Keegan-Michael Key On The History Of Sketch Comedy, The Soul Of Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator, And Detroit Coney Dogs

Our minds jump to SNL when we hear the term “sketch comedy.” Or maybe to earlier variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show or Your Show Of Shows. Chappelle’s Show, In Living Color, Kids In The Hall, The State, and Key & Peele are others that have defined the form in the last 30 years, but as veteran sketch performer (and writer and producer) Keegan-Michael Key makes clear in his new Audible Original podcast, The History Of Sketch Comedy (which is now available), sketch predates screens, stretching back centuries, woven into storytelling and theater. It’s a fascinating journey and one Key takes his time taking listeners through, tossing out references and stories about more modern sketch performers and shows along the way.

Before you go dive into the podcast, though, let’s explore the battle of craft vs. topicality in sketch and one of Key’s own creations, Luther The Anger Translator, his hidden backstory, evident durability, and relatability, as told by Key when we spoke recently. Though first, please do indulge us as the conversation begins, as all conversations should when featuring someone from Detroit, with a question about coney dog allegiances.

I’m not from there, but I’ve been and I feel like it’s required that I ask anybody with Detroit roots: Lafayette or American?

Oh, American. I actually just switched over. I switched over. I don’t know what happened to me. It might be an issue of cleanliness for me now. There’s something about the grittiness of Lafayette. I think that the word grittiness could also be interpreted in other ways. You know what I mean? [Laughs]

There is a theatricality to Lafayette that doesn’t exist at American, though. There’s always this little guy… there’s a guy there, who for years would order a carton of milk and he would bring a plastic glass, like a cheap plastic glass. He would take the milk carton and open it and then he’d pour the glass. And somehow he could manage to get the stream of milk a foot and a half away from the cup and still be pouring it into the cup. So I will always appreciate the theatricality of it. Where else do you go to a restaurant and order, “I’ll have a carton of milk, please?” Just so I can watch this spectacle. That’s something that Lafayette will always have going for it.

That’s craft, right there. That’s like a hotdog cocktail. That’s great.

Exactly, exactly.

So, with the podcast, it was interesting the way you started talking about the roots of sketch comedy in one of the later episodes, the proverb about planting a tree, and the Bob Odenkirk/Birthday Boys analogy. Is the podcast, itself, your effort to speak to the future and plant the seeds for the future of sketch comedy? Because you really go in-depth on the entire history of sketch comedy here. Not just, “it all started with SNL.” Like, you go all the way back to the ancient Sumerians.

Yeah. I think that what we wanted to do was to put together a fully rounded history of this particular art form. It only occurred to us in the midst of making it that there was this interesting thing where you kind of say, “Well, gosh, at the end of the day, performance is performance.” Whether you’re watching on a screen or you’re watching live in a theater space, that dynamic should always exist. There will always be one person watching another person tell a story. And so there was a bit of a desire… I would say it kind of came to us that it would come full circle like that as opposed to… it wasn’t by design. If that makes any sense.

It does. Speaking of SNL, which is obviously the focal point of sketch comedy. The cliche is it’s never as good as you remember it. I try to cut it some slack because of the craft that’s involved. And so I wonder sometimes if the craft of sketch gets lost behind the topicality of these shows.

I think sometimes the craft does get lost. I think as we get swept up into the tide of topicality, there are certain things… Especially on SNL during a cold open, there are things that you want to include that are a touchstone for that week that everybody in society has experienced at large. So you kind of want to make sure… “let’s make sure we get that joke in or that observation in,” and sometimes the structure, that very foundational structure of “premise plus escalation equals sketch” does get lost a little bit. I think to expound on it just a little bit more, there’s the craft and the craft is always at the crossroads of one other thing, which is, is it going to make an audience laugh? Is it making me laugh? And I think sometimes when we’re dealing with topicality, this maelstrom of things that are ripped from the headlines that we’re trying to include all of that… we might get shortsighted. And I’m not talking about SNL in particular, just when you’re doing topical comedy in general, that sometimes we do lose that piece of the craft a little bit. A little bit. I would say it’s minutia. It’s negligible. But I agree that we do sometimes get swept away by recent events. And then we loosen our grip on form and structure a little bit.

