Best of 2015: Keegan-Michael Key talks having Obama for a scene partner
The comedian and actor breaks down what it was like appearing as Luther, Obama's anger translator, at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner
Keegan-Michael Key doesn’t need an anger translator, but could use a break. The comedian and actor had a banner 2015: He received his first Best Supporting Actor Emmy nomination for Key & Peele, completed the final season of the sketch comedy series with co-creator Jordan Peele, stole viewers’ hearts on Playing House, and guest-starred on half a dozen series, including BoJack Horseman and Parks and Recreation.
So it’s no wonder he’d like to slow down before 2016 begins. “It’s been a big year,” he tells EW, looking back. “I’m going to need the time to concentrate and sit back… I just gotta recharge my brain.”
But in the meantime, he’s happy to celebrate a standout moment from his big year: the time he wound up on stage as his popular Key & Peele character Luther (a.k.a. President Obama’s “anger translator”) with Obama himself at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April:
The bit came together extremely quickly, Key says. Obama speechwriter David Litt first floated the idea in December 2014, but didn’t put a script together until late March. Luckily, Key had just finished shooting Key & Peele and devoted the next two weeks to reviewing the jokes with Peele — a process that didn’t take too long, as most of what Litt penned landed for the comedians. “This all happened very fast,” Key says. “I didn’t have a ton of notes, and Jordan said, ‘Hey, I don’t get all these jokes, but it looks good to me.’ They looked like inside jokes to the people [in politics].” Even Luther’s final moment in the bit — when he pauses next to Michelle Obama — was planned from the start.
Thanks to that preparation, Key’s five minutes with POTUS had even the most partisan audience members in the room laughing. Below, the comedian breaks down what it was like to share the stage with the leader of the free world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I’d like to begin with the rehearsal. What was it like running lines with the president?
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: We rehearsed for about 10 minutes total. I left the Hilton to go over to the White House, and we went into the West Wing, and I was given a little tour of the West Wing, which was amazing. And then I was waiting in an area called the Map Room, which was apparently one of FDR’s favorite rooms. It’s just got a big stack of maps in the wall.
The podium was set up in there for the rehearsal, and I had been running the lines for quite some time, so I was just waiting when the president came in and walked right up to me and gave me a big bro hug. And he’s like [imitates Obama] “You’re Key,” and I was like, “Oh my God.” And then we ran through it twice. The first time, he was like [imitates Obama] “Now, you gotta keep it together, alright? We gotta keep it together.” So we started saying the lines and after my first line, he laughed. Like, I gotta keep it together? [Laughs] He was like [imitates Obama], “Oh, I gotta do it, I can’t laugh!” So we had a real fun time with that.
And then right up at the very end of the rehearsal, he said [imitates Obama], “You’re gonna do that thing with Michelle, right?” And I said, “Yes, sir!” And he’s like [imitates Obama], “Oh-kay, I’m gonna let her know.” He was very, very sweet at the end. He asked me how Peele felt about the bit. He wanted to make sure that Jordan was okay with the fact that he wasn’t in the sketch.
What did you tell him?
I said, “Sir, it was Peele’s idea.” [Writer] David Litt and Jordan both said this might be more streamlined, because how often does something like this happen, where a fictional character literally comes to life? …And then POTUS left, and the advance team came to me and asked if I wanted to come back to the Hilton in the motorcade with them. I was like, “I’m sorry, the motorcade? What do you think the answer to that question is? Of course I want to be in the motorcade!” And that’s not even the coolest thing I did that day! [Laughs]
Did POTUS or the writer have a favorite joke?
There was one joke… David was very kind and gracious and gave Jon [Favreau, the president’s head speech writer] credit for was the Khaleesi joke, which might have been the best joke in the piece. “Khaleesi comin’ to Westeros.” Amazing. And the president was like [imitates Obama], “Huh. That’s a good one. Khaleesi, I like the Khaleesi.” [Laughs]
Other than breaking during the rehearsal, do you remember the president doing anything else? Did he come up with anything on his own?
He didn’t, but it was funny, he was ready to go with the angry part, where Luther gets taken aback. I was like, “Oh, he’s doing it! Here he comes!” And he was like [imitates Obama], “self-serving, shortsighted.” He did it real loud, and I was like, “Okay, coooooool!”
And then the other thing he did, which was amazing, was there was some joke about not being able to get something through Congress. The president used an expletive, and it was hilarious, because he said something to the effect of [imitates Obama], “This isn’t even a joke. I mean this s— is ridiculous.” And you could just see a flash of frustration, like “This is literally what I deal with every day.” It was really funny to get a little glimpse of insight.
Did you actually see him angry?
No, no. The most I saw was during that moment, and I would say he was perhaps mildly perturbed. He was amused and perturbed simultaneously, if that makes any sense.
During the rehearsal, did you give him any tips on comedy?
