Let Keegan-Michael Key school you on The History of Sketch Comedy with his new podcast
Keegan-Michael Key is living proof that you should always listen to your spouse. The actor and comedian owes his latest gig — a 10-part Audible podcast called The History of Sketch Comedy (premiering Jan. 28) — to his wife/business partner, Elle. She not only suggested that Key put his extensive comedic knowledge to work in an audio series, she came up with the unique format: "Elle said, 'You could perform the scenes, so the show becomes part history, part performance,'" recalls Key. "So I do every character [in the podcast], from Monty Python to Chappelle's Show." Here, the Key & Peele co-creator previews some of the quintessential comedy creations getting the deep-dive treatment on History.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What interested you about exploring sketch comedy in podcast form?
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: I've been a student of sketch comedy for a very, very long time, as it's been a part of my life and a part of my profession. I like to study, I've always liked enjoyed school. There's just been kind of a historic interest about sketch comedy for quite some time. My business partner was like, you have an extensive knowledge of sketch comedy — why don't we do an Audible series or something. My business partner is my wife, Elle Key, and it was her idea.
It was an absolute blast to be able to do the performance aspect of it while also teaching things about the history… There are places in the middle of the sketches where I'll stop the sketch and go, "Now here's why this is so comedically brilliant..." Or, "Here's why I really enjoyed this piece..."
In the first episode, you share memories of watching Saturday Night Live with your dad growing up. How was that show formative for you?
First of all, [for] a lot of people of color, when you see someone on the screen who looks like you, it automatically starts to resonate with you. In my case it was Eddie Murphy. It was not only him being a person of color and me having that exposure to him, it was also having an exposure to this occupation. I didn't know that was a job! I had heard him do stand up and he'd become the biggest standup comedian in the world. When people started talking about SNL, my dad really wanted to watch Eddie Murphy do his Stevie Wonder impression. My dad was a huge Stevie Wonder fan.
I knew [SNL] was different than stand up. I saw that there was some kind of interesting differentiation. The most formative thing for me was, "Wait a minute, that's a job too?" And then I started to become very curious. So I read, um, the Bob Woodward biography of John Belushi called Wired and learned about the Second City, and I was off to the races from there on in. My father kind of formed my sense of humor a little bit, because I watched what he was laughing at. What did my dad find funny? And why does he find that funny? That was the beginning of it for me.
Were there other sketches that you remember loving growing up?
There was a guy on SNL in the early-to-mid '80s named Gary Kroeger. He did a sketch where he was making a dating video tape. Remember these? You would go to an office and look at the dating video tapes and watch the video tapes in a VHS machine? In the sketch, he played a dentist, and I remember him making this sexy dentist tape. Even at that age, I started to understand what a juxtaposition was. Meaning, "Oh dentists aren't sexy, and he's a dentist making a sexy video." I felt clever. I was like, "Oh, I see why this is funny."
But Eddie doing Stevie Wonder was the thing. You'll hear me tell a story in The History of Sketch Comedy about Eddie impersonating Stevie Wonder in a sketch with Stevie Wonder. It's one of the coolest parody sketches I've ever seen, because Stevie Wonder is playing a Stevie Wonder impersonator, and then Eddie Murphy has the gumption and the confidence to say to Stevie Wonder, "No, no, man. You ain't doing it right."
In another episode, you'll explore the role of comedy in Medieval times. What can you preview about that?
One thing is, we explore the fact that I used to work at Renaissance festivals. I thoroughly enjoyed working at the Renaissance festival. The other thing is when you think about people like Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher and the comedic pundits of our day, that's what Jesters used to do in the Court. [They delivered] news and current events within the Court. There's something very akin to sketch in that.
Can we please hear more about your time at the Renaissance faire? What did you do there?
I was in a comedy show where we swung from rafters and people picked each other up over their heads and threw them into wells, saving the damsel and all that stuff. I did that for two years, and then another year I was in a Comedia dell'arte group, which is Italian improvisational comedy from the 15th and 16th century. It was something I'd studied in school… I went around the festival in character and in my Comedia mask. I would try to stay in character the entire day — in heels, by the way. I was 20, so I could handle it.
Of course this all reminds me of your Othello sketch from Key & Peele.
Right, an urban sensibility meets an Elizabethan sensibility. That's one of my favorite sketches ever. I love at the end that we go find Shakespeare and try to shake him down. It was right up my alley because I got to write all the Elizabethan English for the dialogue. My favorite line in the whole sketch is when Jordan goes, "Moor, please!" It's clearly two African-American gentlemen from the inner city going to the movies, and then you just slap on this Elizabethan veneer. It was one of my favorite sketches.
In episode 5 of the podcast you explore variety shows, including Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. How would you explain Sid Caesar's importance to today's audience?
With Your Show of Shows, he [created] the template for what modern looks like. He changed the variety format. Variety came from vaudeville, so it was, "Hey, there's going to be a juggling act, and somebody on a tight rope and then a comedian is going to tell some jokes." It was people like Sid Caesar who decided, "What if we just did the comedic bits?" He wasn't the only one doing it at the time. It was also the fact that he did so much really wonderful physical work. There's a sketch that we mention in the Audible series called "The Bavarian Clock." The sketch is like seven minutes long, and it's all mimed. It tells an entire story.
You also give some props to The Muppet Show in the variety show episode too. What do you love about the Muppets?
The thing that's always resonated with me the most with The Muppet Show was the band. Animal the drummer was my favorite. I didn't know I was watching a variety show. It's an actual legitimate variety show — it's got sketches, it's got musical acts. The great thing about the Muppets is because they were puppets, they could do things that you've never seen in an actual variety show, like the guy with the boomerang fish.
One episode of the podcast is called "Sketch Goes to the Movies." How do movies like Airplane! fit into the universe of sketch comedy?
As were doing research [for the podcast] Elle kept on mentioning jokes from Airplane! I was like, "Well, Airplane! isn't a sketch…" And then I thought about it: There are so many bits in Airplane! that you could watch independent of the movie and still get enjoyment from it. Another term we use is "joke bucket." Like, "Here's the joke bucket — it's an airplane movie, and you just throw as many jokes in it as we can." [Directors] Jim Abrahams, and David and Jerry Zucker were the masters at that.
As you mentioned, you perform some classic sketches in this podcast — will you preview some of the celebrity impressions listeners will hear you do?
Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, John Cleese, Chris Rock. I think I do a little bit of Chris Farley. All three of the guys in the Oveur, Unger, and Dunn scene from Airplane 2, which was one of my favorite things to do… All the laughter is genuine on the podcast, because we were just having fun. Sometimes I'd just start laughing, and Elle was like, "Keep rolling. Just keep recording him."
The History of Sketch Comedy premieres Thursday, January 28 on Audible.