Talking Key and Peele with Series Director Peter Atencio

Comedy Central’s newest sketch series, Key and Peele, premieres tonight. The show is the creation of Mad TV alumni Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. I should acknowledge a bias — a friend of mine, Peter Atencio directed the show’s first season. OK, now on on to the facts: Key and Peele is truly one of the most original, subversive and howl-inducing shows I’ve seen in the last decade. It’s a smart and robust sketch series that that manages to satirize politics, movies, black culture, and white culture, without condescension or pandering to one group. In all truth, it may be that I find the show so sensational because I got to visit the set when Ty Burrell was dressed up like Nazi playing a scene that was spiritually somewhere between Inglorious Basterds and The Producers. Or because I saw Peter stay up for 48 hours straight editing a 45 second single take sketch about the Tea Party, choreographed to perfection like a Gene Kelly dance number. Or I could love the show so much because its just, really, really good.

I interviewed the director (Peter!) about the show, its process, directing comedy, axing canned laughter and black women!

Most of Key and Peele sketches look like short films. They are cinematic! Why do other sketch shows look like shit and why doesn’t yours?

I wouldn’t say every sketch show looks like shit, just most of them. I’d rather direct short films than sketches, so we approached each one in the show like a self-contained movie. Every department concentrated on building the individual world for each scene, from the lighting, to the costumes, to the hair & makeup, to the production design, to the way I moved my camera, even to the editing, it was all decided by what the writing in the scene demanded. It helped to have one director the whole time; we all learned how to read each other, and to anticipate what was needed for the scenes. Good visual direction in sketch comedy should eliminate as much exposition from the dialogue as possible. Most lame comedy writing begins with a very sluggish setup speech. Here’s who we are, where we are, what we’re doing. That sucks to sit through. If you can use the images you show to tell a more complete story that fills in all the blanks, it lets the dialogue concentrate on just being funny. Our show looks good because every department did an excellent job at accomplishing this. But I can’t stress enough, none of this would have mattered if the acting and writing weren’t there too. What makes Keegan & Jordan such great comedy performers is not just that they’re funny, but that they are such tremendously talented actors and writers too.

K&P’s Obama sketch reached one million view in just over a day. Do you think the President saw it? What other sketches do you think the President would like? Who do you think would be a better president, Jordan or Keegan?

I really hope he saw it, and if he did, I hope he approved of the message. Actually, I hope Reggie Love saw it, loved it, then emailed it to Barack. Hearing that he saw & enjoyed any of our Obama sketches would make me very happy. We have one later this season called “The Obama Double Standard” that I particularly think he’d enjoy. As for who’d make a better president, I’d say Keegan, because he’s just such a sweet person. I can’t imagine Keegan ever intentionally being unkind to anyone, so if Keegan was president, there’d be no more wars. Jordan is equally nice, but he’s also more reserved, and more strategic, which I mean in a good way. He would be the guy running things behind the scenes. The Dick Cheney to Keegan’s George W. Except you know, if Dick and W weren’t such total bastards.

What are your greatest influences for this show? You told me that you watched everything from Mitchell and Webb to In Living Color as inspiration for the series. Please explain.

I take a lot of inspiration from The Ben Stiller ShowThat Mitchell & Webb LookKids In the Hall, and Troy Miller’s work on Mr. Show. Those shows were all groundbreaking in their time, for trying things that had never been done. Ben Stiller did things that were very ahead of his time on his show. I think he’s really under-appreciated as a director for how he nails the look and the tone of the things he’s parodying. That show and SNL’s commercial parodies were my earliest influences. I was always drawn to comedy that looked exactly like the thing it was making fun of. It made the satire all the more biting and true. There’s an old SNL fake commercial that looks like a high-budget beer commercial, then at the end it’s an ad about going to hell, and it’s always stuck with me for how expertly done it is.

Then Kids In the Hall taught me that comedy could be really daring, and try things just for the hell of it. There were the very generic live studio sketches, but then there were these very punk rock short films like the “Headcrusher” segments, and those were my favorites. My senior project in a high school film class was a blatant rip-off of the “My Pen!” sketch. Then with Mr. Show Troy Miller really took it to another level. That show has a lot of perfect sketches, where every nuance, from the performance to the writing to the tone of the direction, all of it is just perfect. That show is really the benchmark for sketch in terms of overall presentation.

Would you describe K&P as a ‘black comedy’, ie, comedy aimed at black people? Does K&P narrow the audience or widen it?

