow Catholic high school survivor and MADtv writer John Crane. They make up his attitude, facial expression and (seriously?!?) wardrobe.
“We didn’t want [Key & Peele] to be an extension of MADtv and I get tweets all the time that say ‘Where’s Coach Hines?’, ‘When do we get to see Coach Hines?’” Key said. “Coach Hines exists in the world he existed in and he’s a staple of that MADtv world and he just lives in the ether, so we’re not going to see him again.”
Luther, one of the show’s first big, breakout characters, came from President Obama’s tacit reaction to Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson’s outburst during his health care speech before Congress in 2009. Key said they also constructed a background and story for the character but “we don’t discuss it a lot.”
Obama and Luther got a lot of time on the air and the web during the 2012 presidential election. The writing staff actually had the White House set rebuilt into the writers’ room so they could write and post Luther’s rants as election news broke such as Mitt Romney’s infamous “47-percent” video and Obama’s fluctuating performances in the debates.
“Andy Cobb (one of the show’s writers and fellow 313 troupe member), he would write them as they were happening because we thought I’ll bet we can get a jump on Saturday Night Live and put it right on the web,” Key said.
Sadly, Luther won’t get as much time in the next season now that the real President Obama is locked into another four years, he said.
“There won’t be a ton more Luther,” Key said. “The President is kind of using his own mandate and doing kind of what he wants so he doesn’t need Luther but you’ll see how we handle that…Right now, it will appear as if we rode him off into the sunset but he’s still going to be on the show, just in case.”
One of the biggest breakout characters and sketches isn’t even a recurring character yet. The show’s “Substitute Teacher” sketch earned over 20 million hits on YouTube and is so popular (and funny) that they are working to create a feature length movie around the character Mr. Garvey.
“We’re talking about doing a ‘Substitute Teacher’ movie, kind of an urban Dead Poets Society type thing,” he said. “It would have a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court kind of feel.”
Peele has also written another Key & Peele movie, according to Key, but he couldn’t divulge much about it since it’s still in the early planning stages. Key noted, however, “It’s got legs right now.”
Key himself has also made a solid footprint in movies. He scored two notables roles at the last Sundance Film Festival including the dramatic comedy Afternoon Delight and the horror-comedy Hell Baby written and directed by Reno 911! creators Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon that just picked up a distribution deal. He said he’s also shooting a new movie this summer with Happy Endings’ Damon Wayans Jr. and New Girl‘s Jake Johnson.
“I think the good thing about Key & Peele and I’m going to be completely honest with you, we were sneaky,” he said. “We wanted the sketches to look as good as the movies so that people would see what we look like in a movie and so that’s the motivation (laughs). If you look at our reel or you look at a clip, there you go, that’s what we’d look like in a movie.”