Welcome to our column Sketch Anatomy, where we ask some of our favorite television writers to choose any sketch — one they personally wrote or one from history they find particularly hilarious, notable, or underappreciated — to learn from a writer’s perspective what separates a successful sketch from the rest.
For this week’s installment of Sketch Anatomy we spoke with UCB grad and The Chris Gethard Show’s resident poet Phil Augusta Jackson, who was recently hired as a writer on Comedy Central’s Key and Peele and also joined the writing staff of NBC’s upcoming comedy Mission Control. Jackson took us behind the scenes of his very first Key and Peele sketch to air on television called “Alien Imposters,” which imagines Keegan and Jordan taking on an invasion in a Body Snatchers-style apocalypse where racism just might be the thing that saves humanity.
I read that you worked at an ad agency before you were a Key and Peele writer. What made you get into comedy?
I studied marketing and management at the University of Virginia, and then I got a job in New York at an advertising agency when I graduated in 2006. But I’d always been into the arts – I do a lot of music stuff and write plays and things like that, and I always knew that I wanted to do some acting, but once I got to New York I realized I could actually do something about it. So I started taking a scene study class and someone was like “Well if you wanna do more comedy stuff you should definitely be studying at UCB,” so I ended up taking classes and falling in love with it. I didn’t quit my advertising job until I got hired at Key and Peele, so I was kind of doing both between 2009 when I started at UCB up until getting hired.
What was it about comedy in particular that drew you in?
Before I found UCB when I was taking the scene study class, the scenes that I gravitated towards were ones that were maybe darker but also had some comedic elements too. So it was then that I realized that as much as I love drama, I really like to have dramatic elements but a comedic take on it. And growing up I was always a fan of In Living Color and SNL and stuff like that, but I wasn’t one of those people who grew up knowing I wanted to be an actor or writer – it just kind of happened slowly over time.
What kind of plays did you write? Were they dark comedies?
They weren’t really dark comedies…it’s interesting, in the time I was in that scene study I wrote a play called The Dinner Plan and ended up producing it with a friend of mine, and it ran at the 13th Street Repertory Theater in New York for about six months or so. That wasn’t really that dark of a comedy – it kind of almost felt like a sitcom onstage if I really think about it now. But I think that as much as I like to write stuff like that – which is just full of jokes – I also ended up writing some plays that never got produced that were just straight-up dramas, but they’d get undercut in moments with kind of comedic elements to keep the music of the piece varied and interesting. So it just depends on what the piece is.
How’d you get hired on Key and Peele? Congrats, by the way.
Thank you so much! I started at UCB in August 2009 and UCB and improv in general is the type of thing where once you really realize you love it it becomes all-consuming. So I was doing improv I’d say every day of the week – I was either in a practice group, doing a show with an indie team, or watching a show at UCB. And over time – I think about a year and a half later – in May 2011 I was put on a house team and that led to me doing independent videos then getting an agent, who started sending me out for acting gigs. But then I wrote a pilot just as an exercise, but once I was done I sent it to a couple friends who were like “This is pretty good – what are you trying to do with it?” and I was like “I’m not really sure.” So I showed my agent and she thought it was good and started sending me out for writing gigs too. I think the Key and Peele submission came across her desk maybe two or three months after I wrote that pilot, so I wrote a packet, and with that packet I ended up getting a phone interview with Jordan, Keegan, Ian Roberts, and Jay Martel, which is crazy. [laughs] It was just weird that it was happening: I’m on the phone with these guys who I’m a huge fan of – Jordan and Keegan for obvious reasons, then also when you think about Ian Roberts being one of the UCB Four, and he and Jay have done a lot of great stuff together – that was a huge deal. And then I found out a couple weeks after that that I had been hired, so I gave my job about four days notice and moved to Los Angeles and just started living here.
Before you got the job, how’d you learn to juggle between your ad agency job and doing improv at UCB?
It got more and more difficult to balance, but I think overall it was just that both parts of my life – the advertising life and the improv/comedy life – were both things that were very important to me, and if anything, I think the fact that I had a full-time job and just continued taking classes kind of accelerated the learning process. Another thing was I was at the same company for seven and a half years, so once I got into improv and started getting momentum, I’d been at my job long enough that, like, if I needed to leave at 7:00PM for a Harold it wasn’t a big deal, because I would just go home and finish up the work at midnight or whenever I got home; they never really had an issue with what I was doing outside of work. So it was a difficult balance, but I think I was in the best place possible to actually manage the demands of advertising with the comedy stuff too.
Let’s talk about your Key and Peele sketch “Alien Imposters.” What’s the origin story behind it?
I think it was around the third week of writing for season 4. Every morning we get together and just pitch ideas, and I pitched this thing where the overall idea was Is there some fun to be had with the idea that if aliens were to actually come to Earth or the US specifically, they wouldn’t know the nuances of how people get labeled and stereotypes that exist? So is there a way to point out those stereotypes through the genre lens of sci-fi? So that was the pitch, and we ended up talking about it as a group and what we landed on is it’s Jordan and Keegan going through this post-apocalyptic town and having to rely on stereotypes and labels as a way to survive the apocalypse.
