Key & Peele has proven time and again to be one of the funniest sketch shows on television, and obviously much of the show’s success rests on its charismatic stars. But Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele don’t often get enough credit for acting the hell out of their scenes with style and pathos, giving their insane characters and emotional straight men more conviction and heft than their counterparts on narrative television.
On the cusp of K&P’s fifth-season premiere on Wednesday, Vulture caught up with the show’s head writers, Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, who discussed their ten favorite performances from each actor over the past year.
In no particular order …
1. Key in “Manly Tears”
Jay Martel: This might be my single favorite thing. Partly because I was there on the day they were shooting it, and I got to see how many ways Keegan figured out how to stop himself from laughing. It’s like a tour de force. If you watch the sketch, it seems like a lot of his efforts made it in there, and he doesn’t ever repeat himself. To me, this is the opposite of [the anger translator] in the sense that Luther is like a volcano of emotions, and he’s saying everything that comes into his head, or Obama’s head. But the guy in “Manly Tears,” the comedy is about how he’s trying to restrain himself from showing emotion. And in a way that’s funnier because he’s trying to choke himself off. In comedy that always works better for me, when someone’s trying not to lose it.
Keegan is technically the “straight man” in this, but it’s a tenuous thing.
JM: Ian told me the straight man used to make more money in the [old days]—
Ian Roberts: It was a 60/40 split. And they got top billing.
JM: For Abbott and Costello, Abbot was getting more money just for saying, like, “Hey, what’re you talkin’ about?!” when Costello would do something crazy. And Key and Peele definitely go back and forth playing the straight men. But some of our favorite sketches are when they’re both out of their minds. We call those “peas in a pod” sketches, where they’re both the “crazy” person.
2. Peele as Wendell in “Pizza Order”
IR: I’d say what’s interesting about this was Jordan’s take on it. He said, “Wendell is not a good guy.” You know, he said we never make fun of the guy who’s overweight, who loves sci-fi and fantasy because you’d think you’re supposed to have sympathy for him. Except for the fact that he’s kind of a prick …
JM: It’s funny because he goes into this fantasy about having a girlfriend, but he’s actually a dick to women in the fantasy. Again, it’s one of those characters where Jordan’s face is — he’s wearing prosthetics and a fat suit, obviously — but he’s able to get so much out of his eyes. How he widens his eyes, shifts his gaze, he really barely moves otherwise.
3. Peele as Carlito in “Loco Gangsters”
JM: We love that Carlito character. Jordan plays stupid people very well, and this is my favorite stupid person. Just the way he moves his body.
IR: I’d say one thing that’s funny about the character is it’s really low-energy. Gang members can be played tough and loud, but he’s so quiet and steady.
JM: Jordan definitely [gets] a lot of mileage out of withholding, and Keegan gets mileage from going over the top.
4. Key as Latrelle in “Office Homophobe”
IR: Keegan came in with an idea about playing this guy who was very in-your-face about his sexuality, and if you had a problem with it, he’d throw it down to you as, “You have a problem about my sexuality?” And it’s like, “No, I have a problem with your inappropriateness.”
JM: This was a sketch that came to life when it was produced. The hair and makeup, the props. The dick lollipop, the penis whistle. We have such a great crew on this show and it always takes everything up a notch.
5. Jordan as Rafi in “Slap-Ass”
IR: One super-simple choice in this sketch, and I don’t think it would be as funny without, is that lisp, which makes every time he says “slap-ass” hilarious. It’s like a catchphrase from the ‘80s.
JM: “Slap-ash.” In a way, it’s one of the more tragic sketches, when you find him in the hallway just crying. I think we actually ended up adding more “slap-asses” into it later on in ADR [automated dialogue replacement]. He’d said it a couple times, but we added more. This performance, if it were drama, would be like a Lifetime movie. I feel like Jordan would win an award if this were a drama.
6. Key and Peele in “Aerobics Meltdown”
IR: The virtuosity of these performances is so impressive. They didn’t know the choreography until the day they came in. And they’re not athletes or dancers, so to keep moving around like that for like 12 hours, nonstop movement, all that stuff memorized, those goofball smiling performances.
