A chat with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (from Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele”)

Although it ran for 14 seasons and 31 episodes, Fox’s “Mad TV” never delivered the kind of instant name recognition that the alumni of its Saturday night competition on NBC tend to get, but dedicated viewers will no doubt recall the faces of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from such recurring sketches as “Coach Hines,” “Funkenstein,” “The Superstitious Knights,” and more. Now, the duo are reuniting for their own sketch comedy series on Comedy Central, and thanks to advance clips from the show going viral, the buzz about “Key & Peele” is tremendous. Bullz-Eye talked to Key and Peele about how they met, the origins of their comedic collaboration, what and viewers can expect from the first season of their series.

Jordan Peele: We’ve done a couple of these so far, Will, and I’ll just go ahead and pre-empt your request to have us announce our names…

Bullz-Eye: I don’t know what you’re talking about. It never would’ve occurred to me to ask you to identify yourselves before speaking.

JP: [Laughs.] Well, this is Jordan speaking, and…I guess I’m the one that sounds more like Bert. And he’s the one that sounds more like Ernie.

BE: I’ll try to remember that during transcription.

Keegan-Michael Key: [Laughs.] Yeah, just put B for one, E for the other. That shouldn’t be too confusing.

BE: Yeah, especially not when “BE” is the abbreviation for Bullz-Eye.

JP: [Laughs.] Well, just to be safe, we’ll keep announcing ourselves, anyway. You can also identify me as the tired one. I’m Jordan.

BE: Right. If someone’s slurring, it’s probably Jordan.

KMK: He’s Eeyore, I’m Piglet.

JP: Piglet? Oh, come on. You’re Tigger.

KMK: Oh, God, what am I talking about? Of course I’m Tigger. [Laughs.]

BE: So you guys obviously worked together for many years on “Mad TV,” but did you know each other at all prior to that series?

KMK: We did. Yeah, we met in Chicago when Jordan was at Boom Chicago, which is an improv theater in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. [Laughs.] As opposed to Amsterdam in New Mexico or something, right?

JP: Hey, there’s also an Amsterdam in New York.

KMK: All right, all right. [Laughs.] Anyway, I was at The Second City, and our casts had a swap. There’s two theaters at the Second City, so one of our casts went to Amsterdam, and Jordan’s cast from Boom Chicago – which is just a really incredible theater – they came to Chicago. So they flipped, and that’s where we met: I was performing on the second stage at Second City, and Jordan’s cast had come in to visit us for a week.

JP: This was back in the day when…I had lived in Chicago for a couple of years but then had left, and in that time, Keegan had moved to Chicago and pretty quickly become the most talked-about, exciting improviser in Chicago. He won a couple of Jeff Awards just for his work on the Second City reviews, and I remember seeing that and…it was really inspiring, Key.

KMK: I didn’t know that.

JP: Yeah, it was so awesome. I saw a couple of characters that…

KMK: …that I subsequently used at “Mad TV,” yeah.

JP: So, yeah, we met each other, and we got along famously from the very get-go.

BE: So when you got to “Mad TV,” did you instantly forge a bond based on already knowing what each other’s strengths were?

KMK: Yeah, I think that’s true. Well, actually, not immediately, because we did a lot of…I mean, we improvised together in Chicago a couple of times and watched each other’s performances, but I had no idea what a consummate idea-man Jordan was until about a year into “Mad TV.” And then, if I wasn’t in a scene that he was in that he had written, I would just sometimes sit on the sidelines and go, “What…? How did he think of that?” Just really tremendous stuff.

JP: In both of our first years, towards the end, we collaborated on a scene where we played these two superstitious high-school or college basketball players who end up doing sort of fully-choreographed step dancing.

KMK: Yeah, anytime something “unlucky” would happen to them… Every scene would take place during an event in their lives, so the first scene was the regional championship for their basketball team, so, y’know, a black cat walks through, a mirror breaks, people speak at the same time, and they’re so superstitious that they’ve got to do a little dance every time to break the hex of whatever said superstition was. It was a fricking blast.

JP: In the old days, with Keegan and I, he was the guy that I knew… We both had the interest in sort of over-rehearsing before the table read, so I think we kind of bonded on the amount of work we were willing to put in. Everybody was hard workers there, but, you know ,we were just birds of a feather who had the same work ethic and everything.

BE: When “Mad TV” wrapped, did you leave with the agreement that you’d be ready to work together again whenever the opportunity arose?

KMK: I don’t think we’d formally spoken about it. We just knew that it was going to happen at some point in time.

JP: It was a given.