How does the writing process work? Did you then take that idea, write the script alone, then bring it back to everyone for rewrites?
So I tend to pitch very loose premises – everybody’s kind of different, but with the way I decided to package it to the room, there seemed to be a lot of energy behind it, so I was like Okay, I got enough from the group that I can go and write this sketch. And then after we were done the pitch session I wrote a first draft, and it’s similar beat-wise to the final sketch that you saw, but there are some sketches that really get a lot of finesse as far as just taking it and polishing it so it really really sings, and this is one of those sketches where…the beats were there from the first draft, but we did a ton of rewrites, and the group really helped to make it what it was as well.
How’d you land on the sketch’s ending? Did that go through changes?
That’s one of the biggest things. In my initial draft, the beat with the hillbilly guy was in the first draft, the beat with the young girl and the old man were in there, and the black guy was in there. But the ending…I didn’t know how to end it. The initial ending was just too long and a weird monologue where Keegan ends up being the alien and he’s trying to learn from Jordan because Jordan’s the last man on Earth – it was just ridiculous. [laughs] But I sent in that first draft, then when I came in for notes I was like “First thing I gotta tell you guys: I didn’t know how to end this sketch so I would love some thoughts and feedback.” That ending specifically – Jordan had that idea. He thought it’d be good to just stay ahead of the audience and do something that is kind of off-game but it’s also like well, that guy is kind of a jerk, so maybe is that, in the stress of that situation, kind of a pathetic but funny thing to show? Like well, with the guy who thought they were valets – it might be funny to just off him. [laughs]
What have you learned from working on Key and Peele so far? Are you more confident with sketch endings now?
Being a new writer and writing for Key and Peele is the ultimate master class. Not only for endings – I think the endings end up being so good because these sketches end up getting worked to a point where the idea is so singular and so simple that they become really smart as a result, and because of that you have an idea that ends up being so clear it’s easy to figure out how to zag from it because there’s no confusion as to what you’re zagging off of. So I think, to answer your question, yes – it does help with figuring out how to end sketches, but it’s also just a great place to learn how to take everything you need and leave the stuff that you don’t. There’s sometimes a lot of funny stuff that isn’t always on-game and you don’t necessarily need in the interest of keeping things streamlined and getting to the most fun as quickly as possible.
Can you tell me about some of the other Key and Peele sketches you wrote this season?
So far only two episodes have aired so far, but I had “Alien Imposters” in the first and I had the neck brace sketch in the second, and this Wednesday I have a few sketches in there. I think the one I’m really excited about is called “Mattress Store,” and it’s basically that Jordan is looking for a new mattress and so he goes into Keegan’s mattress store, and Jordan’s like the soft-spoken nerdy looking guy acting kind of eccentric and weird, and then Keegan shows him these different beds but when he tries out the beds he starts thrusting and yelling really loudly on the bed… [laughs] as if he’s having sex and he’s weirding Keegan out, and you go through three of those beats then cut to his apartment, where you realize that all of the noise and commotion is coming from his neighbors and he’s not the one who’s actually doing it. I like that one in particular because it’s just a really weird sketch. I’m glad it got made, so I’m excited about that one.
Alex Blagg and I talked about the “Insult Comic” sketch a while back, and he said that Key and Peele can get away with covering potentially offensive topics because it comes from a place of honesty. Whether you’re writing a sketch using stereotypes of race, sexuality, gender, disability, whatever – as a writer, do you keep in mind that there might be “two kinds” of laughs in response? Does that matter or play any part in the writing?
I think overall – especially talking about the “Insult Comic” sketch – the biggest question is “What is the actual joke about?” you know? I think with whatever I write, that’s the question I have in my head. The “Insult Comic” sketch is a very extreme example of people wanting to be a part of the joke, so I think it’s grounded in a human truth, and that’s why that sketch works in particular – because you know, people do want to feel like they can take a joke and don’t take themselves too seriously, but at the core, a lot of the times, we are sensitive beings. So that sketch works because it’s not really about a burn victim with a lot of other maladies – it’s about the human condition. It doesn’t feel like we’re saying Oh, let’s just laugh at this guy who has a lot of problems. What I also think is so brilliant about that sketch is you almost feel bad for Keegan’s character a little bit… [laughs] …so it’s like one of those things where it’s also speaking on the dynamics we have around people with certain conditions and wanting to be almost too kind and too sensitive. But overall I just ask myself what the actual commentary is we’re trying to make, what is the actual joke, and if it feels like it’s demeaning or a little bit cheap then I tend to not do it.
Plus, I think Key and Peele is really making fun of our behaviors in response to stereotypes – not so much the stereotypes themselves.
Exactly. Even the sketch with the gay coworker – the context for the sketch is this coworker who is gay dealing with another coworker who we find out at the end of the sketch is also gay, but it’s really about oversharing. So in that sense that is a human condition, a human truth that we see in our everyday lives. And I think it’s why people can watch that and say either they’ve seen that in their real lives or experienced it firsthand – they know that it’s coming from a place of honesty, which I think makes it easier to push the envelope.