Comedians Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key may be best known for their outlandish characters, but Key & Peele works so well because the situations the duo create are grounded in reality, which then becomes the breeding ground for their comedy. The two comedians sat down with former Detroit Free Press critic Elvis Mitchell (current host of KCRW’s The Treatment) Sunday night during the Los Angeles Film Festival to discuss their approach to comedy and analyze some of the sketches that helped define the style of comedy they wanted to create with Key & Peele.
Both Key and Peele agreed that the number one “rule” when working on any scene for the show is to work against audience expectation, but Key explained that it is not always about doing a 180-degree turn when a 60-degree turn would be more unexpected. They have cut scenes that were too similar to other sketch comedy shows because the duo tries to keep from emulating things that have been done before. But Key and Peele are certainly influenced by certain sketches and shows that helped make the framework of Key & Peele.
Mr. Show, “The Audition”
Key and Peele consider this sketch their comedic template when working on Key & Peele. “The Audition” plays on a person’s natural politeness and desire to avoid conflict, something at the root of many of Key & Peele’s sketches. “The Audition” also sets up the premise of the sketch as the scene goes on rather than at the top on the scene (which is much more common). This idea of equalizing a situation to avoid potential conflict is something that drive many of Key & Peele’s scenes like “Phone Call,” a sketch Key and Peele consider the thesis of the show.
Kerri Kenney told Peele this sketch was born out of the network wanting The State to introduce a character with a catchphrase. This sketch stood out to Key and Peele because while it is silly, it subverts expectations and works to take the story audiences may expect (Judas betraying Jesus) and bring it back to the original idea of betrayal, but turning it around to have Jesus betray Judas (while also sticking it to the network brass). Key and Peele both wanted to avoid having specific catch phrases for any character they created instead allowing for phrase to be born out of a character’s natural enthusiasm.
In Living Color, “The Slave”
Peele said his “mind was blown” when he first saw this sketch because it set up and knocked down so many different expectations. But even more startling was how it did not shy away from talking about slavery (a major faux pas at the time). By giving the characters spirit, it helped not only make the sketch funny, but also allowed the comedians to approach a sensitive subject in a humorous way. Key added that playing to genuine human behavior is also a key component in Key & Peele’s sketches and the bravery displayed in “The Slave” gave them the confidence to create “Auction Block” which tackles a sensitive subject by focus on people’s egos have become people’s biggest problem nowadays.
Key & Peele is able to appeal to a wide audience from sixtysomethings to eleven-year-olds (although they both commented that there may be a lack of parenting for those eleven-year-olds allowed to watch their show) because they put real work into each of their sketches. They feel their older audiences (who grew up on the comedy of Bill Cosby, Red Skelton and Sid Caesar) recognize and respect that are not just trying to be silly or go for the easy laugh. Key and Peele aspire to be the best and work hard to make their show feel fresh and new because they know their history and the influences they want to draw from (without directly copying them).
Key & Peele returns for its fourth season this fall.