Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele performed together on the final seasons of Mad TV, but the two met in Chicago years earlier and immediately hit it off. Their insane chemistry is evident from minute one of Key & Peele, the pair’s new sketch show debuting tonight on Comedy Central. Both come from biracial backgrounds, so many of the sketches touch on political and sociological issues they’ve faced living in that world; but there’s a fair amount of unabashed silliness in the sketches, which makes fun of Chopped and commercials featuring giant bows on cars. We chatted with Key and Peele about the lack of minority comics on Comedy Central, what it takes to have a “smart” sketch show, and the power of a poop joke.
The marketing tagline of the show is, “If you don’t watch this show, you’re a racist,” which really pushes the fact that you guys are biracial. At the same time, Comedy Central doesn’t have much of a recent history of primarily featuring minority actors and actresses—
Key: Right, yeah, a lot of white young dudes. And I think part of what makes us unique is that there are a lot of things that we struggle with that are apparent in the show. Obviously, the show is saturated with our point of view, and also the fact that there’s a common thing in the African-American culture that if you have one drop of black blood in you, you’re black. So, okay, I can subscribe to that definitely because I’ve certainly been treated in negative ways, I’ve been treated that way, as a black person. But at the same time, I have a more than firm understanding of white culture, or whatever you may want to call it — mainstream culture. So we were really excited [about working with Comedy Central]. Jordan was like, “Hopefully this will work well because there’s stuff that we can do that other comedians cannot do.”
Peele: We grew up, for lack of a better term, between two worlds. That’s not to be too literal about it, but I think one of the themes that comes up in the show occasionally, and certainly doesn’t dominate this show, is the absurdity of race, and also makes fun of exploitation of race, playing the race card. We like to play the race card straight out of the gate. [Laughs.]
Key: If it works to our advantage, it’s like, Why not do it? If you’ve got a rapier and a dagger, pull the bigger sword first.
You guys both performed for years on Mad TV. What has it been like performing now, in a sketch show where you’re not only the actors, but the writers and directors as well?
Peele: I gotta say, I feel like it makes it easier to have all of these elements streamlined through Keegan and I, because what you don’t have is six producers, each with different eyes on different sides of the thing, and then having to come together and coordinate. It streamlines it.
Key: It’s definitely better than having a ten-headed monster and to be able to make decisions at a lightning-fast pace.
Were there things you weren’t able to do at Mad TV that you’re able to do now?
Key: There are a couple of scenes I can think of right now, they wouldn’t have gotten past reading stage at Mad TV. It would’ve been, “Nah, you guys, that’s just not accessible.” And now, well, we’re the bosses and if we want to do it, we do it. [Laughs.] And we’ll see how accessible it is.
A lot of early reviews of the show call it “smart” sketch comedy. I certainly agree, but do you think there’s going to be a point where the word “smart” is no longer something people have to point out with comedy?
Key: Here’s the thing, and I can’t help it because I’m an academic at heart, but I’m going to give you a very dry answer: I learned at Second City years ago that there’s really not much to be done about the fact that we still live in this intrinsic, puritanical society. And when you say poop, people laugh. And the reason they laugh? Because they’re not allowed to talk about it. It’s such a powerful thing. Everybody goes to their office every day and there’s these rules they have to follow, and I’m telling you, if you do an improv show — doesn’t matter if it’s in the Netherlands or Chicago — guaranteed, you say, “Can I have a non-geographical location as a suggestion, please?” And someone will scream out, “Pussy.” No matter what. It’s just in us to go, “Oh, the forbidden fruit!” And the thing is, hey, writing a sketch show is hard and it takes time. Some days — this is something we’ve fought every step of the way — you go, “Well, let’s just tell a poop joke." Because if you tell a poop joke, they’ll laugh. And if it’s a gay guy telling a poop joke, they’ll laugh even more! So sometimes you can do that and you’re going to get your laugh because you’re tired, but I think that Jordan and I really, really, really made a concerned effort to not do that.
Peele: I’ll add this: We will then make sure to make the scene worthy of the poop joke. We’ll enhance it in other areas. We think we have one of the smarter poop jokes, or a more subtle poop jokes, in our show.
Key: We think the poop joke in this one scene that we did serves — [Starts to laugh.]
Peele: I can’t believe we started with your thesis and we ended on our poop sketch. Okay, Professor Key.
Key: But anyway, as we used to say back at Second City, “I don’t know, it’s just a dick joke.” Then somebody else says, “Yeah. But it’s a really good dick joke.” There’s a way to break down the anatomy of one of those scatological jokes. That works in the context of this scene. And feel free to call after you see the show [laughs], and you’re like, “Ah, there’s the poop scene.”
Peele: “That’s smart after all!”
Jordan, you auditioned at one point for SNL with your Obama impression, which found its way into a viral video promoting Key & Peele. How cognizant are you guys of who’s big in the news, so you can have those impressions at the ready?
Peele: There was a point where we were on Mad TV where that would be the thing. When somebody new came around you were like, “Oh, I kind of look like this person” and you instantly start working on it. To be honest, nowadays we’re much more thinking about the concepts and different sketch premises and what the bits can be … We have a couple of devices to get particularly topical, but a lot the show is aimed to be timeless and universal. That’s another difference from Mad TV, which was at least attempting to be current. We didn’t want to make a lot of sketches that weren’t going to be relevant in a couple of years.
When Obama was elected, people feared there wasn’t much about him that anyone could mock. How did you crack that nut?
Peele: I remember everybody saying that, and it seemed like such a bizarre thing. That really spurred me on; it was the ultimate challenge. After he was elected, I feel like another dimension of him surfaced. During the campaign, he was all hope, and just being a statuesque leader. And then when he got elected, he calmed down a bit and that smile behind the eyes came out. That was the ticket. During the election, he could never get away with one of those sly smiles. He was that much under the microscope, that if he had a sly smile, I don’t know what people would’ve said. “It’s Al Qaeda infiltrating the White House!”