KMK: That’s a good way of putting it, Jordan: it was an unspoken given.

BE: So how did the series for Comedy Central come up, then? Was it something that was pitched to one of you and they brought in the other, or…

KMK: We were both working on separate projects at the time, and, um, both of the projects fell through. [Laughs.] Jordan was in a pilot that didn’t get picked up, and I was on a TV series that got canceled. And we have the same manager, so our manager said, “Would you guys like to do something together?” ‘Cause there was interest from Comedy Central and from…

JP: …from lots of different places. We were real fortunate to have had a couple of interested parties and be able to really be able to essentially pick Comedy Central as the perfect home for us.

KMK: Amen.

JP: And I think it really is perfect, too, because we like to sort of push things a little bit to a slightly irreverent point, but we also like making comedy for comedy nerds. [Laughs.]

KMK: And, also, we’re both comedy nerds, too. [Laughs.]

JP: Yes. I use the term “comedy nerds” very lovingly, because that’s what we are.

KMK: We would never say “comedy nerd” in a pejorative way. [Laughs.] But we’re also big lovers of…like, I’m a big lover of the classics, so I love silent comedy, physical comedy, pratfalls and slapstick and stuff like that. So the perfect comedy sandwich is to have a scene that has some nice and silly stuff in it that still might have some social bite to it.

BE: So what can we expect from the series as far as its content? I’ve seen the first episode, which is great, but since you guys have built a pretty decent stable of impressions over the years, will it be heavy on those, or will you be doing more original characters?

KMK: Um…that’s a good question.

JP: That’s a very good question. We’ve sort of developed a unique style. One thing that does sort of overarch our work is…we’ve got what we like to think of in comedy as a slightly unique point of view, being biracial and kind of living in between different worlds, sort of growing up and having to adapt to our surroundings. Well, not having to adapt, but choosing to adapt. And we sort of explore that. So we do a lot of racial humor, partly because, y’know, race is such an absurd concept in itself, and there are some aspects to it that we can tap that haven’t been overdone.

KMK: Or done. [Laughs.]

JP: Right. Or done at all.

KMK: I think, Will, to answer your question…I guess the best and most vague way to answer your question is that there will be a smattering of impressions. [Laughs.] There will be character work, definitely. The interesting thing about our job, especially in sketches, is that you have to wait a season before you have any idea whether or not a character catches on in the kind of “Saturday Night Live” or “Mad TV” vein. We’re not even really going for that. There are places where there are characters…where characters feed the conceit of the scene, and the conceit of the scene fuels the characters. But seldom have we done scenes in this season of the show where we were, like, “This is an outright character, and I just want to play it in a scenario.” Unlike something like Coach Hines on “Mad TV,” or Stuart on “Mad TV,” or something like that. I think the character of the show…there’s an overriding character to the show, as opposed to a bunch of well-recognized characters in the show. But you will get – and correct me if I’m wrong, Jordan – but you will get a healthy dose of Obama.

JP: Yeah, we do a good amount of Obama. Just enough. [Laughs.]

BE: I have to say, a show that is not necessarily a precise point of reference but which did leap to mind at times when I was watching the first episode was “Mr. Show.”

KMK: Oh, God, you just gave us the greatest compliment you ever could.

JP: Yeah. Thank you!

KMK: If a television critic wrote the words “a black ‘Mr. Show,’” I might quit my job. [Laughs.] Because we’d be done.

BE: And I’m not saying it’s precise – based on the episode I saw, it seems like it might be a bit more relationship-driven than “Mr. Show” was – but there are certainly some similar elements. Or, at least, I think there are, anyway.

KMK: Yeah, and you’ll see that, too, Will, that there will be episodes where – and I’ll use the word “smattering” again – there are callbacks, where characters will kind of appear and overlap a little bit. That’s an accurate depiction, wouldn’t you say?

JP: Mmm-hmm.

KMK: Not every show. But you’ll see that. It’s something that’s part of our pedigree.

JP: I think one of the things we really admire about “Mr. Show”…I mean, we’re fans of the great sketch shows in general – “In Living Color,” “Chappelle’s Show,” “SNL,” “Mr. Show” – but since you bring up “Mr. Show,” yeah, they do the heightening thing, where they’ll sort of latch onto a comedic game, and then they’ll heighten it through the roof in a way that I think no one had ever seen before. Or since.

KMK: You saw, Will, a good example of it in the first sketch of the show. Not the phone call, but after the live segment, where the two guys are afraid of their wives. I think that’s almost directly influenced by them. When I think of “Mr. Show,” I think of the scene where David Cross goes into the party store and asks Bob Odenkirk for change. Same thing. Like, I would say that this scene was influenced in my brain by that scene.

