'Ya done messed up, A-A-Ron': An oral history of Key and Peele's 'Substitute Teacher'
What's in a (badly mangled) name? Over 195 million YouTube views and counting. Key & Peele's 2012 sketch "Substitute Teacher" has a simple premise — a tightly wound sub (Keegan-Michael Key) who taught in the "inner city" mispronounces white students' names — but the result is hall-of-fame-level hilarity. EW asked the stars to share their memories of that very tense roll call in Mr. Garvey's classroom.
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY (MR. GARVEY, KEY & PEELE EXEC PRODUCER): During the pitch meeting, once the premise was announced, the whole writers' room — it was like sharks in a frenzy after some chum had been dumped in the water. Everybody had an example of a name that they thought could work.
JULIAN SERGI (BLAKE/"BUH-LOCK-AYE"): [The sketch] was described to me as, there's a substitute teacher who mispronounces basic Caucasian names.
SHELBY FERO (DENISE/"D-NICE"): I was super lucky. [Key & Peele director] Peter Atencio, who I kind of knew through comedy stuff, called me. It was just, "Hey, we need someone for this. Do you want to come do it?" Thank God they didn't make me audition for it, because I would have blown it.
ZACK PEARLMAN (AARON/"A-A-RON"): From my recollection, this was the first offer I had ever gotten in my life… I was just starting the ability to grow a mustache and a beard. We thought it would be funny if I had a little wispy mustache, the way the most bully-ish kids in school had.
CARLSON YOUNG (JACQUELINE/"J-QUELLIN"): From what I remember, I was given very minimal information. I was just told that it was going to be a classroom sketch and here are some lines, here's the general idea what's going to be going on.
SERGI: We were basically told to play it super serious. It was the job of the students to be normal students who were dealing with this psychotic substitute teacher.
PEARLMAN: I was coming down from double pinkeye. I had gotten cleared by a doctor the day before, but I had to wear protective eye goggles because I still had the visual pinkeye without [being contagious]. I thought it would be funny if I had the glasses on the entire time.
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YOUNG: I pictured [J-Quellin] as the studious bookworm who's used to making straight A's and is pretty snarky because the classroom is her scene. She doesn't like getting in trouble, so that's what I tried to [get across]. Like, "Yeah, I can dish it, but I cannot take it."
FERO: In the moments before he turns on each of us, all of those looks we're giving each other, like "Oh my God, I don't want to be the next person," are not that fake. It was us being like, "Oh no, I'm about to have to do the line."
KEY: They didn't know I was going to improvise. I mean, Shelby didn't know I was going to say, "Say it right! Say it right! Say it correctly! Say it right!" She's an improviser. She got on the same page with me immediately, so I was going to let it go as long as she wanted to let it go. I think in the actual [sketch], it's four or five [exchanges]. We might have done it 13 times in a row, and then we cut it down in the editing bay.
FERO: We did it for a solid minute I would guess.
PEARLMAN: Not laughing around those guys is an insane challenge.
YOUNG: I do a thing where I squeeze inside of my hand really hard to keep myself from laughing in any kind of comedy situation. So when [Mr. Garvey] starts losing it at the end, I remember pinching myself, like, "Do not break. Do. Not. Break."
FERO: If I'm not on camera, I will suck my lips so far into my face to keep from laughing. I'm pretty sure if you [watch closely], you'll see people in the background kind of trying to be like, "Don't notice me laughing at this!"
KEY: I told the prop people, "Make sure that I have a breakaway clipboard, just in case." And they had been working with me long enough to know, Pete's going to say "Action," and we all need to be standing by cause who the hell knows what Keegan's going to do.
FERO: Every time Keegan had to do that with the clipboard, every single time, I was like, "Oh my God, my teacher's mad at me! What have I done?"
PEARLMAN: They let me kind of go off the rails. During the confrontation with Keegan and I, there were so many takes that just went way too long because we were having fun. At one point I did say, "Keegan, actually physically kick me out of class," but I don't think we got to shoot that one. I wanted him to grab me by the pants and try to throw me.
KEY: I improvised that line, "insubordinate and churlish." I cannot tell you where it came from. I don't know how that came out of my mouth. I don't know why Mr. Garvey knows the word "churlish," or anybody for that matter who's not a dandy from the 1780s. It just came out of my mouth.
FERO: Jordan [Peele] wasn't actually supposed to be in it. It was supposed to be one more kid [playing Tim-OH-thee], but at the last second, they took his line out and gave it to Jordan.
KEY: If my memory serves me correctly, the big debate in the room was, do we button the scene with the word "present" or "PRE-sent"? Is "present" enough of a joke? His name is already "Tim-OH-thee." I was like, "Does it hurt us if we do a double button?" And it got real academic. That was like a 10-minute discussion.
I'll give you a little [insight into] the inner workings of Key & Peele. Do you remember the "Yo Mamma Has Health Problems" sketch where I'm the Indian doctor, and I'm telling [Jordan's character] that his mother is obese, and she needs to cut back on the sodium in her diet because she has diabetes? And he's like, "Oh yeah? Well, yo mama is so fat…" In that sketch, my name is Dr. Rajeev Gupta. What we used to do is that every single EP in the editing bay had what was known as a "Gupta," which meant that if I pull my "Gupta" on this sketch, nobody can disagree with me and I get my way.
So we'd get into these discussions and sometimes it was like, "I'm telling you guys, I feel really strongly about this. I might go Gupta." And the other three [exec producers] would always say, "You only get one per season! We're only three weeks into the editing process…" If I did not use my "Gupta" on "PRE-sent," it was a Gupta-worthy moment.
PEARLMAN: Within six months of it being released I got like 500 links, I'm not even kidding, to a shirt — someone had made a "Ya done messed up A-A-Ron" Christmas sweater. People were like, "Dude, your face is on a sweater!"
SERGI: It was big enough that Paramount bought it, and it was almost made into a movie, which is crazy.
YOUNG: [Around] four to six months after the sketch came out, I remember walking outside my apartment in East L.A. and somebody rolling down their window and yelling, "J-Quellin!" I was like, "Whoa, okay. Well, if I've done nothing in my life, I am J-Quellin."
FERO: That sketch definitely got me through dropping out of college with my parents, good will-wise. I did Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on NPR for the first time that same year — and those two things were like the only things I had going for me, according to my parents.
SERGI: The Bachelor guy, [Blake Horstmann], he spelled out "balockaye" on his Instagram [handle], and he posted a link to [the sketch]. And so every single female that I know tagged me. It'll be stuff like that that comes up. I think I put out an Instagram story, like, "I'm Buh-LOCK-aye, you can't rob me of that. It's maybe all I'll ever have."
KEY: All four of them were stellar in this sketch. Some of my favorite sketches on Key & Peele are ensemble sketches. Though Mr. Garvey's driving the sketch, it's their priceless performances that really take it to another level. I think that Zack deserves a lot of credit, because if someone recognizes me on the street, very often, they go, "Ha ha ha, there he is, A-A-Ron." They identify the sketch as "A-A-Ron."
PEARLMAN: I am very happy to be known as A-A-Ron, even though my brother's name is Aaron and we've ruined his name.
KEY: The two most popular sketches in Key & Peele history are both about names: "Substitute Teacher and the "East/West College Bowl." I think it has to do with [the fact] ownership of your being is connected to your name, and if you've ever had your name pronounced incorrectly, it's something that resonates. That's my unscientific, unproven theory as to why it continues to bring joy.
Listen to Keegan-Michael Key discuss "Substitute Teacher" in this exclusive clip from his Audible Original podcast, The History of Sketch Comedy: