When Dave Chappelle was in Toronto, he had some unkind words to say about Key and Peele. During one of his five sold-out shows, Chappelle landed an aside about how tired he was of watching them do his show for five years — a not-so-subtle accusation that comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key (the tall, bald one) and Jordan Peele (the not-so-tall, rounder one) stole his shit.
On the one hand, you could see where Chappelle was coming from. Similarities do exist (and some, like having Key and Peele introduce their sketches in front of a live audience, were mandated by Comedy Central — though that setup ended after their second season); after all, both were sketch shows starring African-Americans that managed to talk about race in a way that was at times searing, but still palatable to mainstream (read: white) audiences.
So, sure, Chappelle can feel annoyed that a new show replaced the memory of his. On the other hand — and here we tread on dangerous territory — isn’t throwing that particular shade kind of, um, racist? Because, really, the only reason Chappelle is calling them out while on his comedy tour is that Key and Peele happen to be black. He didn’t call out Amy Schumer, or Nick Kroll, or Bob Odenkirk and David Cross — all funny people who recently had popular sketch shows that also addressed social issues.
But if it’s racially motivated, Chappelle isn’t to blame. Mainstream (again, mostly white) audiences have always had trouble accepting more than one performer at a time who isn’t main- stream. Amy Schumer is the Funny Woman of the moment. Before her, it was Chelsea Handler, and before her Joan Rivers. There are other female comedians, just as there are other black comedians, but success is a bit like politics — every community only gets so many representatives.
That can be a lot of pressure for a performer, but it hasn’t seemed to bother Key and Peele. Last year, they retired (too soon!) from their show, but they’re still working together. This month, they star in Keanu, a caper flick about a kidnapped kitten, co-written by Peele and directed by frequent collaborator Peter Atencio, which will keep exploring some of the issues that Key and Peele, the show, and Key and Peele, the performers, are interested in: universal stuff like race, masculinity, and driving Method Man around in a minivan.
Where are you guys? Because you’re not together.
JP: I am in Mobile, Alabama, right now. [Ed. note: Key is in Los Angeles, incidentally.] I just wrapped my directorial debut. Which is a thriller. We wrapped yesterday. It’s called Get Out. It’s not a comedy — it’s a straight thriller. And it explores race in America, as a horror movie. Keegan and I, that’s what we have been doing with comedy, obviously, and so this is a new thing for me.
I get the sense that both of you really think about the full cinematic package when you’re working on both your sketches, and now your films.
KMK: Yeah absolutely, from the lighting and the cameras we use, and also what’s the universal theme of this sketch. Of course, we start out with “What’s going to make it funny?” If nothing else, it just has to be funny, and other things follow in the wake. There’s always been something in our creative process, and in our aesthetic, that we wanted the sketches to look like small movies, or to look like the funniest five minutes of a movie, so you would have some desire to continue to go “Where do these characters go from here?” or “Where did they come from before I saw them in this three minute sketch?” You have to put all those elements together to make it happen; you have to think about all those elements.
A lot of times people in your position make their first movie based on a character they created for a sketch. You didn’t do that.
JP: No, we didn’t. There have never really been roles out there for us to star in a film. It has taken awhile, the last couple of years on Key and Peele, to help establish who Keegan and I are as people and as performers. In our show it’s much more about what character can we play that we haven’t been before? But when it came to our movie, we realized that there’s a full movie that explores characters pretty similar to ourselves that’s never been done before.
As long as we’re easy to work with and we’re making really, really good, thought-provoking, quality content, who cares what we look like?
That reminds me of an episode of Aziz Ansari’s show. One episode is about how he and his other Indian friend were going to be cast in the same show until someone in charge was like, “Well, we can’t have two of them.” Yet somehow we have Keanu coming out that has two black leads, and it’s not a Tyler Perry movie. How did you make that happen?
JP: When we were both on MADtv, no one said anything outright, but there is this sense with a sketch show that everyone in the cast is competing against each other to stay on for the next year. But also, at least for me, there was a feeling in the back of my mind that Keegan and I were probably competing for the same spot. Since there hadn’t been a sketch show since In Living Color that seemed to have embraced diversity.