Does that come from a want to just be on people’s minds and to continue being in the conversation? Or is it more internal? Is it more of, “I’ve got something to say about the situation right now, and this is the way I say things through sketch comedy?” You guys worked in some political stuff in Key & Peele. What’s the motivation when you have to kind of break those rules a little bit to meet the moment and the topic?

Well, the one thing is, Jordan [Peele] and I were, in a manner of speaking, by necessity pushed into a certain direction, which was that we had to write things that resonated with us at a deep evergreen level. So most of our observations, most of them, not all of them, most of our observations on Barack Obama were the fact that we shared a similar history to him and similar social dynamics to him in our lives. Being raised by single parents, being biracial in this society were things that made us fascinated to write about him. And so as you’ll notice in sketches like Luther and Obama, a lot of what’s going on is that it’s more an observation and an exercise in learning about who he is as a person. If that makes sense. We could have done that without him being the president. We could’ve just done a study on mild-mannered African-American men. Right? But the sketch wouldn’t have held as much weight. And the reason it resonated with so many people is because it was about the leader of the free world, and the fact that he happened to be a man of color, and all of the racial dynamics that exist in our country in specific.

But the necessity was that we knew how long it would take us to write and record the sketches. So we couldn’t do topical things for the most part. We had to find overarching human themes to work from, and large, long-standing tropes to work from as opposed to being able to stay in this kind of ephemeral immediate place. You get into that shoehorn place when you’re going, “I really want to get the topicality in there. I’m going to sacrifice a little bit of the craft.” You know? Or, “I could work probably a little bit harder on this setup and maybe find an even more clever way to present the premise, but I really don’t have the time.” And the thing is we were very fortunate that Jordan and I had the time. We had a 13-week writing process for two months of shooting. And it was actually a luxury, it was wonderful.

Thinking about the podcast and some things that have advanced the form are amazing performers, but also amazing sketches that just transcend time. And Luther is one of those. Years removed from it, how did the relationship change between you and that character once it hit big? Once it broke out and you’re doing the correspondence dinner with Obama?

It’s interesting. That’s an interesting question. It didn’t change my relationship with the character much at all, to be quite honest with you. He always lived within strict parameters. It’s very much the opposite of a lot of other characters that I played, where we wanted them to grow and wanted to see other aspects of their lives. Whereas he always stayed in that same place. The only time he pushed the parameter was when the other person… and the one time that we did it most successfully, obviously, was where Barack Obama himself was getting agitated and angry during his speech. And then I had to calm him down. And that’s the furthest we ever pushed the parameters of that character. Because really he is, I guess to use psychological terms, we were just providing Barack Obama with an id. Because it almost seems like he was so controlled and so graceful that he was only superego. He was only a precise thinking person who thought things out, and we just wanted to provide him with an id. So in a manner of speaking, I was just providing that for him. We didn’t get to learn any other aspects of Luther’s life.

We discussed it quite a lot. He has a whole backstory; he’s from my hometown, he’s from Detroit. He wanted to be a motivational speaker when he was a teenager, he was the one black guy on his lacrosse team. I had a whole backstory for the guy. He actually served a singular purpose.

With that singular purpose and with that success, when it pops do you start thinking about, “okay, where’s the off-ramp? How do we make sure we don’t overdo this?”

Yeah. It is a consideration. I haven’t had to explore it too much recently. I always wanted to do a retirement video for him. Or does Joe Biden need his services? Maybe Luther can go work for the Biden-Harris administration. He can jump between both of them. He can work for Kamala too, if he wanted to. I always wanted to see if there’s a world where Luther has a sandwich board that says, “Will get angry for work,” or, “Will get angry for food.” I do think there is a chance of him being worn out, but we certainly haven’t reached that yet. We certainly haven’t reached that. I think he has actually a very long shelf life because, again, he’s much less a person than he is a quality that exists within every human, and that won’t go away.

Absolutely. This is great. Thank you so much. Always a pleasure to talk with you.

You too, Jason. Next time you go to Detroit, go get a carton of milk at Lafayette.

‘The History Of Sketch Comedy’ Audible Original podcast is available now.