'Key & Peele' stars talk racial sketch comedy in the Obama era
In a promo for Comedy Central's new sketch show, "Key & Peele," three slaves are on the auction block in the antebellum South. The biggest and strongest-looking sells immediately, leaving the other two -- Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who created and star in the series -- to crack jokes about how the slave traders managed to catch him in the first place.
As the provocative clip suggests, race in America is a central issue for the show, which premieres Tuesday. In sendups of Lil Wayne's recent stint in jail, '90s R&B singers and Gordon Ramsey's "Hell's Kitchen," the biracial comedians play characters from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, tackling touchy subjects such as self-stereotyping and black machismo.
But the MADtv veterans' goals for the show extend beyond envelope-pushing humor about race and pop culture. They also want to present what Peele calls a "modern take on what sketch can be." While they cite such genre touchstones as "Saturday Night Live" and "Chappelle's Show" as influences, Key and Peele also draw inspiration for the show from a more surprising source: the cinematic look of AMC and HBO series.
We spoke to the duo about "Key & Peele's" politically charged humor, their close friendship and one of the show's most recognizable characters -- Barack Obama.
How did "Key & Peele" come about?
Keegan-Michael Key: I was on a show that got canceled [CBS's "Gary Unmarried"], and Jordan was in a pilot that didn't get picked up, so we were both free at the same time, and our manager talked to us about doing a show together. Of course, we said yes.
Jordan Peele: All it took was the word that we both had that little period to pitch together, because we really are each other's biggest fans and best friends. It was a no-brainer. We've written and performed so much together -- and have so much fun together -- that this was a dream come true.
How has your friendship affected the way you collaborate on the show?
KMK: We've always been very candid and clear with each other. When you start a relationship from a place of candor, it's hard to screw it up. I believe that [honesty] is the source of all of our comedy. The stuff that's trying to make a social point has to be honest.
JP: I'm a bit of a jaded guy, but I lucked out with Keegan. He's the nicest guy in the world, and he's constantly striving to be a good person. His energy is contagious. And he's probably the one person I can trust, whose ego isn't going to get in the way of my ego at some point. He's very easy to work with. I imagine that, working with someone else, after a certain amount of time, I'd start to get crazy. I think this is the only option I have!
Race is a pervasive theme on the show. How important are your biracial backgrounds to "Key & Peele"?
KMK: They're crucial. The fact that we straddle two cultural worlds, and two racial worlds, is part of the ideological framework of the show. It's very important to us that it be not only a quote-unquote black show but also a ...
JP: An "other" show.
KMK: Thank you, Jordan. I like "other" better than "post-racial." Because if the world we lived in was post-racial, we wouldn't have a show!
JP: This is a lofty goal, but I'd love this to be the racial show to end racial sketch shows in general. We have a unique point of view on race and how absurd it is. We grew up in between worlds, without a clear definition of who we are. So, in all of our racial material, there's an underlying acknowledgment of how absurd the whole idea of [seeing] these physical traits as differences between human beings is. That's where a lot of our comedy derives from. Some of it may come across as "edgy," or even preachy, but ultimately what we're going for is, "This is funny."
Jordan, you do a Barack Obama impression on the show and have also portrayed the president in a series of popular Funny or Die videos. What do you hope to bring to the character during this election year?
JP: We're certainly Obama fans over here. The hardest thing was to figure out what the take is. The Obama that we've landed on is a little bit of a Bugs Bunny, with a bounce-back energy. He always seems to be in control of the situation, and it seems like no situation can be too big for him.
We've done a couple segments with his "anger translator," whose name is Luther [played by Key]. He is our venue to express the anger that Obama can't express in real life. Luther is a guy from the streets, a guy that Obama may have known back in the day, in Chicago. That's really one of the most fun things to do, because that's where Keegan just goes off.
KMK: I relish playing Luther. It's completely cathartic -- and hopefully cathartic for everybody.
Which other characters are you excited for viewers to meet?
JP: Keegan plays a landlord who's showing a couple of tenants a new apartment, and let's just say he's from the wrong side of the tracks. There's another guy, an old guy who's looking for the DJ to play some old-school hip-hop. And then whatever the DJ puts on, he needs it to be older-school.
KMK: Then there are the party motivators. We play two African Americans who are hired to go to bar and bat mitzvahs -- which can apparently be pretty solemn occasions -- to ignite them and get some excitement going. We didn't know about this. One of our writers said to us, "This is a phenomenon that exists in Nassau County."
JP: A black person at a bar mitzvah is basically a free license to let loose and party.
KMK: "Oh, look, black people! Let's dance!"
-- Judy Berman
Photo: Jordan Peele as Barack Obama and Keegan-Michael Key as Luther. Credit: Comedy Central