'Key & Peele': Keegan-Michael Key Reveals Stories Behind 8 Iconic Sketches

Comedian on origins of show's best-known sketches, from Obama's anger translator to East/West Bowl

Keegan-Michael Key (left) reveals the stories behind 8 iconic 'Key & Peele' sketches. Credit: Ian White

From the very first sketch — in which two African-American men on their phones began to conversationally code-switch when they get in proximity to each other — you could tell Key & Peele was not your typical sketch show. Maybe you recognized Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from their Mad TV days, or knew the latter from his Children's Hospital appearances; maybe you simply thought, it's a new Comedy Central series, let's check it out. But by the time the show concluded its five-season run of ridiculous college-football player names, Presidential anger-translations, weepy gangsters, aerobics-video meltdowns, Mr. T PSAs and dueling jazz-scat musicians, you'd realized that this was not just a great sketch show — it was some of the funniest, most surreal socially informed comedy of the past 10 years.

With the release of Key & Peele: The Complete Series DVD set this week, we asked Keegan-Michael Key to walk us a through the backstories behind eight of the show's best-known fan-favorite sketches. Ever wondered what the Liam Neeson-loving doormen's names were? Or who Keegan's favorite East/West college bowl player is? Read on.

"Liam Neesons Is My Jam!"
Jordan and I would travel a lot, and once when when we were on the road, he said, You ever notice how with all African-American men, their favorite movie stars are white action-heroes? You know, the guys that get super, super excited over something, say, Robert Downey Jr. has done? That was the beginning. I don't know if you know this, but those two guys names are Duke and Majid … we've never said each other's names, I don't think. If we have, they may have been cut out during the edit. I'm not even sure which one of us is which, to be honest. And there's a lot more physical comedy in those sketches. Very often, we'll have two or three cameras running for these sketches, and they're locked off — so Jordan and I know we could get as crazy as we wanted to, skipping and jumping around, running out of the frame. We knew the shots would match.

When Jordan was going through the script with the original writer of the valet sketches, he noticed there was a typo: Someone had accidentally typed "Liam Neesons." As in plural. Not just once, either, — it was every single time our characters said it. And to Jordan's credit, he said, "No, no, leave it in. Don't correct it. Leave Neesons in." It's as if they were so passionate about Liam Neeson, they wish there were more than one. They are trying to will many, many Liam Neesons into being.

We actually had rules for those sketches: If a person's name ends in a consonant, you pluralize it. If it's already plural, make it singular. If it ends in a vowel, omit the vowel. [Laughs] Roberts Downeys Jrs. Carly Weather. Bruce Willie! We just made these up on the spot.

East/West Bowl
Jordan is a very avid Madden Xbox player, and he knows a real football fiend: "Keegan, did you know there's a guy who plays in the NFL named D'Brickashaw Ferguson? That's my man's name!" I said, ohhhh yeah, he plays for the Jets. That's just the tip of the iceberg, Jordan — you want to see some real crazy names, look at football players in the Southeastern part of the United States. Guys who go to Ole Miss and North Carolina State. This is where you will find all your Jkwons and such.

He was fascinated by this, and we had an idea about maybe doing something with the names but couldn't quite get it. Then I told him if you watch a Monday Night Football game, the players faces come up during the introductions. Then they'll say their name, and maybe the school they went to. I remember one year when the Oakland Raiders were playing, their safety Charles Woodson's intro came up and he goes, "Charles Woodson … you know the school." [Laughs] "I went to Michigan, and y'all know I went Michigan, because I'm Charles Fucking Woodson."

I explained all this to Jordan, we had a nice talk, and that was the end of it. I thought, this is pretty funny, we'll do something with that eventually. You know, you file it in the back of your head. Then one day, I come in to work, and out of the blue, he hands me a four-page script. He made up all the names the night before, wrote the entire script and then boom, there it was. I don't think I added anything — I may have added "Dan Smith, BYU," but that's it. He just had a major inspirational moment.

We've done three of these, and the top name, for me, is L'Carpetron Dookmarriott. I had no idea these would be so popular, to be honest. But there must be some study somewhere that when you give a person a moniker, somehow that becomes attractive to us comedy-wise. When we know what the label for a thing is, does it make us feel more safe? I don't know, but the fact that the two biggest sketches of ours on YouTube are the Substitute Teacher one and the East/West Bowls, and both of them have to do with names … it can't be a coincidence.

Substitute Teacher
One of our writers, Rich Talarico, came up with this one. He pitched it in one of our morning meetings, and he had it pretty much encapsulated. It was all figured out from the beginning. All the kids in it are tremendous, because so much of the sketch falls on their reaction shots … they're playing the confusion of it in a really underplayed, genuine manner. And then my rage. "Where is A-ay-ron right now?"

