It’s been almost a year since Key & Peele went off the air and the show’s impact is still being felt as the show’s stars, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, branch out alone and together toward new challenges, including the team’s first starring feature film venture, Keanu, and the Mike Birbiglia film Don’t Think Twice, in which Key plays a major role. The series, recently collected in the DVD box set Key & Peele: The Complete Series, is still missed, however, particularly in an election year when so many issues seem ripe for commentary. We asked Key about watching this wild campaign from the sidelines, the challenge of working as a part of a comedy duo, his efforts to take on more dramatic work, and whether Key & Peele will ever return as a sketch show.
Do you feel a push to weigh in on everything that’s going on right now through the lens of comedy and satire in the way that Key & Peele did? Did you anticipate that when you decided to end the show?
I did not anticipate it when we decided to end the show. I think people… not in regards to the political realm. When we ended the show, there were people who were like, “What! Oh no, you guys make us laugh!” Recently, there has been a little more, “Boy we really need Luther, we really need Luther,” and I’m going “We really need Luther for what exactly?”
Because, I think some of the behavior we’re seeing is so… It’s so egregious and so obvious, in my opinion, that there’s nothing that you need. Everybody’s outrage is already on Twitter. [Laughs.] We saw Jon Stewart went on a tirade the other night. But we’ve seen all of that already. I’m not sure how Luther would do it better. The general public is doing it already.
So, there has been a little bit of a push, but the thing is also, from a completely comedic standpoint — and I’m not even speaking about the social component — I don’t know that there’s anything Jordan and I could manufacture that would be more ridiculous than what we’re seeing already.
So, I’m not sure how we would go about making it… Though, that of course, would be a delicious challenge. I would be remiss if I said I don’t miss it at all. It would be fun to sit down and put our heads together, maybe say, “Hmmm, what would the take on this be? What would the twist be?” So, yeah there is a little tug, a little pull of saying, “What would we do?” If he and I were to sit down in a room together and discuss it.
Does it concern you that we’re at a point where it is so obvious what’s going on that it’s very hard to satirize? Like you said, it’s so silly right now. Is there a concern that we’re all so aware of it and yet it’s still charging ahead?
It is frustrating. Comedically, where would I find the nuance? In my mind right now, actually in my mind, thinking about would the sketch be? What would it be? From a personal point of view, I’m going, “I don’t understand what…” Because I’m operating from a place, I think quite a few Americans are operating from a place where we’re trying to be rational. We’re trying to be logical. I think it’s not too much to ask a candidate what they’re actually practically thinking about doing.
I think one of the more interesting chapters of this political cycle is going to be the debate. I’m really looking forward to the debate. Maybe you should call me back, and ask me the first question again after the debates are done. Probably then I’ll really get into it. Then I’ll be able to weigh in other than via Twitter. It’s just… I really am baffled. But if you were to ask somebody who was all the way to the right, they might say that they’re baffled that anybody would vote for Hillary. So, you know, comme ci, comme ça.
Why do you think it’s so rare to see a comedy team now and what are some of the challenges of being so aligned with another performer?
I don’t have a standing theory as to why we don’t see comedy teams. I think that Jordan and I, we come from the same system. Our training in sketch comedy training was all at Second City. The Second City mantra and philosophy is to foster a sense of camaraderie and you’re always told that you know you had a good show if you made your partner get all the laughs. You know you had a good show if you set your partner up. If you serve the other than you know you’ve done your job well.
Because we came from that, it echoes, I think we were both primed to be able to get together. There was seldom, if any, bickering between us, ever. We just said, “Let’s do everything in our power to serve the show.” Let’s just serve the show. Let’s put our egos aside for the betterment of the show.
Maybe part of the problem is people. They get petty with each other. They don’t know they’re getting petty and they break up. Or maybe there’s just more teams than we think they are and they just haven’t moved to the forefront yet.
In regard to being linked to another person and how does that feel: It’s part of the brand… I feel like I wear Jordan like a medal around my neck. He’s part of my success and I would like people to think that maybe I’m a person who makes good decisions because when I made the decision to be aligned with this guy. But when I do private stuff, it is a bit of a challenge. A welcome challenge, but a challenge nonetheless.
But we’re kind of turning the boat around and I want to do different things. Jordan wants to direct thrillers and horror movies and I want to act in dramas. And so, you wear the brand — it’s a juggling act. You’re wearing the brand as your mantle of success. At the same time, you need to be seen as who you are and what you have to offer the world of entertainment in and of yourself.
Are you at a point where you’re saying no to more straight-up comedic roles or where you’re considering creating something for yourself?
More the former, I am saying no to more comedic roles. When I find comedic things that come across my desk, they have to fit with a checklist now that I go through in my head as I’m looking at a script. Nope, nope, nope, there have to be at least three things or four things off this checklist of five things or I’m going to pass on the project. As of right now, that’s what I’m looking for.
