Jordan Peele is listening to Keegan-Michael Key tell a story. This happens a lot, partly because the two spend so much time together, but also because Key talks a lot. Peele doesn’t, so during a break on the L.A. set of their Comedy Central show, he sinks into the couch as Key holds forth about football.
”I wanted to play as a kid,” Key says, ”but I couldn’t because I had epilepsy.” He did, however, join a flag-football team with friends a while back. It started out fun, he says, until things got out of hand. ”Everyone was getting supercompetitive. Teams had their own scouts! No joke! Dudes would show up with former professional players.” Key, 43, is on his feet now, acting out the scene: making faces, doing voices, and generally entertaining the small crowd gathered around.
Peele, 35, dressed in a President Obama costume for a sketch, is mostly silent. Then, in a soft voice better suited for a Michelin-starred restaurant than a soundstage, he says two words: ”Movie idea.” He goes on to deliver a well-crafted pitch about two past-their-prime fantasy-football fans who join an intramural league but quickly realize they suck, leading to a scheme to sabotage the other teams by drafting all the best players first — and then benching them. ”The title can be It’s Not Fair!” he concludes, only half joking. Key can barely (or, more likely, doesn’t care to) contain his excitement. He starts riffing with Peele, giddily adding new twists and gags, and soon the duo are stepping over each other with ideas. They’re still brainstorming when the producers call them back to set.
Key and Peele are a two-man factory, churning out little idea-widgets like this around the clock. Some of them become movie pitches. Some of them stay inside jokes. And a lot of them end up as sketches on their Comedy Central show, Key & Peele, which just began its fourth season. A breakout hit for the network, the series talks about race, class, society, and even football in a bold, brain-provoking way. That may sound heavy, but the humor is spry and prone to zigzags, informed and shaped by the minds of two pop-culture-steeped comedy nerds. The approach has earned Key & Peele plenty of high-profile fans: President Obama is a noted partisan, so much so that he has invited the guys over to the White House for a hang. Judd Apatow, who’s producing a movie with the pair, called their work ”the best of the human race” in Time in April. At the Primetime Emmys last month, ”Chiwetel Ejiofor told me that on the set of 12 Years a Slave, he and Steve McQueen watched the ‘Auction Block’ sketch,” Peele says. Peter Dinklage, Viola Davis, and Angela Bassett also greeted them warmly at the awards show, he notes. ”Everybody had some Key & Peele sketch they wanted to talk about.”
Chances are you’ve already talked about a Key & Peele sketch too. The show has been producing viral hits since it debuted in January 2012. The duo’s most famous videos feature Peele (the shorter one) as Obama and Key (the balder one) as POTUS’ bombastic ”anger translator,” Luther. (Obama, after reelection: ”All your votes were crucial in this victory.” Luther: ”White people who voted for me, y’all are all now honorary black people!”) Another fan favorite is ”Substitute Teacher,” which stars Key as a teacher from the inner city who has trouble pronouncing the names of his new class of suburban kids. Jacqueline turns into Jaykwellan, Blake into Belakay. Key says he gets called out for this one the most: ”As I’m walking down the street, people will yell, ‘Hey, Ay-Ayron!”’
Key and Peele are both biracial, and they’re fascinated by America’s endless weirdness about race, particularly as it relates to identity confusion. ”Them both being biracial is really the ultimate ace in the hole,” says Jay Martel, an executive producer on the show. ”They can do things that very few other comedians of their talent can do and get away with it because of that.” Key and Peele don’t bother limiting themselves to black, white, and black-and-white characters, either: They’ll play Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans with equal aplomb. The goal is never to mock anyone, though; Key and Peele want to expose truths, or at least play with them. ”Racism’s roots are in this country,” says Peele. ”When it comes to the idea of race and how it affects the world in a big way, we really focus a lot of our opinions in our sketches.”
Then again, a lot of their work has nothing to do with race. The show excels at genre parodies — high-production, director-driven scenes that spoof, say, the ubiquity of car explosions in ’80s action movies. There are also genuine oddballs, such as the sketch where a man orders a meal from a rat that he thinks is ”a Ratatouille,” like Pixar’s rodent chef. The twist: It’s actually just a rat. The second twist: It can prepare sandwiches. The third twist: The sandwiches are terrible. It’s strange, surreal, and superb all at once, and that’s on top of the fact that the rat lives in a Ghostbusters trap. ”My gold standard is something that is so unbelievably dumb — but you’re laughing,” says Peele. ”If you can get something to be so stupid that it’s not even smart, it’s the smartest kind of comedy.”
If things had gone as planned, Peele would be a puppeteer — that was his declared major at Sarah Lawrence College. It wasn’t a completely random choice. As a quiet child growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he liked to draw. His first dream was to be an architect (a puppet master, really); by high school, he wanted to be a director (ditto). He had dabbled in performing at New York’s TADA! Youth Theater, as well as in school plays, but the reserved Peele didn’t feel a gravitational pull toward the stage.
