Key & Peele 's Keegan-Michael Key: 'We're Racial Referees of Comedy'

Key and Peele

Key & Peele 's Keegan-Michael Key: 'We're Racial Referees of Comedy'

The comedic duo on how their biraciality inspires their humor.

Published September 30, 2014

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have emerged as sketch comedy groundbreakers thanks to their highly successful Comedy Central show, Key & Peele, which airs Wednesday nights (check your local listings). By satirizing the most obscure, obvious and absurd in culture, race and politics, the pair, who cut their comedic chops on TV fare like MADtv, Chocolate News and Reno 911, continually put a fresh spin on the hilarious paths paved before them. The duo are now in the fourth season of their eponymous show, but if you want to get caught up in the laughs, Key & Peele: Season Three is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The partners in humor spoke to and discussed how their mixed race backgrounds, age difference and favorite shows influence their original brand of comedy. You've poked fun at plenty over the past seasons. Do you worry about running out of things to spoof?
Key: Just because of human nature we’ll never run out stuff to spoof or parody or satire. That’s the good news. The challenge of course is finding new ways to do the stuff. Finding a topic and saying, “How do we tackle this topic? And where can we squeeze the humor out of it?” As life continues to move forward people are going to continue to do crazy stuff.

Peele: We decided to change the show for this new season. We took away the live segments and put in more intimate segments of Keegan and I just having conversations in a car driving through the desert. We changed the opening title package as well. So I think the whole show is kind of a parody in itself now. The packaging of the show now feels like a HBO high drama, high intensity and high integrity show, like True Detective or Breaking Bad. We’re always going to find innovative ways of parodying things.

You've each discussed previously that you have white moms and Black dads. Does being biracial give the two of you a versatility and freedom in your humor in terms of what you can spoof and how far you can go?
Key: Yes, I do think our biraciality has a lot to do with how the show works. Mostly it’s because, and this is a term that Jordan coined some time ago, we’re like racial referees in a way. Or, as I like to say, we're tightrope walkers. We get the absurdities of both the African American subculture and mainstream culture and that informs how we look at comedy. It allows us to see things from different angles than a person who’s wholly immersed in either one of those cultures might miss. I think if you grow up in one culture, there might be a blindspot for you where you'd say, “Oh, I wouldn’t make fun of that,” or “I would never make fun of this.” So it allows us the opportunity to look at everything; Hispanic culture, Asian culture, African-American culture, mainstream culture and white European-American culture. Being biracial means we have to look at things as humans, more so than racially.

Keegan, you’re 43-years old and Jordan you’re 35. That’s a sizable age difference when it comes to comedic sensibilities. How does that age gap inform your humor and which sketches you perform?
 It allows us to cover more ground as far as a reference base. Our sketches are ones that both someone who’s Keegan’s age and my age will understand and relate to. As a byproduct of that, our show is targeted to young men, young adults, teenagers. But now it’s actually become kind of a family show. That's because there is a huge universality to our audience base. So we’ll have fathers and sons, mother and daughters watching the show together, even grandmothers, uncles and all of that. But day-to-day, it doesn’t feel like there’s any age difference. We both get in there and we play.

It packs an effective one-two punch. Because and maybe this is a news flash to Jordan, but there are times when I don’t know what he’s talking about. [Peele laughs] And I just go along with it. But what’s good is that there are some old classic scenes and classic techniques that are being used in our material and we just kind of put it through Jordan’s youth filter. So you put a brand new 21st Century frame slash sensibility to it, and it’s been extremely helpful. [Key laughs]

Peele: If I’m teaching Keegan something it’s always some embarrassing stuff. Like slang that they use on Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta. It’s never of any substance or importance. [Key laughs]

What are some of your favorite Key & Peele sketches of all time?
My top is the “Hey B****” sketch, which is one of the very first sketches we did. That holds a place in my heart because it was the sketch that we performed and sold the show to Comedy Central with. I would also have to say the “East West Bowl” sketches, the ones where we are doing the different football player names.  That was something that Keegan and I had been joking about for quite sometime. So it was satisfying to see that come together.

Key: My first two would be the same. The “B****” sketch was nostalgic for all the reasons Jordan mentioned. And the “East West Bowl” is casual fun and observational. The other one for me would be “The Valets/The Liam Neesons,” because there’s a freedom, fluidity and joy to those sketches that is unparalleled to the rest of our canon.

Some critics say your show picks up where Chappelle's Show left off. Do you agree or would you say Key & Peele is tackling completely new ground?
Key: The answer to both your questions would be yes. I think we are, and I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think we are the next logical step from the Chappelle's [Show]. Because if you watched a lot of Dave Chappelle’s most subversive stuff, it clearly takes a really great satirical brain to do what he was doing. And then the silly stuff was of course, silly. But what we also try to do as men of color and also being of mixed race is bring a cultural element to the pieces. We’re writing racial comedy but we’re also writing cultural comedy. More young people as they come of age see race in a different way or they’re not seeing it at all. Young people are dealing with each other in a cultural way. Our show is becoming a product of culture and culture is becoming a product of our show.

Peele: We also have several shows that we reference that are great influences to us. Shows that we admired growing up were Chappelle's Show, In Living Color, Saturday Night Live, Mr. Show and The State on MTV. What we were trying to do, when discussing what the voice of Key & Peele would be, was take a little a bit of our favorite things from all these shows but then bring the part that nobody else could really replicate — our point of view — and put it in there. is your #1 source for Black 
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(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Spike TV)

Written by Ronke Idowu Reeves


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