I love to collaborate with people. I like to find gems and then do anything I can to help hoist up the gem. Hoist the gem up. I like being the ring and the setting and the lighting so that I can make that gem look better and that gem quickly becomes… if you were going to personify the gem, it would be a really fantastic writer with a really amazing point a view. I’m a big collaborator. I’m not trying to come up with something by myself. I’m not trying to come up with projects for myself with partners. I’m in the midst of doing that.
With Don’t Think Twice, that’s a very good transition movie for me because it’s a drama about comedians. So there are comedians performing in the body of the film but the film itself has a very dramatic tone. It has everything in the movie. It’s very good-hearted but also, stark reality hits you in the face and there are lots and lots and lots of laughs. It’s everything I want. Those are some of the qualities in the projects that I’m looking for right now.
Why is it that we’ve seen so few projects that have been focused on stand-up comedy that have kind of touched on the dramatic elements of that life because it seems like a very solitary life at points. It seems like a very hectic life at points. Difficulty with relationships, I would imagine, because of the work schedule and moving around all the time. Why do you think it’s so hard to capture that and put it in a bottle?
I think the reason why we haven’t seen a lot of attempts of that is because a lot of people think, “Oh, the general public… it’s too narrow of a field. It’s too narrow of a focus. People aren’t going to get it.” I think people talk themselves out of doing projects. Whereas, what happened in this movie, in Don’t Think Twice, is Mike Birbiglia said I’m going to get as specific as I possibly can about this subject matter and hopefully it resonates universally. He just didn’t shy away from it. I think what happens is a lot of people shy away from it. I don’t know that there’s been a movie like this since Punchline. With Tom Hanks and Sally Field.
That’s a great one.
A lot of dramatic moments in this movie about the life of a stand-up comedian. I think people might have thought, “Gosh, I don’t know if anybody wants to see that movie.” So they don’t attempt the endeavor.
The whole parallel with the Saturday Night Live audition process is fascinating to me because I’m a huge SNL nerd. Speaking of SNL, actually, can a sketch show like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, The Kroll Show — a show that is focused on one talent or two talents as the star and the creator; can a show like that last more than a handful of years without diminishing returns? Or is the SNL model the only way for that to happen? The model of constant re-invention — is that the only way that a sketch show can last a long time?
I am of the opinion, that if you can find the right material to execute time in and time out, then a show could have a healthy dose of longevity for one or two entities. Boy, it’s funny. Once again, you look at the track record you go across the pond, Fry and Laurie wasn’t on for 20 seasons. That Mitchell And Webb Look, The Lenny Henry Show, Catherine Tate — most of these shows ran, you’re right, about three to five seasons. That’s the model over there.
The same thing here. I think you could probably make a show last a while with a focus on a single person. As long as you sometimes showcase the ensemble. The Tracey Ullman Show in the late ’80s could have gone for a long time. Could have gone for a long time because they were showcasing Julie Kavner, showcasing Dan Castellaneta, showcasing Sam McMurray — all of those actors that were on that show. I believe that The Kroll Show… What we were really exploring, more often than not, was six or seven plots that we kept revisiting, right? So then Jon Daly, Nick Kroll would sometimes let Jon Daly be the star of those sketches. I guess what you’re doing is taking that model and modifying it a little bit. If I say you’re going to enhance or showcase other members of the ensemble then aren’t you already doing the SNL model?
The only other way you keep a show like Key & Peele or Inside Amy Schumer going for numerous seasons is basically you don’t change it. Maybe you don’t swap the talent out. But you keep updating your writing staff so that things are new and things are fresh. Because that’s really the only way you would be able to do that.
Clearly, I’m of the opinion that five seasons is enough for a sketch show. [Laughs.]
Now, with something like Mr. Show, obviously they had their run for a long time, and then they came back last year with With Bob And David and did a great job.
It’s hard to say now because it hasn’t been that long since Key & Peele came to an end. But do you think there will ever be a time when, say, a decade has gone by and there are more story ideas that flood in and you turn to Jordan and say “Should we come back for a season or whatever?” Is that something that would ever be possible or is it past is past and why revisit?
I think it’s absolutely possible. Absolutely possible. I, and I cannot speak for my partner, I would say that it’s probable. Maybe what it is is that Jordan and I, you know, we made Keanu, we make another film. We make another film, and then maybe our fourth film is a sketch film. Like you said, it’s still so fresh. We haven’t discussed this or talked about it. But that’s something that I would welcome. That I would welcome. I would really enjoy doing that.
Now, the only other very germane thing to discuss, would be why are we doing this? What would the reason for doing it be? So I’d have to share my criteria with Jordan and that criteria, of course, would develop over the next decade, wouldn’t it? And he would have to share his criteria with me. We could figure out, together, what situation would be better.
Key & Peele: The Complete Series is available on DVD now.