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Behind the Scenes of Key & Peele’s Django Unchained Sketch

On last night’s Key & Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele played slaves in a sketch satirizing one of the most harrowing scenes from Django Unchained: The slaves — the same competitive pair resurrected from season one's “Slave Auction” sketch — are forced to do a Calvin Candie–esque “Mandingo fight” to the death, but secretly agree to fake-fight each other. The problem is, they can’t agree on who should be the pretend winner.

Django is the second 2012 Oscar contender to inspire a sketch this season. But unlike Les Misérables, which last week inspired a sketch poking fun at the musical’s many songs with multiple characters singing over each other, the Quentin Tarantino movie struck a much more immediate and personal chord with the comedians. “If there is something out in the pop culture that is exploring the relationship between two black guys and it’s iconic, we feel like it’s our responsibility to figure out how to make a sketch about it,” Peele says. “The way we look at it is we like to take on things that people don’t think they could laugh about and figure out how to finesse it in such a way that makes it universal and palatable. There’s a lot of care and recognition put in when we’re talking about something that automatically raises people’s ire.”

I was on set in June when they shot the scene and watched them improvise several very modern variations on how two guys might handle a fake fight to the death: At one point, Peele got hit in the crotch and tattled to the owners: “He hit my balls. He hit my balls. No balls.” And after Key got accidentally scratched, he cried, “We have nail cutters in my plantation.” In a later interview, he told me that they eventually cut what was meant to be the sketch’s kicker: “They all leave, and I turn to Jordan and say, ‘You know, I’m gonna go up north because I’m sure everything’s great up there.’ We had to kill it for time, but I miss it.”

Key and Peele originally plotted the scene as transpiring between two period-authentic slaves, but realized they could instead revive their earlier competitive characters who were insulted at being passed up during a slave auction (“I’m fast, I got stamina, and I know magic”). “It added a whole lightness and a Key & Peele–ness to have us use our contemporary voices, our wimpy voices,” Key explained. “We’re far from a post-race world, but it’s an interesting expression, for us, of the work that has been done in the black community, which paved the way for us to be able to have this show. It's an acknowledgment of what is different about our world.” Hence, slap-fighting!