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.
Why do you think that’s resonant for so many people? I think that’s part of why the show connected with a lot of people.
Key: We’ve been quoted as saying, “We wouldn’t have a show if Barack Obama wasn’t the president.” Despite the fact we’re all of a similar demographic — Jordan and me and the POTUS — I think it’s something that was then exposed to the rest of America at large. They could see it and say, “Oh, I didn’t know that was a phenomenon.” But then beyond the peculiarities of us goes to what Jordan just said, which is, “Yeah, I guess I do that, too.” That’s why people are so fascinated when they see [Obama] at a basketball game or a basketball practice and he meets Kevin Durant, and he bro hugs Kevin Durant and then shakes all the white people’s hands.
Like you said, Jordan, we’re all doing that circus act. All humans do. We’re super malleable. All we’re doing is trying to make everybody else feel comfortable. It’s the people on the edges that kind of just do their own thing that we all look at as strange or different. For the most part, everyone’s kind of dancing and trying not to step on each other’s toes. It’s hard not to resonate with a behavior you do every day whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Peele: This country keeps getting more and more mixed. It’s going to keep going in that direction, and I think that there’s something very cool about that. I think that when you have somebody like Barack Obama being the main symbol for this country, there’s something about that that I think is sort of needed proof that we’re all the same underneath the skin. Here’s a guy who’s everything. You can’t separate the two. He’s not a black man. He’s not a white man. He’s something different. There’s something healing about the fact that people are just falling in love and having kids. That’s what life is.
Key: Then other people who live in America have to grapple with that. When you say “resonate,” it doesn’t necessarily have a positive connotation. It resonates in different ways. That’s something that people just have to… I said it. They have to grapple with it.
Key and Peele premiered in the first Obama administration.
Keanu‘s coming out at the end of the second one. Do you feel like the way your material is received has changed at all over the course of those years?
Peele: I think with anybody trying to do comedy, you have a mountain to get over, you have a hump to get over. That is because the person standing up and waving their hands and saying, “I’m funny. Pay attention to me,” is often immediately disliked. I think that Keegan and I, we don’t shy away from challenging people. We push buttons and try and make people laugh while we’re pushing buttons.
Key: That’s the challenge. It’s a fun challenge.
Peele: Every day we meet people who tell us this story about, “I first watched you. I was like, ‘Nah, this ain’t for me.’ Then my other friend showed me that other sketch and that one was cool. Then that third one, though, that was the one that I loved that got me.” Also with a sketch show, we’re doing so much variety that you may not have seen your favorite Key & Peele sketch yet. Everybody’s got a different relationship.
Key: There’s different points of attack. There’s different points of entry for different people. Like you said, that’s the advantage of a sketch show is that we can give you a variety of different pieces. It’s a chocolate assortment of comedy. “This is my kind of thing. Oh, that’s not really my thing. Oh, I understand what they’re doing here.” Then you look at your friend and he’s dying laughing. That brings you together. It makes you go, “What is it that you find so funny about that?” Which then makes that person more interesting to you or whatever the case may be.
Not that we’re trying to build relationships here. I think that people are receiving it differently? Maybe what happened is we got out when the getting was good, is that people are trying to figure out the formula, and we didn’t know there was a formula. We just knew what made us laugh. Let’s just keep doing that. Then once it starts to feel like maybe it’s going too easily and we can just plug the formula in, we stop. Go on to the next thing. Let’s find a new formula. We can’t solve this equation with this formula. We just keep shaking out equations. Then we’ll find a new theorem to figure out that equation.
Did it worry you going into a movie to be mostly locked into two characters and more or less one tone for a feature length?
Peele: No. Certainly not the characters. I think that was a fun challenge for us. I don’t think it was a worried situation. It was also a welcome challenge. Whereas a sketch show, you get to make different things with different tones, with the movie, we tried to design a movie that everyone will like. It’s this melting pot of the most adorable kitten video of all time and a drug movie and a buddy comedy.
Key: And an action comedy.
Peele: And an action comedy. We have a certain amount of faith that once all of these things were put together, you’re going to get something brand new. I think if there’s anything we’ve accomplished here and Peter’s accomplished that I’m really proud of is that Keanu‘s not like any other movie. Pardon the pun, it’s not a copycat movie. It’s its own thing. That’s just a dream come true as movie fans.
Key: That’s what you want. That’s what we’ve done our whole lives. You adopt, like you mentioned earlier, Raising Arizona. Why? Because the Coens do things technically and artistically that you just cannot categorize. That’s what resonates.
Peele: It’s them.
Key: It’s just them. Yeah. Then you feel like you’ve adopted them into your heart or into your ethos, or into your aesthetic. We hope people do that with Keanu.
You referred to it at South by Southwest as a “work in progress.” Is that kind of new to you, having to test things out and see what works versus the sketch show?
Key: Not really. We did it in the sketch show.
Key: In the first two seasons, we would do the live stuff. We would use the live tapings as test screenings. We consolidated to try to kill two birds with one stone. Then we’d go back into the edit right after we finished the live stuff and do the final ultimate touches to sketches. “Oh, that didn’t get a laugh. Oh, that got a much bigger laugh than we thought. Maybe we should extend that.” It’s really just an extension. We just did it one time or three times as opposed to doing it numerous times.
As you segue into movies, what’s your strategy for navigating the business?
Peele: We luckily are at a place where I think if we put our mind to something, we’ll be able to pull off some version of it. For me, it’s don’t get too caught up with playing the Hollywood game. Just focus on the art. Follow the fun. Be thankful for the opportunities we have. One thing we just discovered on our show is whenever we’re having fun, the audience can tell. I think that’s it. We just have to make sure we put ourselves in situations where we are having fun and we’re pushing ourselves. Not get too comfortable.
Key: It’s a nice little balance of gratefulness and a healthy ambition. Not healthy ambition as in lots of ambition. Healthy ambition as in balanced ambition.
Peele: I don’t think we’re necessarily going to be trying to get more famous for the sake of getting famous. It’s not about the celebrity or anything like that for me.
Key: The thing is: There’s no top. There’s stuff that Tom Cruise wants to do that he might get to do. But then in the midst of the art, did he still achieve and execute what he wanted? It doesn’t matter that he’s the number-one movie star in the world. There should still be this divine satisfaction. There should still be this sense of just having fun, being challenged, and just be grateful that you have a vocation, not a job.
Peele: We’ve been doing it for a while. We’ve been satisfied by what we do far before this thing started hitting. If the bottom fell out, it’s like whatever. Keegan and I will get a black box theater. We’ll go and have a blast.
Key: Yeah. Go on the road and do our vaudeville show. It’s like, why not? That’s what it is. That’s what you’re doing it for. You’re doing it to be fulfilled in a way other… Because fame is ephemeral. It really is. It can just [snaps fingers] like that. You may as well just live your life and try and be fulfilled and have fun as best you can.