I think it does a disservice to the show to call it a “black comedy.” Part of my desire is to move on from “black comedy” and “white comedy” being separate worlds. Funny is funny, and I don’t think people care about race nearly as much as TV networks think they do. We’re a show about race that doesn’t take just one particular side. We’re more interested in pointing out that ignorance and hypocrisy and stupidity exist in all races, so we use race to make universal points. There was never a time where I felt like I didn’t get a joke because I’m white. Shows like In Living Color and Chappelle’s Show were great because they brought a black perspective to comedy, and presented a voice that was underrepresented at the time. But we’re not those shows. The guys are biracial, and that’s apparent in the comedy and the character of the show, but it doesn’t pander to an audience.

In the Before Time, the pre-digital era, it seemed like the best avenue for an aspiring movie/TV directors was doing music videos (I’m thinking of David Fincher here) or car commercials (Fincher again). Now it seems like one of the best ways to get noticed as a young director is through Internet comedy. Do you agree with my assessment of history? And what do you think it means for the future of funny TVs and movies?

Oh, this is absolutely true. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, an aspiring director could come to L.A. and, assuming he was talented or connected enough, could usually manage to find work doing music videos with actual budgets. Music videos led to commercials, and those both led to tv and movies. So you had all these amazingly talented visual filmmakers learning the craft by making what were essentially experimental short films, and it led to this booming of glossy visuals in mass media as they moved into features and television. When the bottom fell out of the music video industry in the early 2000s, it left a gigantic void in the industry for opportunities for young, aspiring directors. Right around that time, video started catching on online, and so people started investing a lot of money on internet content, and especially internet comedy.

That’s how I first got paid to direct, through a website called, which was this comedy venture by Turner Broadcasting. I had a web series called The Freeloader’s Guide To Easy Living, with my friends Jonah Ray and Neil Mahoney. It only lasted a year before they shut it down, but it was great while it lasted. Tons of people we knew made money making amateur comedy videos. It felt like stealing. In the last few years it’s just exploded. Now, so many talented directors have gotten into comedy because it’s one of the few reliable ways to make a little money as a young filmmaker. So it’s elevating the way comedy looks, and there’s so much aesthetic exploration happening within the form. It’s a really artistically exciting time for filmed comedy. Which is probably the first time that’s happened on a large scale since the first wave of film school grads hit the studio system in the ‘60s. I hope it leads to some very interesting things in the near future.

How did you get this gig, anyhow?

I’d only done a few small TV gigs, as well as a very low budget horror movie that, quite frankly, was not very good. But I had also spent years directing over a hundred online shorts, including filmed sketches for a monthly UCB show called The Midnight Show, and I had worked for Funny Or Die. In December of 2010 I did a pilot for Adult Swim that got picked up for 6 episodes, and that opened the door for me to be considered for Key & Peele. My managers sent me the script, which I loved, and I went in and met with the guys, and we really hit it off. It was one of those situations where we instantly got along, and our temperaments just clicked. They hired me shortly thereafter and I had two weeks to prep for the pilot, which we shot last March.

After it went so well and the show got picked up, I decided the material was of such a high quality that I wanted to do the entire season, which is not typically how this kind of show is done. Usually they have several different directors do the sketches, then another guy with a whole different skill set comes in and does the live stage stuff, and that’s certainly what they initially set out to do. But I wanted to do all the sketches, and because of the type of DGA contract the show falls under, the person who directs the live stage segments is the one who gets the “directed by” credit, so I wanted to do that too. I knew we had an opportunity to do something different by giving an entire season of a tv show a consistency of voice, so I made a big powerpoint presentation with all the reasons why it would be good for the show, as well as how I would do the live stage segments, which I did not have previous experience directing, and then I came in to meet with the producers and convinced them to bring up the idea with the network. The network was understandably hesitant to put all 8 episodes of a show like this into the hands of a 28 year-old. We all went in to Comedy Central in August, and I made the same presentation for them, and eventually they agreed to do it. I have a lot of gratitude for both Comedy Central and the four showrunners, Keegan, Jordan, Jay, and Ian, for trusting me to direct the show.

What’s something about current comedy that you don’t like?

Laziness, anger, or apathy masquerading as ironic detachment. Take that as you will.

