Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele — the “everythings” (writers, executive producers and stars) of Comedy Central’s sketch comedy show Key & Peele — partook in a Q&A at the Apple store in SoHo last week, touching on their creative process, the high production value of their sketches and the quasi-academic art of rendering edgy material funny rather than offensive. Moderator Michael Showalter called them “comedy kindred spirits,” but they’re also sketch perfectionists who take comedy seriously.
When they met through the improv circuit in Chicago 10 years ago, Key went home and told his wife, “I’m in love.” Since then their mutual adoration has grown into a working relationship that’s included doing sketch comedy together at Mad TV and now a second season of their own sketch comedy show Key & Peele. With a seemingly effortless creative back-and-forth, the two have infused their theatrical background into the show to create slick, high production value sketches that are more like “short comedic films” than sketches.
And it’s true — if you were watching a regular length movie, their sketches might look like three-minute set pieces from a 90-minute movie.
“A lot of sketch shows go toward a guerilla, underground feeling,” Peele said. “These days with digital…we can make it look like filming.”
They credit their director with the high production value of the show but concede that they similarly toil on the sketches, working hard – long hours – to make sure each makes perfect sense as a comedic piece.
“Nobody works harder at sketch than my partner,” Key said. “We keep doing it and doing it and I have to call my wife and tell her I’m going to be an hour later. We feel that what has to translate onto screen is the concept of the sketch. We are just going to work as hard as we have to to make sure it’s funny. It’s not like live sketch comedy – where once you’ve taped it, it’s done.”
Incorporating racial comedy into their work means they sometimes touch on more sensitive subject matter. But the trick to ensuring that the edginess places second to the humor lies in latching onto a premise that can withstand that edgy material, they said.
“We have a nomenclature at work: the comedic engine,” Key said. “The nugget, the premise, the engine that’s going to make it funny – if it doesn’t have a strong engine, you run the risk of it being pedestrian or offensive.”
Peele pointed to a slavery scene in which the two play guys on the auction block competing over why the other isn’t being bought.
Knowing that using slavery in comedy was a risky move, “we latched onto this human element where they’re insecure,” Peele said.
“The framework was slavery, to examine how vain a person can be,” Key said. “The premise held the weight of the edgy subject. And as long as the premise holds the weight of the edgy subject, I think you can do anything.”
While a lot’s already been done in racial comedy (Peele pointed to In Living Color and Dave Chapelle as examples), the two drew on their mixed race identities (black dads, white moms) and found a good deal that hadn’t been explored.
“One that we found is one-upsmanship: the idea of trying to one-up each other within African-American culture,” Peele said, referencing their Soul Food order sketch (below).
“If you’re dealing with [not being black enough or white enough] for a good deal of your life…we come from a perspective ‘I need to order food that’s blacker than his order,’” Key said, explaining the premise.
There’s also a certain facility they can tap into with their dual racial identities.
“You might dial up the blackness or dial it down a bit, so everyone in the situation is comfortable,” Key said, taking a playful yet smart knock at the absurdity of race. The idea that race is absurd is something that fans of the show are aware of and appreciate about the show, they said.
But they also said that they got a lot of the racial exploration out in the first season. This second season is less racial and more “loosened up,” in a “playful zone.” They’ll hit up more genres and more pop culture issues. Echoing him, Key promised “more jocularity.” And, Dean Norris (who plays Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad) will make a cameo as a Mexican kingpin, the opposite character he plays on the AMC show.
New episodes premiere on Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central this season. You can also catch them in a free show kicking off Comedy Week at NYU Skirball Center on Nov. 7.