Interview: The "Key & Peele" Guys Talk Shamelessly Playing The Race Card & How Comedy Deflated Egos

Interview: The "Key & Peele" Guys Talk Shamelessly Playing The Race Card & How Comedy Deflated Egos

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)

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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.

Did you have any apprehensions going into the project as a pair rather than as individuals? Team work isn't always easy.
Peele: It's so funny you say that. Our comedy background is sketch and improvisation, so I would say our wheelhouse is working with other people and working with each other. We feel very comfortable in that zone. Working in stand-up, I could see how someone could develop a sense of "me against the world," [or] "It's my material, I know what works, let me do my thing." We didn't have that.

Key: What we do is intrinsically collaborative. They way we're trained is intrinsically collaborative. So we don't really know how to do it without being teammates.

So, in a sense, that's your comfort zone.
Key: It definitely is our comfort zone.

 

What we do is intrinsically collaborative. We don't really know how to do it without being teammates. - Key

 

Peele: As I said before, we're such huge fans of one another. As far as confidence, and ego and keeping my shit together— pardon my french—it's such a safety to know that I have the best sketch performer by my side to pick up slack if I'm having an off day.

Key: And likewise, if I'm ever dry or burnt out in regard to a fresh concept for a scene, with all due respect to our writing staff, I feel like the best writer is sitting right next to me. I mean, there are things that come out of this man's mind that I'm just go, "Ugh, nobody on the planet earth would have ever thought of it that way." So I feel like both of us have the best six-gun on our hip.

Do you think that you don't fight about creative control as much as another pair would because you both have shared a point-of-view, in terms of both being from bi-racial backgrounds?
Key: I think that has something to do with it. We exist in a very specific sub-culture in our country. So I think that POV can get really furled in with the two of us really easily.

Peele: Something you gotta know about us, even independent of one another, we're freakishly non-fighters, the two of us. [Laughs.] We will avoid confrontation at all costs, and I can accuse myself of being borderline cowardly at times.

Sounds like it could make for a lot of passive-aggressive tension.
Peele: You're right, but I even avoid passive-aggression. That's how afraid of confrontation I am.

Key: I'm so bad, I avoid passive-passive. [Laughs.] But the other thing was we made an agreement, a declared agreement, a long time ago that comedy is primary. Whether we're biracial, whether we're male—it doesn't matter. If it's not funny, we let it go.

 

'Comedy is king.' That mantra is what destroys our egos, because there is no ego if it's not funny. - Key

 

In the last 20 months of our life, I think we've had two conversations that one could even consider slightly heated and all it was about was, "I think this is funny," [and] "I don't think it's funny". It's never about us. It's always about, "Do we think the most amount of people are going to find this humorous?" And that's what it always has to be about. If anything is hanging over our head, it's that. "Comedy is king." That mantra is what destroys our egos, because there is no ego if it's not funny. 

Peele: Jim Henson had this thing about erasing the ego in a creative situation and we sort of follow that guideline. The project and comedy are more important than the individual.

That mentality greatly differs from the majority of entertainers out there.
Key: [Laughs.] Of course, we have the luxury of having each other to keep each other in check. Not to mention my wife.

Peele: Talk to us [during] Season Two.

Key: Talk to us [during] Season Two, or don't talk to us because we won't talk to you. [Laughs.]

Keegan, you mentioned that you had a distaste for reality TV during one of the sketch's intros, but reality TV and cheesy sitcoms are unfortunately what makes up the comedic landscape right now. What is it you're specifically doing differently that makes the show seem so unique and is getting so much attention right now?
Key: A lot of it is timing. The leader of the free world shares a demographic with me and Jordan. It would be different if he was a community leader, but he's a leader of the free world. He's kicked the door open. Jordan is famous for his quote… What's your quote?

Peele: Obama is the coolest thing to ever happen to black nerds. Before him, we had Urkel and Lamar from Revenge Of The Nerds.

Key: We attribute some of it to that. There's somebody on the social and political landscape that represents something that we represent. But at the same time, it's still a very specific thing. So if you want specific comedy, you can watch something akin to Key & Peele, like something that would be on Adult Swim or Comedy Central, or if you like mainstream comedy you can watch the broadcast networks.