Keegan and Jordan are bi-racial, both black dads and white moms, and they’ve both joked about having to play up or play down their blackness in different circles. Does this kind of split identity influence the show’s comedy? How do you try to add to it?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The nice thing about the biracial influence of the guys is that it allows the show to have an outsider’s perspective on both races, because they both have felt like outsiders for much of their lives. It lets us explore what it’s like for black men who are ostracized for not being “black enough,” which is a viewpoint I haven’t seen much of on television. But again, the conversation on race was always secondary to just having a point of view that comes through in the comedy. We operated in a meritocracy of humor. Whatever served the comedy was what stayed in the scenes. I added to that by always giving my honest opinion about what worked and what didn’t. We all got outvoted at one point or another about a direction to take a joke or a performance, and that is good for the show.

As a director, what’s something you’ve done on K&P that we haven’t seen in a sketch show before. Like, literally or spiritually.

I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish on the show. Our schedule was incredibly tight, we shot around 60 sketches, 187 pages worth of stuff, in 23 days of production, which only finished in November, so post-production was incredibly fast as well. We averaged something like 8 pages a day, which is a ton for a show like this, but we still have terrific performances, smart writing, and a very sharp aesthetic sensibility. I always wanted to approach the scenes as creatively as possible, and the writers did a fantastic job of giving me challenges, like these two scenes that were written to be one long unbroken steadicam shot. Then there’s the small details, the things that 90% of people won’t notice. One that I fought for and won, which no Comedy Central show has ever been allowed to do before, is have certain sketches in widescreen scope letterbox format, which probably sounds insignificant but again, sets the show apart. Little visual touches like that are crucial tools for me to be able to place the viewer in a familiar and recognizable setting as quickly as possible, which allows the comedy to develop quicker, and be more grounded and relatable.

We also have the live performance aspect, which is a big part of the show, and I wanted to find a way to give it its own unique look and personality. I watched a ton of live comedy specials to see what worked and what didn’t. I eventually found this Funny People stand-up special that Comedy Central aired when the movie came out. It was shot by Janusz Kaminski, and it was the most gorgeous stand-up special I’d ever seen. We borrowed some of those ideas for how we shot our live segments, but modified it both for the tone of the show as well as the fact that we have two hosts, which lends it a more conversational, improv-based approach. The guys are naturally charming, and that comes through in our live pieces.

But I’m most excited about something that isn’t on the show: canned laughter. There was lots of discussion and hand-wringing about whether to have the live audience’s laughter audible when the sketches are playing, yet ultimately we decided against it. Hearing laughs over things that are shot single-camera style, as all our sketches are, in my opinion really hurts the comedy. It talks down to the viewer’s intelligence, it says you’re not smart or aware enough to get the jokes, so we’ll hold your hand through this and tell you where to laugh. One of the things I like about our show is that different people find different things funny, there are a lot of subtle jokes that a laugh track would have just steamrolled over. Thanks to the internet and sites like Funny Or Die and CollegeHumor, I think people are more attuned than ever before to the idea of sketches without audience laughs. Having them in feels old-fashioned, and did not fit the material. You can’t imagine something like “Flicker” or “Das Negros” (two of the big filmic sketches) having laughs over them.

In choosing the sketches for each episode, was there a deliberate balance you tried to strike? Like one part satire, one part raunchy, one part bizarre?

Absolutely, the forming of episodes was something we obsessed over. We shot over 60 sketches for the 8 episodes of the season, and we tried to establish a nice balance of material for each one. We’ve got a good blend of blackout-style sketches, which hit hard and fast; we’ve got more traditional sketches based on a simple idea that escalates to a big finish; and finally we’ve got longer, large-scale filmic sketches, some of which are really bizarre and were a ton of fun to make. Those were the ones where I got to play the most, and consequently they’re the ones I’m proudest of. It took a lot of work to make the season as a whole even and consistent.

Now a more refined question about race: who are three black women you would like to wife and why?

Okay, I’m not going to answer this question. Not because it’s offensive or anything, but because there is only one correct answer, not three. It is clearly Grace Jones. Grace Jones is a perfect specimen, and the only time it’s been accurate to call a beauty “terrifying.” She’s probably not even a human being, but a member of an elder race that came from the future to teach us to love each other. She’s like that blue diva opera singer in The Fifth Element. Am I insinuating that Grace Jones is hiding magical stones inside her abdomen? Yes. And I want those stones.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a journalist based in Los Angeles. She’s been published in the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, The Awl, and elsewhere.

Talking Key and Peele with Series Director Peter […]