JM: You’re watching it being shot and you’re like, I can’t believe these guys aren’t dead right now.
IR: For Keegan to tell the whole story without any dialogue. It’s all on his face.
JM: Jordan, too.
IR: And it’s so uncool, this whole thing. I mean, these guys are just … two weirdos. [Laughs.]
JM: That’s so much the case with a lot of our favorite performances. We’ve always said that this is what separates our sketch show from others: There’s never any winking to the audience about what’s going on, never any half-assed commitment to the material or letting the audience know you’re better than something. They are full-on in the parts.
IR: A lot of [sketch performers] have the instinct to sloppy it up. Like, “No, I’m a manly man, this isn’t me.” And I admire the [commitment] in them because as a performer, I still want to be self-protected. Like I don’t want to be completely foolish. But there’s this degree of reality on our show. They play great tragicomic characters.
JM: Looking at this list, a lot of these people are really sad. Wendell’s depressing, Carlito’s so out of touch with who he is, Lattrel is like … awful.
7. Jordan in “Continental Breakfast”
JM: I think this is on the list because the sketch is decent, built around the confusion of a “Continental Breakfast” being something cool, that you actually want. But then on the day of, Jordan just took it up a notch. And a lot of this in the sketch is improvisation. We had the buffet laid out there and Jordan came up with riffs on everything in the buffet. And that kind of orgasm as he’s eating … the whole sketch really was Jordan’s performance.
IR: This is another one where it’s kind of sad. You feel humiliated for this guy because his dreams are so small.
8. Key as DeVonne in “Shady Landlord”
IR: For whatever reason, this is probably one of my absolute favorites. I’m not sure why. [Laughs.] Maybe it’s the combination of Keegan liking these people, and being congenial with them, but he has a side of him that is so psychotic and angry. This is another one where the straight man is so important. Because you have this guy so out of touch with what a maniac he is.
This came from an experience of Keegan’s where a landlord opened a drawer and showed him he had a gun. Like, “Don’t worry. I’ve got a gun.”
JM: When I saw this sketch being shot, I was so enamored with Keegan’s character that I thought, You could put this anywhere and it would be funny. DeVonne should have his own talk show. He’s like Kramer times ten.
9. Key as Mr. Garvey in “Substitute Teacher” (Key and Peele’s biggest YouTube hit)
JM: This was a writer’s pitch. Rich Talarico, an extremely talented writer, had the idea. More often than not, Keegan will go to a writer and say, “Here’s a guy I want to play in a sketch.” But for the most part it’s Keegan and Jordan creating a character that they see in a script and then making the script as great as it can be. Unlike a show like SNL or MADtv, those shows start with a character and you write 20 sketches around that character. These are designed to facilitate the text, to make the sketch better. And the fact that they rise above the sketch is a testament to their performances.
10. Key and Peele in “Valets”
IR: I think the reason the physicality is genius is because the dialogue is all about these guys who are beside themselves with excitement about what they’re talking about. And all the movement comes out of — they’ve got so much energy, all this energy they’ve got to burn off somehow. They’re so worked up, they’ve got to jump up and down. And then you’ve got push-ups, pull-ups, they just have to burn it off.
JM: Keegan would talk about going to movies in Detroit, and during comedies, or even dramas, when there’s too much tension, people just jump out of their chairs and run up and down the aisles. This physical excitement, you just can’t stay in your seat.
IR: The thing that was invented on the set every time we did one of those [sketches] was the physicality. It was remarkable every time to watch it go from the rehearsal to the first take, and then the third take it would get formalized.
JM: As we continued to script more and more of them, sometimes the writer would put a direction like, “They both walk in opposite directions and then come back.” But it’s all really organic. The first “Valets” sketch was based on the observation I think Colton [Dunn, a writer] or Keegan overheard, African-American people would put an S after someone’s name. Like someone was saying “Liam Neesons.” So that was the nugget on which the whole palace was forged.