If you’ve consumed a well-balanced TV diet over the past five years, chances are you’ve ingested the comedy writing of Alex Rubens. The Emmy-nominated, 38-year-old New York native has imbued laughter and heart into some of the most critically adored, ratings-fracturing, sneakily subversive shows across the medium.
Need proof? Go watch “Cooperative Polygraphy” from Season 5 of Community if you want profound meditations on mortality punctuated by a running gag about Chevy Chase’s cryogenically frozen sperm. Go watch “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” from Season 2 of Rick and Morty for hilarious jabs at the dynamics of gender expectations in marriage that ends with an intergalactic bloodbath. Or watch “School Bully," "Insult Comic," or "Manly Tears," some of the many pitch-perfect sketches from Key & Peele that serve as a canvas of America’s current sociopolitical identity. Those are all Rubens’ gifts, and they exhibit what he does best: highlighting universal human truths with the help of hyper-specific yet broadly cartoonish characters.
It was a chance meeting through a mutual friend that connected Rubens with Jordan Peele during his years after Mad TV wrapped, which lead to them writing screenplays together. Once Comedy Central picked up Key & Peele for series in 2011, Rubens found himself in their writer’s room churning out sketch comedy pieces in the duo’s voice over the show’s groundbreaking five-season run. Key and Peele then tapped Rubens to co-write what would be their first feature length film, Keanu, about the extraordinary lengths an ordinary man would go to rescue his pet kitten after it's stolen by gangsters. Think of it as a hilarious John Wick, except with movie nerds trying to be badass. It hits theaters this Friday and we loved it. So will you.
Taking a break from working on Key & Peele’s upcoming "Substitute Teacher" movie (yes, that substitute teacher), Rubens chatted with us about the birth of Keanu, his comedic romance with Key and Peele, and just exactly what it means to “put the pussy on the chainwax.”
Starting out, was comedy writing even something you thought you would—or could — do?
I actually didn’t. I didn’t really figure out that I could do comedy until pretty late. I always thought of myself as a writer because of the influence of people like Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon. I always leaned toward comedic fiction, but I never thought of myself as a comedy person or a comedy writer.
It wasn’t until my twenties that I realized that was a job, and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I began to think, "Oh that’s a path I should have pursued." I thought of it as a thing like, "Oh what a bummer that I didn’t figure that out earlier because that would have been a cool career. Too bad it’s too late now!" [Laughs.]
That’s a perfect pull quote right there.
I only speak in pull quotes.
Can you tell me about hooking up with Jordan Peele and your evolution from staff writer on Key & Peele to co-writing Keanu with him?
There was about a ten-year period between graduating and moving to LA from New York where I worked [various jobs]. I was the assistant, a film producer, a sort of ghost-writer, an English teacher. All through that time, the one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to be a writer.
My lucky break was meeting Jordan Peele through a close friend we share in common. This was before Key & Peele existed. He and I really hit it off creatively and started writing screenplays together. We wrote a horror comedy. It was called Goatsuckers, which is a literal translation of Chupacabra.
Please tell me you still plan on making that.
[Laughs.] Maybe we will get to it. But it was really great writing together and it was the birth of our comedy relationship. So in 2011, when Comedy Central picked up his show, he asked me to submit a sketch packet. The reason I got an opportunity to apply for the job as a writer on Key & Peele was that Jordan and I had written together already.
What did you guys initially bond over?
Our original connection was over our mutual love for the movie Gremlins.
Before we dive into Keanu, I really want to pick your brain about one of the most popular Key & Peele sketches, a sketch you wrote, poetically titled “Pussy on the Chainwax.”
The story of “Pussy on the Chainwax” is that I was freestyle rapping in the car—or trying to. I am not good at freestyle rapping, and people who are good at it are clearly superhuman geniuses because how the fuck do they do that? Anyways, all I could come up with was, “Yo, I put the pussy on the chainwax!” And my wife hated it. She was like, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” So I was like, “Well, shit. I think I may have just struck gold.”
Thank you for explaining that. Talk to me about writing Keanu, soup to nuts. How does an idea for a kitten hostage action-comedy get put down on paper?