Peele: I think we put... I'm trying to say this without being a dick in some way. I think we put more effort into our sketches that has been done before. We have an amazing director and we shoot them like they're short films, and we spend an awful amount of time writing and whittling down, which is a great luxury to have.

Key: And we write them almost like they're short comedic films. Jordan is the world's greatest not-letting-you-off-the-hook-er. He's really is like, "Not yet, not yet. It's too many repeat beats," or, "We haven't heightened it enough yet," or "Have we really whittled it down to what we think is going to make it funniest?" We just keep grinding.

Peele: Like a little bonsai tree or something.

Key: That's a terrific, terrific analogy. We're a little obsessive about it. And I think that may be something that puts us apart.

Peele: We also have the luxury of being able to watch our favorite shows and be inspired, and say, "OK, what worked for them?" And, "How can we put in a little production value here?"

Key: Every human has the right to our opinion. So you can hate our show if you want to, but you can never say we couldn't work on it.

Creatively, reaching that point is always the goal, because it really effects your output when come from the mentality "I'm putting my all in."
Key: I think so. If you keep striking, striving, striving, even if you hit... Some people go, "I don't know, maybe I'll make it to the stars." But if you're heading for the moon, you're bound to bump into a star. Oh, god, that was so Casey Kasem of me!

Before this interview, I'd seen your subway ads that say, "If you don't watch then you're racist," and I remember thinking how provocative they were, especially considering the setting. To what extent do you think those ads were indicative of where the show plans to go and the tone of the show in general?
Peele: Well, it really just sort of encompasses a few elements of it. It's a real catch.

Key: It's really a catch. It's really just cheesy. It's provocative and I think it was designed to be so. I think our comedy can be construed as very complex and layered more than, "Kick you in the face whitey." It's not that.

Peele: We also explore certain things that we haven't seen other comedians explore yet, things like "playing the race card." That's something that hash't really been delved into, and we get into it a good deal.

Key: I think we dissect it and reconstruct it, in a matter of speaking. Maybe you've seen somebody gloss over it, or maybe it was a single joke in a single scene of a show years ago, but that stuff is our bread and butter: bi-raciality. You know, like you saw the very first thing we do about dialing up our blackness, turning it up and turning it down—that's where we start! We start in the middle of it. Some people haven't even cut that piece of cake, but they know the piece of cake exists, but we've already devoured that and made the second cake. You know, that's our deal.

Another thing is that we're also willing to say, "This is what black people do." And some black people are not going to like that. They're like, "Now don't be telling white people our business." But, why not?

Peele: I was thinking, I'm just coming back from New York, about the fact that none of the posters I saw have poop coming out of our asses. That's a good sign!

[Laughs.] You know what I did see though, to be honest, was a poster that had a few letters scribbled out, so that it read, "If you do watch, you're racist."

Peele: [Laughs.] That person gets credit from me.

Key: That person doesn't understand that we like them.

Being bi-racial does give you a unique vantage point, in the sense of being able to broach both points of view without fear of offending anyone. 
Key: Something I find interesting about our comedy, our experience, I think is primarily an American experience, probably more than anybody because we're actually walking melting pots. We're people that live on... Jordan has used the term "the tightrope" before. We walk this tightrope between these two cultures, but the tightrope itself is a culture and that is unique to America.

 

We could write new and fresh racial scenes all day, but at the end of the day it all points to the same thing: 'What are we doing? Why are we categorizing one another like this?' It's clearly one of the worst parts of the human condition. - Peele

 

Peele: We hope that by Season Five our work just highlights the absurdity of race in general. We could write new and fresh racial scenes all day, we have done a good amount of it, but at the end of the day it all points to the same thing: "What are we doing? Why are we categorizing one another like this?" It's clearly one of the worst parts of the human condition.

Key: A lot of time our scenes will have broader themes than that. Our scene will be about greed, or vice or vanity and just happens to have black people in it. Black people experience greed and vanity, and vice and fear and pride, just like everybody else experiences it. This is like something you hear somebody say in 1962, but, news flash, black people are human beings!

Peele: The number one goal in the sketch is to make people laugh. And then number two is to get people discussing things that they haven't discussed before.

Key: i don't mean this to be terribly incendiary towards broadcast networks, but if nobody hates your show than I guess we're writing a show for a broadcast network. It's broad-cast because you want the most amount of people to enjoy it. So if nobody hates it, you might not be achieving what you want to achieve.

