Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele have what most people with vision have: lofty goals. The duo's new Comedy Central show Key & Peele (which airs Tuesday nights at 10:30pm EST) takes sketch comedy down a road that feels reminiscent of the trail Dave Chappelle once blazed, equally as purposeful in intent, but less aggressive in strategy. That's not to say Key and Peele don't throw punches. But their aim is often directed not so much at the disenfranchised (which is where comedy all too often focuses) but the ones who are doing the tugging of the proverbial rug.
The MADtv veterans are admittedly hoping for "glee, and some anger laughter," but not because the self-described "passive-passive" duo are trying to stir up a conflict. Actually, it's the exact opposite. All Key and Peele want is for us to have a confrontation—with ourselves.
The two comedians, who share a biracial background and frequently leapfrog off the end of one another's sentences, are also just as successful at tackling their own issues. Their smack-talking alter egos Vandaveon and Mike (who have, amazingly, slipped under the radar as genuine critics) show their self-deprecating sensibilities, while their sketches focus their on-point observations on the world at large, from husbands who claim to call their wives "bitch" but are actually pathetically submissive, to famously hard-to-decipher line between praise or condemnation from reality TV chefs, to a pitch-perfect ancestry commercial spoof that traces every black person back to Thomas Jefferson.
Complex caught up with the insightful duo about what it takes to make a sketch comedy team successful, the laugh genre's unique ability to deflate one's ego, and how laughing can sometimes be the fastest route to an epiphany.
Interview by Shanté Cosme (@ShanteCosme)
Every sketch on the first two episodes of Key & Peele has been consistently funny. Several sketches even had me in tears.
Peele: That first episode was sort of strategic in trying to appeal to a wide variety of demographics. We wanted to make a little something for everybody, so that if you only liked one sketch in the show, you would tune in next week. I think the rest of the season we sort of find our voice more as we get rolling.
Key: We like it when we hear that people enjoyed the second episode. Like Jordan said, there's more POV, the content is stronger in regard to our personalities. You'll see as the season goes on there's a little more edge to some of the sketches that I think you haven't seen yet, that you'll see as it kind of evolves.
Is that a purposeful thing? Are you consciously easing the audience into your point of view, or is it something that's happening naturally as you're starting to find your groove?
Peele: The pilot did have its unique purpose. We did this intensive writing process that was this comedy pressure cooker with some of our best friends and the best sketch comedy writers we could find, and during that process, I would say a month into it, we really find our voice for the first time. So I would say more the latter. We were going on this exploration.
Key: I would say yes, more than latter, but I wouldn't say 70/30. I would say 60/40. Because once we had all of this scenes compiled, then the puzzle begins of putting the episodes together. And I think as we put the episodes together there might have been a semi-conscious effort to ease the audience in. More the latter than the former, but there was a strategic way of designing the episodes.
It's like a first date: You don't just put it all out on the table. You kind of just ease into it.
Key: It's funny you say that. One of our executive producers says that all the time. Like, "Imagine you had a conversation you would have today with your boyfriend or spouse but on your first date." You would never do it. You would never have that conversation!
Peele: We really love the first episode, but the next seven we love even more. We're still very excited to watch the world sort of unwrap this.
Key: Every week is Christmas Eve. We want to see what resonates with people. I can't wait for some of the weird stuff, for something weird and racial and maybe has a little political bent to it all rolled into one scene. I can't wait to see what people's responses to those are.
That's when you'll really be able to suss out the true fans. Although, you've already given an indication of where you are going, and people seem very for it.
Peele: We've felt an overwhelming amount of support. There is really nothing cooler.
The two of you seem to have a very easy chemistry. Was that an instantaneous thing when you first met or did it evolve during your time together at MADtv?
Key: Well, in regards to performance, it's something that certainly started to foster itself on MAD. But we became instantaneous fans of each other when we met each other back in Chicago. Jordan was performing at a theater in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, and interestingly enough the theatre was called Boom Chicago. Jordan's cast flew to Chicago and that's where I met Jordan. I was performing at the Second City at the time on another stage and I got to see him perform, and I was like, "This guy is my brother."
Peele: It's the same reaction I had seeing him perform. I had left Chicago before he got there, and in two or three years he had won two Jeff awards, which is a prestigious comedy award in Chicago, and he was just dominating that city, and rightly so.
So you've had a long-standing comedy crush on one another?
Key: You nailed it. We both had comedy crushes. The first night we met after I saw him perform, we had a mutual friend who is actually on our writing staff, Becky Drysdale, She was one of Jordan's best friends; they were comedy partners for a few years. Then she and I performed at the Second City together and she introduced us and a bunch of us went out to this diner one night. Jordan and I just chatted for hours. Hours! It was one of those 4:30am deals.
The very first time we collaborated on a project you could tell there was something a little bit special happening, something a little bit different. - Peele
Peele: And he was married, so that doesn't happen too often. [Laughs.] The first time we ever did a sketch together was at MAD. And by the very first time we collaborated on a project you could tell there was something a little bit special happening, something a little bit different.
Key: Definitely. This opportunity was not something we ever knew was going to come our way. It was very serendipitous. I was working on a show and the show got canceled, and Jordan was working on a pilot and the pilot didn't get picked up, so we happened to both be free at the same time. Our managers said, "What do you guys think about doing [a show] together?" And we jumped at the chance.