His Sarah Lawrence classmate Rebecca Drysdale did. She was embedded in the campus improv scene, and after a few performances with her group Judith (as in Light), Peele was a convert. ”I realized that with sketch and improv, I’m better than any puppet I’ve been making all semester,” he says. He was still in school when Drysdale moved to Chicago, but when Peele visited and saw a few Second City shows, it was settled. ”That was the moment,” he says. ”That trip to Chicago changed everything.” Once he moved there, the pair started their own show called Two White Guys.
In 2000, Peele joined Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, where he and Drysdale worked with Jason Sudeikis, Ike Barinholtz, and Seth Meyers, who directed the first show Peele did there. ”I saw him improvise a lot, and he was really funny, but I was really taken aback by what a great sketch writer he is,” Meyers says. ”He has inspiration and [an understanding of] structure. Not a lot of people have both.” A comedy orbit seemed to be coming together around Peele. But there was another element somewhere out there — in Michigan of all places.
”I was just 100 percent convinced I couldn’t do comedy for a living,” says Key, who grew up in Detroit. ”My parents were social workers, and all of my parents’ friends were social workers. What the hell did we know?”
A few things, actually: Even as a kid, Key was keenly aware of the impact that TV comedy could have. ”What gave me joy in my life was watching my father double over laughing at anything Bill Cosby did,” he says. ”My dad was a very stoic, kind of laconic guy. And so when he would laugh, I saw there was a power that came out of the TV that affected him.” By high school, Key was a full-fledged drama kid who played Jesus in Godspell and idolized Robert De Niro. ”I was like, ‘If I could be that guy, or if I could do something like that guy, I think I’d be the happiest person in the world.”’
But De Niro was a New Yorker, and Key, feeling unready and insecure, decided to stay local for college. While at the University of Detroit, he was able to find one outlet for his craft: singing telegrams. ”Once I had to play a grim reaper,” he recounts. ”There was a grim-reaper costume that you’d do for people’s 40th birthdays.” His next job was planting flowers at a graveyard. After a couple of years, still unwilling to face the stage — and specifically Second City, which had recently expanded to Detroit — he enrolled at Penn State. His reasoning: ”If I audition for this theater and I don’t get in, I don’t know what I’m going to do. So I ran to graduate school to avoid making that decision.”
With multiple theater degrees under his belt, Key came back to Detroit. He worked up the courage to join Second City and eventually moved on to e.t.c. in Chicago, where Drysdale was a castmate. She was the person who introduced Key and Peele to each other. ”For a long time, they didn’t know who the other was,” Drysdale says, ”which was very annoying to me.” But she finally had the opportunity to change that when, in 2001, Peele’s group went to Chicago to do a show. Key remembers it well: ”She said, ‘Wait till they get here. You’re gonna love this Jordan guy. You’re gonna love him.’ And she did not sell me a bill of goods. Everything was as advertised.”
The pair soon met again when they auditioned for MADtv. They both got the gig, and moved to L.A. ”That was serendipity,” Key says. ”We didn’t expect that to happen, it just worked out that way. It’s like part of the fairy tale.” In fact, they hit it off so well that they decided to be roommates. Or at least that’s how Key tells it — Peele recalls it differently. ”He always says we lived together, but I remember it as maybe he was sleeping on my couch for a month,” he says with a laugh. They spent a lot of that time playing Halo and analyzing shows like Martin. Key eventually got his own place, but they continued to build their relationship — just on screen. ”We had a special pop on MADtv,” Peele says. The series helped introduce them to a national audience and their sensibility to the industry, he says. ”Everyone knew that we were up to something that was unique to us.”
Peele left a little before the show’s run concluded in 2009, while Key stuck around to the end. A couple of years went by. Their careers started to stall; they were each getting too many offers to play the Black Best Friend. They happened to share a manager, Joel Zadak, who noticed that two of his clients were repeatedly going out for similar projects, with little success. ”He asked us, ‘Do you guys want to develop something together? Force multiplier?”’ Peele recalls. ”Once the suggestion was made,” says Key, ”it’s like, well, what are you gonna do?”
The idea worked, and both Fox and Comedy Central extended development deals to the duo. After picking the cable network, Key and Peele set out to collect a team of writers and producers they felt comfortable with, old friends like Drysdale and Colton Dunn. To help produce, they brought in Martel and Upright Citizens Brigade cofounder Ian Roberts. But it was their decision to take a chance on a new director, 31-year-old Peter Atencio, whose experience mostly consisted of Adult Swim-style shorts, that would prove pivotal. Atencio has directed every episode since the pilot, and his eye lends the series a cinematic feel rarely seen on a sketch comedy.
