‘Key & Peele’ ‘quit before it dips’ after finding laughs in fraught topics
It’s fitting, if entirely coincidental, that the sketch comedy show “Key & Peele” is coming to an end during the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency.
The Comedy Central series, created by and starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, introduced the world to Luther, Obama’s “anger translator.” By inventing an exuberantly profane alter ego, played by Key, who gave voice to Obama’s bottled-up anger, the show successfully satirized a president whose unflappable demeanor and history-making ascension to the White House had made him a tricky target for comedy.
Their take has been so definitive that Obama himself has gotten in on the act, performing alongside Luther at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner.
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The popularity of “Key & Peele,” which premiered in 2012, has coincided with an ongoing national conversation about race and violence sparked by the death of Trayvon Martin and further inflamed by lethal incidents in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore and Charleston.
Over the course of a five-season run that ends Wednesday, “Key & Peele” has found the laughs in subjects as fraught as slavery, the Holocaust and police brutality. “We take very seriously any atrocity that we’re dealing with,” said Peele, who does a pitch-perfect Obama impression in the “anger translator” sketches. “People can sniff if you’re not coming from an empathetic place.”
As biracial comedians who, like the president, were born to white mothers and black fathers, Key and Peele have a unique perspective on matters of race and identity — but, they say, the laughs are always the priority.
“I am a person of color, so I see the world differently than people who are not people of color,” said Key, 44. “That’s going to invade the work subconsciously sometimes. There’s really no choice but to make scenes have some kind of racial component to them, because that’s just the lens through which we see the world.”
Sketches like “Negrotown,” a musical spoof set in a magical, Technicolor world where “you can wear your hoodie and not get shot,” relay strong political messages. Other sketches put a lighter spin of the African American experience. A popular recurring bit centers on Mr. Garvey, a veteran inner-city teacher substituting at a predominantly white high school where he struggles to pronounce his students’ commonplace names (Denise is “Dee-nice,” Aaron “Ay-ay-ron).
Both Key and Peele, who met at Chicago’s Second City theater in 2003 and were later cast on Fox’s sketch comedy show “MADtv,” have spoken about living between two racial worlds — and the constant code-switching that this required. But the exercise helped them become chameleonic performers, capable of a dazzling number of accents and personalities.
“You’ve probably done your 10,000 hours by the time you’re 10 years old,” said Key, referring to the theory from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel at a given vocation.
Even though it’s become known for taking on hot-button social issues, “Key & Peele” is about far more than race and is inspired as much by Monty Python as Norman Lear. The show’s sensibility is often surreal and absurd, with sketches that frequently take unexpectedly dark turns. (Case in point: A contestant in a fantastically cheesy ‘80s aerobics competition learns, via cue card, that his wife and daughter are in the hospital after a hit-and-run accident.)
The goal of such twists, said the 36-year-old Peele, is “to stay a step ahead of the audience. Right when they think they know what you’re going to do, you have to try and do something else.”
“Key & Peele” is also unusually cinematic for a sketch-comedy show, thanks to director Peter Atencio, who’s helmed nearly every episode of the series and is an integral part of its creative vision. “He makes it a trio, in a way,” said Peele.
Then there are the costumes, makeup and wigs, which novelist Zadie Smith, writing in the New Yorker, aptly described as “the hardest-working hairpieces in show business.”
All these elements have combined to make “Key & Peele” a major asset for Comedy Central. The show has averaged 1.2 million viewers a week over its most recent season and is No. 1 in its time slot among men 18 to 34, the network’s target demographic. It is also a streaming sensation, racking up 1.1 billion total views on YouTube and other platforms.
Acclaim has surged with the clicks: “Key & Peele” was recognized with a Peabody Award in 2013 and has been nominated for 11 Emmys — six this year alone. Its success helped pave the way for a creative renaissance in prime time at Comedy Central, which is also home to critical darlings “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Broad City.”
“Comedy Central would’ve taken about, I don’t know, 15 seasons of the show,” said Key.
Fans distraught over the looming absence of Mr. Garvey, or Meegan and Andre, the world’s most annoying couple, from their television screens may want to direct their anger across the pond, where it’s the norm to end successful shows while they remain creatively strong (think: “The Office”).
“We both said, ‘Let’s be extremely British about the whole thing,’” Key said. “You do five seasons, and you go away. Then no one can ever tell you they hated the show.”
Peele reiterated the sentiment: “We really feel like it’s important to the legacy of the show to quit before it dips.”
But the end of “Key & Peele” doesn’t mean the end of Key and Peele: They see the partnership between Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder as a model for their own going forward.
The decision to end the show, which consumes more than 10 months of their year, was also motivated by the desire to pursue other opportunities, both together and individually.
The pair recently wrapped production on the feature “Keanu,” playing friends who infiltrate a drug gang to rescue their stolen cat. The comedy, directed by Atencio and costarring Will Forte, Nia Long and Method Man, will hit theaters next year.
Other projects on their slate include a “Police Academy” reboot, a movie based on Key’s Mr. Garvey character and a collaboration with comedy consigliere Judd Apatow. Peele, a horror movie aficionado, is directing a film called “Get Out,” while Key is filming “Don’t Think Twice,” a film from comedian Mike Birbiglia.
“I’m a firm believer that you need time to be bored,” Key said. “When you’re bored, that’s when things start to come to you. Some people call it reflective. I like to call it bored.”
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