Key & Peele, the funniest show on TV right now, carries on the legacy of both Chappelle's Show and Monty Python. Keegan-Michael Key (the tall one) and Jordan Peele (the short one), both biracial veterans of Mad TV, are writers, executive producers and performers who take obvious delight in throwing themselves into a spectacular array of characters: gangsters, teachers, nerds, frat brothers and French revolutionaries. Rolling Stone recently sat down with the comedy auteurs – genial but intensely focused – in the Hollywood recording studio where they were overdubbing dialogue for their third season.
What did you think of each other when you first met?
Jordan Peele: I remember watching Keegan onstage in Chicago and he was clearly a standout performer. Everybody in the theater had that sense of, "Okay, this guy is going to move on and do greater things."
Keegan-Michael Key: My experience was almost identical. There is a subtle elegance to the way Jordan does just about everything, which is something I envy because that's not my bailiwick. It became an immediate mutual admiration society. We left the theater one night and went to a diner on Clark Street in Chicago and stayed up 'til, like, quarter to five in the morning, talking about Monty Python and Mr. Show and all these things that influenced us. The things that took place subsequent to that were serendipitous. We both ended up on Mad TV – the cosmos kind of pushed us together.
Had you always wanted to do a show together?
Peele: I don't think it occurred to us. Most of our time together was spent working on a sketch show, so it didn't occur to us to say, "Let's do a show, just us."
Key: We have the same manager, and had mentioned there was some interest at one network with Jordan and interest at another network with me. He said, "What if we put you together as a package?"
Peele: We got on famously on Mad and wrote really well together. Our whole training is geared towards sketch. We're these chameleons, but we had this voice that we couldn't realize on Mad TV. There was one sketch in particular that we were in love with. . .
Keegan: The businessmen sketch.
Peele: The whole bit was they were traveling businessmen, and they were in this shitty hotel, sitting on the bed, looking at their surroundings and making the best of it: "Hmm, not that bad. Not that bad."
Key: "Let me just open the curtains here. Oh, that's a brick wall. Solid."
Peele: "A mini-bar would just end up getting us drunk."
Key: "And then we'd be wasted tomorrow and we would not be able to perform at our height." It's a really melancholy scene. We shot it, and we just adored it, and so did our show runner. But the executive producer said, "That's not what we're looking for." The funny thing is we have a sketch this season that's a version of that, except it's based on the movie Saw and it's about two guys being tortured. "Oh yeah, he chopped off your right arm." "I'm a lefty anyways, so take it, buddy."
One of my favorite things you've done is the college football All-Star game, East versus West. It's a tour de force: all these characters flash by for a few seconds, and I'm thinking, "Half these guys could be leads on sitcoms!"
Peele: I love dipping into worlds at a fast and furious pace. A little glimpse allows the audience to put together the rest of that world in their brain. We love sketches that require the audience to piece together the comedic engine themselves. Give them all the information but not tell them what the scene is about so they can have that eureka moment of, "Oh my God, he's only used to the way urban students pronounce their names. That's what's going on here."
When you argue, what is it about?
Peele: Fantasy football.
Key: There are two rules in our workplace. One is "What's best for the show?" Two is "Be nice or leave." And, "If you happen to be good at ping-pong, come on in, 'cause we love a challenge."
Peele: When we have discussions, it's always on something like the higher voice of the show. Maybe we'll be in the writing process and we’re saying, "Is this walking the line of presenting funny characters who happen to be gay, or is this crossing the line into homophobia?"
Key: Are we exploiting what we're trying to condemn?
Peele: It's about finding something that approaches the boundaries, maybe steps over it for a moment, but makes the viewer ask themselves, "Where is the line? What am I comfortable with?" And we never want to go so far over the line that it takes away from the comedy.
Key: Right – what's the difference between shock and surprise?
Peele: When we write a sketch about us on an auction block, I want to make it the type of sketch where by the end you say, "How did they do that? They made me laugh at slavery."
You have a very cerebral approach. On other shows, have you been the most analytic guy in the room?
Key: Never. I'm a very impulsive person.
Peele: That is probably the biggest difference between us. Not to take away any of the hard work Keegan has done to become an amazing actor, but he has something about him that's just natural. I am a very, very, very calculated person.
Key: Absolutely. In the amount of time it takes me to react to something physically, he can react mentally. It would take me a much longer period of time to consider everything he considers in a lightning-quick period of time.
Did you expect this level of success?
Peele: I did. The moment I knew we were gonna do a show together, I said to our manager, "Oh, you're gonna give me this n---- right here? [Laughter] Well then we're done, it's set."
Key: I had more concern. Did I know we would be successful? I didn't. But I have confidence in our work, and I knew it was good. Why wouldn't I want to do something with the best, most innovative sketch writer I've ever met in my life? No matter how good or bad I am, the words aren't going to fail. That's not a gamble.
How did basketball star Metta World Peace end up on the show?
Peele: That started as a sketch in season one. One of our writers, Colton Dunne – a biracial guy who is a really funny improviser – wrote a sketch called "Crazy N---- News." And it was just a segment with Keegan playing Metta, Cee Lo, Katt Williams – all impressions. This year we got word that Metta was a fan of the show. We were on a flight one day and we said, "Dude, what if we changed the name of that sketch to "Metta World News" and had him come and do it?"
What was the inspiration behind Luther, President Obama's "anger translator?"
Key: As Jordan has said on many occasions, I’m not sure we'd have a television show if Barack Obama wasn't the President. The entire nation had to say, "Oh, here's a person who has a white parent and a black parent." That opened up the door. And we remembered the guy, I always forget his name, who got up during the State of the Union speech and said "liar." Joe Smith? Joe Simpson? [Joe Wilson, who shouted "You lie!"]
Key: That hasn't happened to a President since 1830. And why is that taking place? And watching the President in that moment – watching him continue to be reserved – how is this man not releasing his frustration? Let's give him a surrogate, let's give him an id, so he can be the superego. Another trigger was Jordan remembering Garrett Morris on Saturday Night Live, where he'd do news for the hard of hearing. And that was where Luther came from. But there's not going to be a lot of him this season. It could very easily become the gimmick of the show, and we're always interested in moving to the next thing.
Key: I would love our legacy to be, if someone were watching on whatever the medium is 30 years from now with their kids, a 12-year-old or an 18-year-old, and if they were watching any sketches that had something to do with race, they'd say, "I'm sorry, Mom, why is this funny?" Like if somebody told a Freedom Rider joke today.
Peele: I feel like we are transcending the role of the African-American in popular culture, mainly with the sketches where we don't play African-Americans, and I think we pull it off. That's something we do more each year. We hope to be a universal comedy show forever, playing characters who have souls and personalities. That's the reason all the old-school legends are still funny today.
What is your future beyond the show?
Peele: I'm working on this project – the working title is Get Out the House. It's a satirical horror movie, a cross between Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives. Hopefully, we're gonna be making it by this time next year, and it will do with horror what this show has done with comedy. They are both genres that depend on moments of realization, and they depend on the marriage of absurdity with reality to pull off.
Is that something you want Keegan to be in?
Peele: I have a character in mind for him. But the greater answer to your question is yes, I plan to write and direct for Keegan a whole lot in my career.