We had a lot of fun improvising around it as well. This wasn't [in movie reviewer voice] 
"And George Clooney almost saved the movie." This was the difference between elevating material that's already an A+ versus trying to save C+ material. It was Great, we get to make this A++? Ok.

Why is this sketch so particularly popular? Everybody's gone to school. Or even if you were home-schooled, everybody has gone to a rally or public event where someone has totally mispronounced someone's name. "Is Tone-ya here? Tanya? Tony-ah-ya?" [Laughs] It's a universal thing. At one point or another, you have probably have heard your own name butchered beyond belief. Even you.

Megan and Andre

Jordan and I both came up through the Second City system and the ImprovOlympics system in Chicago, and when you go down to Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play, you'd see these very particular kind of women, and these very particular kinds of couples. It's the woman who's a complete and utter mess, who leaves a disaster and in her wake. And then there's the boyfriend who, for whatever reason, just can't let her go. He can only negotiate his way through the refuse. He can wade through the debris she's dropping everywhere. That became the dynamic for Megan and Andre. It was very much an observational thing. We saw real Megans and Andres all the time.

The funny thing is, you never really find out why Andre likes Megan. Why does he stay and keep acting like her lapdog? But I don't think it really matters. How many couples do you know that are like that? Probably a lot. Someone said that if you string all these sketches together, you'd have a nice little short film. I like that.

Obama's Anger Translator
We felt like we owed him. We really wouldn't have had a show without him getting elected, if you think about it. Nobody was clamoring for biracial humor. Maybe there was a demand for it in the Rolling Stone offices, I don't know — but not in the world at large [laughs]. The idea really was that Obama was stuck in a corner: If he's too angry or passionate, he's an enraged black man; if he's too cool and calculated, he's an uppity black man. He just can't win. So we thought, what's the fantasy in that situation? If he had a surrogate — an anger surrogate. And we gave him Luther.

When I was asked to do Luther at the White House Correspondents' dinner, behind the actual President … I mean, is that the first time that's ever happened in the history of television? A character from a show, who acts a foil for an impersonator of a real-life political figure, who then does it for the actual figure? And it's the President? Of the United States? [Laughs] It's a meta-snake eating its own meta-tail. And then there's another snake watching that snake eat itself. It may be a singularity that will never happen again, and I was in the center of it. Surreal doesn't begin to cover it.

Phone Call
It's a real short sketch, but it seems to be the favorite of a lot of people. People mention it a lot. But this is just something Jordan and I do in real life. To make a sketch out of it … you have to heighten it by five degrees. That's it. It's not even a skit, really — it's just a three-minute documentary, is all that is.

I don't want to cast aspersions on you or your contemporaries, but this sketch may seem like a revelation to you. To us, this is just our life. It's like the gangsta rap of the 1990s. To a lot of folks, the idea that this existed was a novelty. But to many of those musicians, that was what they saw happening outside their door every day.

Sex With Black Guys
The thing that I find special about this sketch — the thing that I really love about it — is the ambivalence. Watch the facial expressions go back and forth. I mean, we've seen racist white people blabber on and on; we saw someone doing it just the other night, on the stage of a political convention in Cleveland, in fact [laughs].

But if we're going to make honest comedy, we have to be honest about ourselves. And that means: My god, these women are saying some foul, horrid racist shit. Also, they're very hot, and I want to have sex with them. It just comes down to what line do they have to cross to make me not want to have sex with them? [Laughs] "I want to be indignant, but they have such great asses, what am I supposed to do?" Don't pretend that your pre-frontal cortex is always going to get the better of your limbic system. If anything, it's the other way around. That's the blow of the scene, as it were. Pardon my pun.

I just figured this out: That sketch is really a counterpoint to the Megan and Andre scenes. Why does he stay with her? We just have to assume the sex is spectacular, or else why would he put up with her? It's the same with these two black guys in the bar. I'm willing to give up my dignity to have a shot with these girls. The fact that they get up to leave, and they sit back down again ... so funny.

Karim and Jahar
The original game-slash-joke in the first one, from the very first scene, was just those two guys trying to make the very scant of the woman that they were able to see sexy. "Oh, the ankle cleavage! Did you see the bridge of that nose! Holy garbanzo beans!" On the day we were shooting it, we were just screwing around on the set … that's where the homoerotic element started to come in. Jordan and I had often wanted to do that in sketches, because we wanted the show to be different. Anybody can dare to be shocking, but lots of people — and I will just say it, lots of people of color — shy away from gay scenes. Whereas Jordan and I, we'll just jump right the fuck into a gay scene! It helped having gay writers on staff as well, so we knew we'd never cross a line or go from trying to do something funny to "Nope, nuh-uh. Nope nope nope."

But you have to realize, in the moment — we were just trying to make the cameraman laugh. The one underlying thing about Key & Peele overall, really, it's that most of it was a constant competition of the two of us trying make the other break on camera. Thank god other people thought it was funny, too.