There were a couple of lines we were massaging, where I was like, “Oh, you’ll have applause there, so pause here or over here.” Like, just little stuff.
After the rehearsal and that motorcade ride, you ended up getting ready to go on stage. Do you remember what was going through your head before you walked out?
Yes. As he was doing the preamble, my thought was, “Thank God these lights are so bright, and I can’t see anybody.”
Well, the whole day I was learning his lines and my lines to keep my nerves down, so that if anything goes awry, I can be in a position where I can feed him lines. And of course I didn’t have to. But when I entered, I actually entered too soon. The distance between me to him was enormous and we didn’t have that distance in the rehearsal. So he said “Luther,” and I should have been there already! That’s why you see, as I’m walking on, I look real angry, and I’m breathing hard, diving right in. I was just like, “You gotta make the most out of the entrance now.”
Were you worried about the president flubbing his lines at all?
Maybe, but at that moment before I walked onto stage, “Between Two Ferns” came into my mind. I thought, “If he can do it with Zach [Galifianakis], he can do it here.” I mean, he did it with such aplomb, that was what startled me watching it back, how good his timing was.
You mentioned the president particularly enjoying the Khaleesi line. Were there any moments during the bit that stand out in your head, in which you got big laughs for a joke you didn’t expect? Or is it all a blank now, because you were just going for it?
I was really more just going for it. Once I was out there and I could see that he could handle the timing, I just got comfortable. I said, “I know this. He’s got the papers in front of him. We’re good. Let’s do this thing.” And people say to me all the time, “You touched him!” And I did, I touched him and Michelle. It was bizarre, like… how? It was amazing.
When did you realize that the bit had gone over well? It’s a rough crowd to appeal to, but did you talk to anyone after you left the stage?
When the thing was over, I was walking to the lobby to go upstairs for some parties and stuff [laughs], and there were people who congratulated me who I could tell have never watched Comedy Central in their lives. Jordan was right. He had said, “Let’s just keep the most streamlined bit we could possibly get, so the people who don’t know who we are will also get the joke.”
So when I walked off, there was a woman in her 60s backstage, who was clearly a staffer there. She was like, [imitates older woman] “That was very clever!” And I was like, “Good, she doesn’t know who I am, and she got the bit.” So yeah, talking to that lady was my crowning achievement. [Laughs]
Did you and the president get to chat afterward? What were his thoughts?
We did! We took a photo, and he just said it was a good job, and Michelle, she said, “That was good, that went well.” And it went really well. I have the picture. They sent me the photos which I treasure on my hard drive, but I can’t share. [Laughs]
You began playing Luther in 2012 when Key & Peele began airing. Over the years, how has playing him changed for you? What was it like to cap off that character in an appearance with the real Obama?
It’s funny, because we discovered a template in the first two Obama-Luthers. He has certain traits and characteristics, and I make a conscious effort to always give the viewer what you expect from Luther. He doesn’t have to evolve because the times are gonna evolve, and he’s going to react to them in the most appropriate way possible. So we always have him jump in that very weird way, in which his knees are almost level with his shoulders. We always have him do some kick around Obama’s head, and we always have him walk off camera, out of frame, and back. The greatest hits happen in every single version of it.
You got to take a tour of the White House, ride in the motorcade, and get up on stage during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. What was it like pretty much living the life of POTUS for a day?
It was crazy. Coming in on the motorcade was amazing because there were all these military guys around and the guys with the football, the black attaché cases with the nuclear codes. I was like, “Oh my God, the nuclear codes have to be in one of those cases! I’m probably in the safest place right now!” And at the Hilton, they put me in this room called the President’s Room, where Bush, Clinton, and Bush Jr. would all review their notes before the White House Correspondents’ Dinners, and so I got to sit in that room that usually anybody but the president and maybe whoever the speaker after got to sit. I was hidden in there [before the bit].
And there was a bank of phones there, where if anything happened or went down, then the president would go into that room, over to the phones, and call, like North Korea. [Laughs] When I was in the room, I walked back and forth trying to knock some nerves out, and when I was going back [afterward], there was a Secret Service guy who said I can’t enter, and I was like, “Oh, I was gonna grab my wallet,” and he was like, “You have to have your aide with you,” and I was like, “Oh right, yes, I can’t just wander about!” [Laughs] So yeah, it was lots of that.
On that note, if you could pick a Secret Service name for yourself and one for Luther, what would they be?
We should call Luther “Phoenix” or “Firebird.” I would want him with something that’s fire-related. And me? I would want my codename to be “Joker.” [In a robotic “Secret Service” voice] “Joker’s leaving the room. Yup. Joker’s leaving the room.” [Laughs] Or even better, “Harlequin.” [In a robotic “Secret Service” voice] “Harlequin is on the move.” [Laughs] Oh no, that’s too much, too much.
Key & Peele