JP: The chef scene has that element as well, almost like David Cross’s famous audition sketch. The game doesn’t get past the first sentence without having to evolve. But, yeah, thank you for saying that.

KMK: We take that as a high, high compliment.

BE: Given that there are a fair amount of sketch comedy shows out there, what are your hopes for Key & Peele? From your perspective, what do you think will make this show stand out?

JP: Well, I think this show’s going to have a real new, fresh feel to it. It’s unlike any sketch show that I’ve ever seen before, and part of that is because we’ve hired some amazing people. Our director, Peter Atencio, has really made everything look very filmic and, uh, expensive. [Laughs.] We don’t have a lot of money, so we’ve done some really great sleight of hand. Also, our writing process has been so amazing. We’ve got amazing writers. So my hope, ultimately, would just be that people enjoy it, and that, at the very least, it becomes a cult classic. I mean, of course, the real hope is that we get hugely rich and famous. [Laughs.] If the comedy nerds approve, I’ll be a happy man.

KMK: I guess my hope would be that… I just hope that we’ve created a show – and I really do hope this – that we can be proud of, in the tradition of Godfrey Cambridge and Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. I would really like… I want it to provide belly laughs and also be socially relevant. And I feel like we have an ability to do that, based on something that Jordan had mentioned prior, which is that we are representing a segment of the population that is new and is not going to stop growing. And not only is not going to stop growing, it’s not going to stop evolving. And that’s the biracial American, and, y’know, where do we fit in the fabric of the society?

JP: I’ve got another point that I’ve just realized. We’ve noticed something about black comedy, namely that most of our heroes as black comedians are stand-ups. Both Keegan and I were trained in improvisation and sketch comedy, so I think being so inspired by “In Living Color” myself when I was a kid, it would just be such an honor to be able to inspire young black comedians to go the sketch-improv route instead of stand-up, or to do it as well and just branch out. Because there really is just a wonderful world of comedy there. So that would be lovely.

KMK: That would be lovely. That would be a really lovely thing if that were to happen, yeah.

BE: You cited “Chappelle’s Show” and “In Living Color.” Would you say that your show is still going to be multifaceted enough as far as its comedy that it won’t just be black audiences who are enjoying it? Is it going to be across the board as far as the type of comedy goes?

KMK: I guess the answer to that question would be, “Absolutely.” It’s for a multicultural audience, definitely. I think there’s a few scenes that happen later in the season. Well, also, another example…like, we used as an example before the “bitch” scene – that’s what we call the sketch where the guys are afraid of their lives – and I think wherever they have wives they’ll enjoy that scene. [Laughs.] It’s just a very cross-cultural…well, that’s not even a cultural scene. That’s a human scene. And I think our show is populated with human scenes as well as specifically-targeted cultural scenes.

BE: And that’s the perception that I had from the first episode – even the first scene, with you guys on your respective phone calls, speaks to more than just a black audience – but it’s so hard to tell from just one episode.

KMK: Yeah, I know what you mean. But don’t you think, Jordan, that we tier things? It’s about…oh, God, this makes me want to talk about “Auction Block,” but I don’t want to tell him. I want him to see it. But…

JP: But you can guess with a name like “Auction Block.”

KMK: [Laughs.] And there was something about that first scene you mentioned that we really enjoyed, which is that it’s about putting on a façade. Humans put on facades. It’s just being filtered through a particular cultural filter.

JP: I think we give everybody a little bit of a jab at some point during the season. I think one of our comedy rules is, “You don’t make fun of the underdog.” There’s not a lot of comedy to be had by being a bully. You want to sort of…you want to take the rug out from under the people that have some sort of status in their community, or who are boastful or are bullies themselves.

KMK: Also, another thing is that…I mean, Will, I have to say that my partner, Jordan, is just extraordinary at this, to the point where it’s uncanny, but…there could be 100 people in a room, and 99 people would say, “Oh, look at the bloom on that rose,” and Jordan would say, “Oh, look at that leaf with that brown spot on it.” Do you know what I mean? He always sees something different than anybody else sees. And you’ll see that. It’s like he’s reading a defense in football, and he always sees the crack. And in our process, it has been invaluable. Just invaluable.

JP: That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. [Laughs.]

KMK: So I say that to say that there’s going to be, I think, some situations where you’ll go, “Oh, my God, I’ve never, ever thought of it that way.” Whatever “it” happens to be. [Laughs.]