A couple of drafts of the movie didn’t have the cat in it. The original draft, it was called Real Hard Motherfuckers. It was about Jordan and Keegan kind of falling through a series of farcical accidents, falling into the situation of having to be these real hard motherfuckers. In some ways, it was the same movie. But we felt like something’s missing. It was Jordan who one day said, "Alright I got this idea, it may sound ridiculous. What if they’re trying to rescue this kitten that was kidnapped by these gangsters?"
It’s arguably the cutest kitten ever put on film and possibly the cutest to ever exist.
Real Hard Motherfuckers was the Cro-Magnon ancestor to Keanu. In effect, the injection of the cat into the screenplay mirrors the injection of the cat into the character’s life. It is this breath of magic air. It just adds an element of joy to the whole thing. What I loved about the idea is that it makes Keanu more relatable and more ridiculous. It is a parody of itself, but it also isn’t. It actually is a movie about a cat, and it’s sort of making fun of cats.
It’s well documented that Comedy Central was very hands-off and gave very few notes on Key & Peele. How was working within the major studio system on Keanu?
There wasn’t a huge amount of studio notes, at least for the script. The main notes in rewrites before we shot it came from director Peter Atencio. There was a scene in which—well I don’t wanna give anything away—but there was a scene in the script where time starts moving backwards, and Keegan finds himself at the Big Bang. I think as soon as Atencio came on, one of the first things he said was, "Well obviously we’re not doing that!" [Laughs.] Jordan and I wrote it without practicality in mind.
Keanu has a lot of layers, but at its core is a movie about code switching. As a white dude, do you ever find yourself grappling with whether or not you should be writing certain jokes or stories about the black experience?
Politically, I see more and more that there are a lot of times when being a straight white man, I should just probably shut my mouth and listen. That being said, Jordan and Keegan were always clear from the beginning, back when we were writing on Key & Peele, that their hope was not to have a “black show” but a “human show.” The fact that Jordan and Keegan are biracial means that the characters they’re playing will almost all the time be black or biracial. If you’re writing for a character, you are going to be touching on these issues. As for me, I don’t consider myself qualified to comment with anything resembling authority on racial issues. My in has always been finding the human side of things.
In the movie, Key and Peele get mixed up with some, as you put it, “hard motherfuckers” while trying to rescue the titular kitten. Did you ever worry about punching down at those impacted by the real-life horrors of gang culture? Hollywood has a hard time humanizing the “gangsta” archetype.
That was something Jordan and I definitely talked about. At one point, we started watching documentaries about gangs and trying to figure out how be as honest as possible. We pulled back from that, and sort of landed on the idea that this isn’t real. One of the most important questions in comedy that isn’t talked about as much is the level of reality. It’s incredibly important tonally. I think there’s a dial: on one extreme there’s Looney Tunes and at the other extreme is actual life. There was a fair amount of discussion about where we wanted that dial to be specifically with gangsters because it’s a very serious thing. It’s very complicated and our society for the most part treats gang members as “thugs” or as Hillary Clinton put it, “super predators.” The aim was not to caricature or mock.
I was wondering how you feel about the current state of comedy, especially with Internet comedy becoming it’s own scene, which is a label I hate. How do you feel about the Fat Jews of the world slipping through the digital cracks?
As a fat Jew myself, I’m allowed to say it.
I know you mean that guy. It would’ve been so funny if you didn’t.
I don’t have any grouchy old man opinions about comedy on the Internet. I think that Twitter—well scenes are bullshit, like you said—but the comedy scene on Twitter is terrible. There are ways in which Twitter has enabled different expressions of comedy and connections between people. It’s great. It’s just not for me. I’m hypersensitive and neurotic and anxious. Real cliché of a Jewish comedy writer, I know. I just came to realize that I was, like a lot of comedy writers, still stuck in the social warfare of grade school and high school, and social media makes me panic.
Before we wrap up, how’s everything coming along with the "Substitute Teacher" movie you’re writing?
Actually, Rich Talarico and I are writing it now. That’s been a long time coming. When I first heard the they were gonna make a "Substitute Teacher" movie, my first thought was what I thought a lot of people had: What? Really? Make a movie out of that sketch? It’s a great sketch, but how could that be a movie? The idea for it is potentially really great. I think it could be a really great, interesting comedy.