To call Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s ascent since the 2012 debut of their recently concluded Comedy Central series Key & Peele “meteoric” would be an exaggeration. But it’s remarkable how quickly the two have gone from being a couple of guys best known for MADtv to cultural fixtures. The biggest reason is obvious: They’re hilarious. Key & Peele produced some of the funniest comedy sketches in recent memory. The contributing factors are more complex. It no doubt helped Key & Peele — just as it’s helped Inside Amy Schumer and other shows — to arrive in time to serve an internet audience hungry for bite-sized bits of comedy to watch and share. (If you didn’t catch, say, their “Dubstep” bit when it aired, chances are it found you the next day.) And, as they discuss below, their biracial parentage and choice of subject matter made them especially well suited to break out in the Obama era.
The lights have gone down on Key & Peele, but Key and Peele already have a next phase mapped out, one in which movies will play a major part, both as a team and individually. The pair’s upcoming projects include a Police Academy reboot and Key recently spoke to us about his role in Mike Birbiglia’s upcoming film Don’t Think Twice.
But first: Keanu, a funny action comedy in which Key and Peele play not-so-tough guys drawn into the L.A. underworld when Peele’s character’s cat, Keanu, gets stolen by drug dealers. Co-written by Peele and Alex Rubens (a veteran of Key & Peele, Rick & Morty, and Community), the film is directed by Peter Atencio, who also directed every episode of Key & Peele. Atencio always brought film knowledge and an attention to detail to the show, and that carries over into a film that Key and Peele describe as an inspired-by to Martin Brest, director of the quintessential action comedies Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run
Key and Peele made a point of promoting Keanu at cat charities and their stop in Chicago, where we spoke to them, was no exception. We joined them at Chicago’s Tree House, a no-kill shelter specializing in sick and injured cats. So, unavoidably, the conversation turned first to their thoughts on felines.
Do either of you have a history with cats?
Jordan Peele: My first pets ever were Pumpkin and Smokey, two kittens who were brothers. Then I ended up, in high school had two cats named Gypsy and Mina, two sisters. I happen to have a dog right now. We’re pet fans in general.
Keegan-Michael Key: I had a cat named Krazy Kat — like the old cartoon, the old funny papers — that my dad… I was an infant when we had that cat. Then we were much more dog people. Then my parents, my dad and my stepmother, had a cat named Samantha. She was one of these ones that lived to be 23. We had another cat named Beckett, after Samuel Beckett. He was a British blue and he was terrific. I’ve enjoyed cats. I had a cat for quite some time. Eve was her name. Then she was gone, too. Pets are fantastic. I think people should just have pets. It’s great.
You’ve been doing a lot of neat parody posters with this movie. Why do you think cats lend themselves to those kind of internet memes more easily than dogs?
Peele: I personally think that there is a duality about cats that draws people. It’s the same reason why… It’s like if you put a big tough guy in a room with a little chick — when I say a chick, like a baby chicken — it’s extra adorable. It’s more adorable than if you put just a baby chicken. There’s something about kittens. They’re predators. Cats are these singular hunters. There’s a vicious side to them, but it’s the cutest in-training version of that. I think they’re these little badasses, whereas dogs have a little bit more of a goofy, dumb cuteness.
Key: Also because of that predatorial nature, because they’re more fine-tuned that way, cats have a grace about them. When you see a cat fall over or when something embarrassing happens to a cat, there’s a more significant juxtaposition. Dogs are goofy, but a cat, it’s that grace. When you see that grace get undercut, I think it makes you giggle.
One thing I always liked about the show was how cinematic it was. What was it about this particular story that felt like it lent itself to a full movie treatment?
Peele: Really, the premise we wanted to really explore is something that Keegan and I explored several times on the show, normal guys put into a heightened situation. Alex [Rubens] and I were very influenced by Raising Arizona, by True Romance. We don’t really see movies like this made anymore. Thelma and Louise. Movies that have a sense of humor, but also have the heart, also have the action and the full package of film unto itself. It’s not just a parody. It’s not like we’re just making fun of a movie. That was it. It’s a love letter to movies.
Key: There’s a sensibility, too. He’s talking about Thelma and Louise. I call it “The Martin Brest Factor.” It’s lots of laughs, but the bullets are real. It’s that thing, that Beverly Hills Cop feeling where you’re like, “Oh, those punches hurt and there’s no winking at the camera,” that sensibility.
It’s hard to do. There were so many not-great Beverly Hills Cop ripoffs.
Key: It’s not the easiest tone to capture. Midnight Run I think is the best movie that’s ever done it. Ever. Where you find yourself guffawing, but there’s nothing that you can’t believe in it. I think Keanu has… It rides the line just the right way where there’s a little bit of absurdity where you get a different type of laughter from some of the moments in it.
At the heart of it is these guys having to act harder than they are, which goes back to your first sketch in the first episode. Why is that such a recurring theme in your work?
Key: You write what you know.
Peele: I think it’s something that everyone can relate to. We all do it. It goes back to this duality thing. I think it’s just part of the human condition is we all have a fighter in there. We also have an artist in there. We all codeswitch. We all talk to our grandmother in a different way than we talk to our friends from high school. For us, we realized there was a world there in the code-switching that hasn’t been explored. That’s going to dictate, I think, 90% of what we do is, “Have you seen it before? Where has this been done before?” If the answer is nowhere, then that’s …
Key: That’s where we want to explore.