Agreed. If you're adhering to the political correctness that is typical of a network, you don't have room for the kind of insights you're bringing to the table. The source of your humor is in part a product of your lack of fear in offending.
Key: You offend by saying, "Here's how I see the world. If somebody disagrees with that at least you know you have a specific way of looking at the world."

You also are at an advantage, being a team, in that you know at least one other person sees things as you do. So if you can agree, you know you've struck a chord. 
Key: At the same time, we're very different people. We have an interview [scheduled] with the G4 gaming network and I am going to be clinging to Jordan for dear life because I don't play video games. I have two dogs and a son who taking classes in college and I have a mortgage, and in that way my world view might be similar to Jordan's but my domestic view is diametrically opposed. [Laughs.]

Do you think comedy has the ability to illuminate important issues while being simultaneously entertaining?
Peele: Oh yeah. The best thing about comedy is that when somebody laughs, there is an epiphany happening inside themselves. Whether they like it or not, they're realizing something. And if they continue to munch on what that is, they're thinking and they're changing the way they think. That has always been the purpose of sketch for me. One of my favorite sketches is an SNL sketch where Eddie Murphy dresses up like a white dude and he goes into a bus and as soon as the last black guy leaves the bus, all the white guys in the bus throw a party. A woman starts selling cigars and cigarettes and stuff—it's this undercover world that white people have that black people don't know about. It's this brilliant sketch. Even as a kid watching it in reruns, it revealed a whole new thing that I'd never imagined.

Key: Comedy is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down; that's what it is. It's this sense that, "They right, they right, they right!" Whether you want the performer or the artist to be right or not, like Jordan said, you find yourself laughing. So, what are you laughing at, then?

A laugh, then, if I understand what you're saying, reveals a sense of recognition.
Key: Because recognition is a reference thing. You could do a referential joke and if it's somebody in Uganda they wouldn't get it. There's other kinds of humor you do that is actually universal, and that stuff to me is just the holy grail.

Peele: The stuff that you recognize because you do it yourself.

Key: No matter where you live.

Peele: The show The Office, for example, the British one with Ricky Gervais' character David, had that. He just exposed what is disgusting about all of us.

Is that your goal? To expose what is disgusting about all of us?
Peele: Aside from working with Keegan, that is a little bit my goal. To find that what makes us human that we don't admit in our everyday lives.

Key: Which to me, is part of the goal of social satire. What we'll often do subconsciously is we'll laugh at a character. "Haha, look at that guy, he's horrible." And you can take stock of yourself and nobody has to know. It's like covert therapy.

If your goal is changing people, how will you know if you've achieved that goal? A novelist writing a satire would receive reviews that might indicate their success, but comedians aren't ordinarily analyzed in that way. How do you measure your effectiveness? 
Peele: We have one little litmus that we throw out. A lot of black comedians end up going into stand-up, they don't go into improv and sketch comedy, and that's because our heroes of black comedians typically do stand-up. Young black comedians who have the inclination toward improv end-up doing hip-hop instead. Keegan and I, we would love to inspire more young African-Americans to go to their local improv theater and just take classes and go that way as well because it's a wonderful, collaborative art form.

 

The best thing about comedy is that when somebody laughs, there is an epiphany happening inside themselves. Whether they like it or not, they're realizing something. - Peele

 

Key: It's a really interesting question to ask, because you're right, we're not novelists. To be completely honest, I don't know. I don't know if people are going to go on Twitter and say, "I really enjoyed the satire of that scene." That's a question to ask us next year.

Peele: Here's one thing I would say. I do equate the laughter to analyzing to a certain extent, so If we get our laughs on certain things, in my heart I know they're at least at the beginning of asking themselves why it's funny. If the conversation is started with a laugh, that's all we can do is be that catalyst for it.

Key: I guess when you're laughing involuntarily, you're laughing in a moment; the psychology catches up later. But I still don't know the answer to the question—I don't know empirically how we would know.

If the show is successful and gets renewed for another season, that would imply that there is some recognition and that something is really resonating with your audience.
Key: That would be it, that would be it.

Peele: Or if we get invited to the White House. That would do it.

Tags: key-and-peele, comedy-central, sketch-comedy, president-obama, racism
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