KMK: More than one black person.
JP: So very early on Keegan and I banded together. Once that began, it was kind of like a bike race, where we can kind of break each other’s path or whatever.
KMK: Draft, like car racing, like you draft off the other driver.
JP: I almost said we break each other’s wind but I knew I couldn’t do that.
KMK: When we were doing MADtv one time Jordan said, “Why don’t we take this sketch that we’ve written and rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it, and when we get to the table read, we will perform the sketch at its optimum, and that way they can’t say no.” Doesn’t matter that you’re black, doesn’t matter that you’re anything. It wasn’t a question of diversity; it was a question of the quality of the pieces that were presented to them. They couldn’t say no, and then these two characters that we created became a staple on the show. And I think the same thing happened with Key and Peele. It’s the Larry Bird principle: just out-work everybody, and then the product that you put out transcends race, the quality transcends anybody at a network or at a studio feeling gun-shy about pulling the trigger and making a movie with two people of colour in it. At the end of the day, it’s Martin Luther King, it’s content of character not colour of skin. So as long as we’re easy to work with and we’re making really, really good, thought-provoking, quality content, who cares what we look like?
I have this friend who has noticed that, especially when I talk to women, I use a “gay voice:” I sound more effusive, friendlier. So, I explained code-switching. It looks like Keanu is kind of “Code-Switch: The Movie.” What is it about that that you love exploring?
JP: We like to find comedy in the truths that everyone experiences, and code-switching is something that everybody does to an extent. It’s not an African-American thing; every race does it. You speak differently to your grandmother than you do to your friends at a bar. Keegan and I view it as an exploration of masculinity and what it means to be a man, as much as it’s about race. It’s something that reveals a very universal human quality, and it’s underexplored.
We enjoy those differences in each other, but then also we’re symbiotic in a way, too.
When did you first become aware of it in your own life?
KMK: I would say, maybe fifth grade, when the strata stuff really takes effect, and you understand the kids who are the most popular are speaking in a particular vernacular, and the kids who aren’t are speaking in another one.
You two met at Second City Detroit, became friends at MADtv, have basically been working together for years. But there is this moment where two people’s friendship is now a business. I wonder how you navigate that?
KMK: It really is a mutual adoration. There are things that he observes that make his comedy very unique to him; there are things that I observe that make my comedy very unique to me. We enjoy those differences in each other, but then also we’re symbiotic in a way, too. Very often when we’re together, people will see us get into a hive mind — not really a hive, since it’s only a hive of two people — but we kind of get into a hive mind and I only have that kind of relationship with Jordan.
JP: Going back to when we first started working together, that sort of set the tone for us, outside of ego, outside of who gets to win this scene, or anything like that and it became this true collaboration. We are students of collaboration, and they can go wrong very easily — you see it with bands. Something we always discuss is guys like Jim Henson: his whole philosophy was if everybody can get rid of the ego, what’s left is this vessel for total collaboration, and you can do some amazing things.
KMK: We also deify the process of making the comedy. You’ve got to serve that god and then everything else is blasphemy. The discussion should be about, not if they’re going to laugh or if I think it is funny, it’s how much harder can we make them laugh. The craft is paramount.
JP: We’re selling fun. I think early on in the show there was this question from the network of what do you guys disagree about? What’s your comedy duo’s dynamic? Who’s the smart one? And very quickly we rejected that notion, first of all because it’s just not true to us, and we realized what we sell isn’t conflict, it’s fun. So anytime you capture Keegan and I legitimately having fun, it seems to really pop and make people happy.
Are you guys responsible for Donald Trump? Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator was so popular it seems like now people are just voting for a Luther, without the Obama.
JP: But Luther was kind of honest though. Luther broke it down. He broke down the truth. Trump is just a political amoeba. Nothing he says sounds truthful to me. He convinces a lot of people that he is being straightforward and real, but if you peel back that one layer, you’ll see all the inconsistencies and all the shit he makes up and all the shit he says just to get attention. I would vote for Luther any day before I’d vote for Trump. He’s just making shit up.