The show’s wide range also gives Key and Peele the opportunity to merge their different energies — physical versus cerebral — in unexpected ways. ”Keegan will surprise me with what he’s capable of physically,” Roberts says. ”I remember a scene where he had to jump through a window. And he actually just dove — I would have to think that through for weeks before I knew I could get through and not hit my knees.” Peele, on the other hand, is much more subdued. ”While I’m expending a lot of energy, he’s expending the same amount of energy right between here and here,” Key says, gesturing toward his temples. ”He’s always playing chess, and I’m always playing a really, really vigorous game of checkers.”
”I’m the, um…the Juno of the Inception,” Peele says, referring to Ellen Page’s character in the 2010 movie. He’s laughing but not totally kidding. Peele estimates that he writes — as in actual fingers on a keyboard — 30 to 50 percent of the sketches. ”Jordan will lock himself in our office and knock out two scenes,” says Key, who then builds on those ideas. He and the producers act as the ”clearinghouse,” he says. ”But the writers do so much of the work,” he adds. ”I think people are under the impression that Jordan and I do all of this by ourselves.”
Drysdale doesn’t mind. ”It’s such a joy and pleasure to write when you know that anything you put on paper, they can pull off,” she says. ”Keegan is so talented physically. And Jordan is great at grabbing these really specific black dudes.” She laughs: ”I don’t know if he’s ever met another black dude. Except for Keegan, who barely counts.”
Today Key & Peele is just one component of the larger Key and Peele enterprise, and an increasingly small one at that. This past spring the pair made an unexpected foray into drama playing FBI agents on the FX hit Fargo — a job so dissimilar from sketch comedy they worried audiences would balk. ”Our biggest concern was just not screwing up Fargo,” says Peele. ”We didn’t want somebody who was familiar with us doing ‘Liam Neesons”’ — a recurring sketch in which they play valets obsessed with Neeson’s movies — ”to bring [our TV personas] into the Fargo experience.” Key saw the role as a way to put his degrees to use. ”It’s like, ‘I can use all that training that I spent all that time doing. All that college tuition.”’
Key and Peele are currently brainstorming concepts for a movie with Judd Apatow (”There was an idea, but we’re not doing that anymore — we’re going to come up with a new idea,” says Key) and producing a reboot of the Police Academy franchise to be written by Barinholtz and Dave Stassen (both of The Mindy Project). ”We don’t know whether or not we’re going to be on screen for that,” says Peele. ”When we see the script, we’ll ask, Are Key and Peele a distraction from Police Academy? We’ll make the best call for the movie.”
That’s not all: At the moment, Key and Peele are also (1) developing a kitten-related action movie called Keanu, (2) working on an animated Comedy Central pilot starring their characters Vandaveon and Mike, (3) negotiating with New Line to develop a Peele-penned script, (4) in talks with Paramount to give Mr. Garvey — a.k.a. ”Substitute Teacher” — a feature film.
And they’ve got individual pursuits, too. Key has recurring roles on (5) USA’s Playing House as well as (6) the upcoming season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation; Peele is (7) developing a horror (yes, horror) movie that he plans to direct for Darko Entertainment next year and (8) advising the newly formed BuzzFeed Motion Pictures. ”I think it’s important to us that the Key & Peele duo doesn’t take away the opportunities of an individual,” says Key, adding that he has other writing partners he works with. Peele, meanwhile, harbors ambitions far from the world of comedy. ”I want to be a thriller director,” he says. ”I’m a big fan of Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives — that genre of film,” he says. Of course, the last thing they need is another project, but that probably won’t stop them.
Actually, if you want to know how busy Key and Peele are, just ask President Obama. Earlier this year, he needed their help. Well, he needed help in general — his hard-fought Affordable Care Act was shaping up to be a tough sell to the public. Luckily, Obama happened to have a pretty good rapport with a couple of guys who’ve proved themselves savvy at getting their ideas out to large audiences. But the plan hit a snag: The guys were too booked up. ”You’re going to think this is a joke, but we had to turn him down,” says Peele. ”We were making the season.”
As he says this, it’s a hot August afternoon, but he and Key are wearing heavy sweatpants anyway. That’s also because of ”the season,” by which Peele means the fourth season of the series; they’d spent the day shooting as the always sweatpantsed Vandaveon and Mike.
Key nods along. ”We were gonna do a bit with him,” he says. ”We were trying to collaborate with him to make a video for the ACA, and we literally couldn’t fit it into our schedule.” (POTUS later planted his agenda between two ferns with a guy named Zach Galifianakis.)
”So we were the ones who actually had to relieve the president of his duties,” Peele continues. ”But we still might do it someday. You know, he’s a buddy of ours.”