This story first appeared in the “Down to the Wire” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
As Keegan-Michael Key headed to a gig on April 25, he was worried. He’d just had a couple of rehearsals for a bit he was going to perform at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner that night — but since his partner in the bit was the President of the United States, he figured that comic timing might not be too high on Barack Obama’s list of priorities.
“We had two little run-throughs in the West Wing, but when we went over to the Hilton I was getting a little nervous,” Key, 44, told TheWrap. “I was thinking, ‘He’s got a lot of stuff on his mind, you know?’ But he murdered it.”
The bit, which had become a viral sensation when Key and Jordan Peele debuted it on their Comedy Central sketch show “Key & Peele,” found the president delivering innocuous comments, and Key, as the president’s “anger translator” Luther, supplying what the chief executive would really like to say.
Obama: “The Supreme Court ruled that the donor who gave Ted Cruz six million dollars was just exercising free speech.”
That night, said Key, “I found myself, almost in the middle of doing the piece, marveling at what an amazing straight man he was. It was a little startling how good he was at it. And five years ago, if you had told me that was going to happen, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.”
But those years had included four seasons of “Key & Peele,” which landed them one big fan inside the Oval Office and many others outside it — including members of the Television Academy who this year gave eight Emmy nominations to the show, the duo’s Super Bowl special and the short-form program “Key & Peele Presents Van and Mike: The Ascension.”
Those nominations included Outstanding Variety Sketch Series and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for Key, who probably owed some votes to the visibility he got standing next to the president as Luther.
“All we knew when we started the show is that we had to address the president in some way,” he said of that signature bit. “We certainly didn’t have any idea it was going to get into the zeitgeist the way it did.”
And when Obama leaves office, he added, Luther will be retired as well. “It’ll be hard to let go, but I think we have to. It’s like anything: Things just run their course. You get to a point and you go, ‘This was a moment in time.'”
Key was talking about Luther, but he could also have been talking about “Key & Peele.” As he first revealed to TheWrap, he and Peele have opted to make this summer’s Season 5 their final one, and to pursue future projects both separately and together.
“I compare it to Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor,” he said. “We’re going to make a movie and then do our own thing for three years and then come back and make a movie and then go do our own thing.”
But they’ll be leaving behind a body of work that has produced both a number of viral moments and, perhaps unexpectedly, a 2013 Peabody Award. “They tackle racially charged ideas and issues like no one else on television,” read the Peabody citation, in part. “They break new ground even as they lay claim to all of comedy’s traditions.”
The Peabody cited Dave Chappelle and Sid Caesar as comic progenitors for “Key & Peele” — but when asked where his comedy comes from, Key opted for a different, though equally mismatched, pair. “There are two people who influenced me more than anybody — Richard Pryor and Peter Sellers,” he said.
“Peter Sellers was an actor who brought real chops to comedic roles. Even when he was playing somebody as broad as Inspector Clouseau, you always believed that he was inhabiting the character. And the thing about Pryor is the pathos — yes, he was a raw comic, but just listen to the dashed dreams and the disillusionment of the characters he played. Those guys are really my benchmarks.”
Given that both Key and Peele are biracial, with black fathers and white mothers, it makes sense that their inspirations were both black and white. “You can’t help but put forth material in the way that you see the world,” said Key. “The term Jordan coined for us a while back was racial referees.
“Code-switching is something that comes very easily to us. Because as a child, all you want to be is comfortable. ‘That’s how these kids talk? I better learn how to talk like that.’
“You start noticing the nuances of different cultures’ behavior because you’re jumping back and forth between the cultures. You don’t get so invested in a culture that you’re afraid to make fun of it. So I think that’s just how we write. And we’re both products of the Second City Theater in Chicago, which is known as America’s temple of satire. So the world comes through all those filters into our brain, and we spit back out the only comedy we know how to write.”
Key and Peele’s comedy has included such instantly viral bits as Luther; a hapless substitute teacher, the subject of a film currently in development at Paramount; and the football players with increasingly ludicrous names like L’Carpetron Dukemarriot and Myriad Profiteroles. When they asked real NFL players like D’Brickashaw Ferguson to participate, many readily agreed but a few declined: “You learn different people’s senses of humor, and how seriously they take themselves,” Key said with a grin.
Asked if they know when a bit is going to hit big, Key shrugged. “You know that a bit’s going to work when two things happen almost simultaneously,” he said. “You get really titillated and excited by it, and then you think, No, somebody else must have done this. And then the third thing that lets you know you’ve stumbled upon something is when later somebody else says, ‘Oh, God, how did I not think of that?'”
But however adept at comedy Key may be, it’s not his first passion. He has an MFA in theater from Penn State and was trained as a Shakespearean actor — that’s one reason why, when you mention his and Peele’s funny roles in the dark miniseries “Fargo,” he immediately points out, “It was a very contemplative funny–a Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern funny.”
And it’s why he wants to his future to take him into drama as well as comedy. “I’m a classically, formally trained actor, and I just happened to take this 18-year detour,” he said. “By no means do I want to come in for a landing permanently away from comedy, but I would like to make some stops in some darker places. It’s been absent from my life for quite some time. And I’m feeling as a person, it’s time to go back to that.”
But can he convince directors, producers and casting agents that Luther the Anger Translator is the right guy to play Hamlet?
“It’s very funny that you say that,” he said, “because I’ve had a standing invitation for 10 years to play Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. I would like to think that people can see hints and pieces of drama in ‘Key & Peele.'”
Like many a comedic actor, Key finds the distinction between genres to be almost interchangeable because the approach to the character is the same. “I play 50 percent if not more of the straight men in our pieces, and I really take everything seriously from the character’s point of view,” he said.
“We find the character’s situation ridiculous, but he or she finds it dire. And the thoughts that they’re thinking are legitimate dramatic thoughts. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump to move to the other genre, as far as I’m concerned.”
He grinned, and conceded that not everybody sees it that way. “Now, talk to my agents. How do you convince them to let me do that? I’m about to shoot a movie in New York that is actually a drama about improvisational comedians. Maybe that’ll be the transitional piece.”
A shrug. “I don’t want to bore you with the particulars, but there’s a game plan in place. I just have to keep moving incrementally in that direction and work those old dramatic chops a little bit. I feel like the Tin Man–I just need to put some oil on those joints.”