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Awards

The comic’s life isn’t always so funny, as Keegan-Michael Key and ‘Don’t Think Twice’ show

Keegan-Michael Key
Keegan-Michael Key stars in “Don’t Think Twice,” which he calls “a drama about comedians.”
(Jennifer Altman / For The Times)

Before “MADtv” and “Key & Peele” made him one of the nation’s most celebrated comedians, Keegan-Michael Key was a classically schooled actor. “I was going to just do regional theater and Shakespeare festivals for the rest of my life,” he says on a couch in his Tribeca apartment. In Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice,” Key puts both his dramatic training and his comic experience to work as a member of an improv comedy troupe whose aspirations to join a “Saturday Night Live”-style TV show threaten to sunder the troupe’s close-knit bond. Key’s Jack is clearly his group’s star, but he’s uncomfortable coming to terms with his own ambitions, even once it’s clear that being the nicest guy in the room won’t get him what he wants.

It’s fitting that a movie about the price of success is one of Key’s first projects after the end of his hit Comedy Central sketch show with longtime professional partner Jordan Peele: After winning an Emmy and a Peabody, not to mention sharing a stage with Barack Obama, they’d reached a peak and set off to do something else. Jack isn’t a flashily dramatic role, but it shows that Key’s capable of much more than deft caricature, and it shows he has many more mountains to climb.

“Don’t Think Twice” is about comedians but it’s not always going hard for the laugh.

I describe it as a drama about comedians. Mike would give us notes during principal photography; he would say things like, “Don’t do anything here. Just pick a thought.” He wanted “Don’t Think Twice” to be super real, so we as a cast spent almost three weeks together before we started shooting.

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There’s a moment in the film where the movie’s equivalent of “Saturday Night Live’s” Lorne Michaels comes to see your troupe perform and all of a sudden your character starts doing his Barack Obama impression, which completely violates the rules of improv but is a good way to show off.

There are people who did improvisation for the purest possible reason, which was just for the love of communicating with another human that way. Then there are other people who are saying, “This is a means to an end.” Some people would tell you, and it may be pie in the sky, “If you’re cooperative, and you’re always spending time making your partner look good and you’re lifting up the other members of the group and you’re trying to enhance the entire dynamic and not just you, then you will make it on ‘SNL.’” The answer to that question is no. When you’re a team player, you’re supposed to go home and pat yourself on the back when someone else from your group gets cast on “SNL.”

The movie’s very realistic about the fact that even if Jack wanted to bring everyone from his group along with him, he couldn’t, and in being too insistent he could damage his own career without helping theirs.

The thing that rings so true in this movie is that you have to protect yourself once you get to a new level. I was very fortunate. When I left the Second City, as far as I know, the people that I communicated with seemed genuinely happy for me when I went to “MADtv.” My friends have said to me, “Look, you’re doing your thing. You’re living your life. If the moment is right, and you have to know that in your gut, Key, if the moment is right and you can pull one of us up, you do that, but please if you’re thinking about us you can’t do your best work.” It’s not this door or the next door or even the third door that you open. It’s the 12th door that you open and you go, “Oh my God, I have the perfect person for that job." 

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One challenge is to keep finding new doors to walk through.

There’s no growth unless you’re uncomfortable. I believe that “no pain, no gain” works spiritually, physically, emotionally. An Emmy should be you walking up to the high jump bar and putting it up six inches and then going, “Now, what do I have to do to get over? What training do I have to undertake to get over that extra six inches?”

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