In this exclusive interview for Alternative Nation, I recently had the opportunity to interview Keegan-Michael Key. He can currently be seen on his Comedy Central show Key & Peele with Jordan Peele. We talk about that and his role in the new Horrible Bosses 2 movie, as well as Key & Peele appearing in the Epic Rap Battles of History web series.
A lot of people that come to the site might not know a lot about your background or about the show, can you talk about how you got into comedy?
Well, I got my bachelors degree at the university of Detroit and my masters degree in Classical and Formal theater at Penn State. I went back to Detroit to make an independent film and a bunch of the people that were making the independent film were all members of the Second City Comedy Troop, at the time there was a Second City Theater in Detroit and they asked me to go audition, which I did and that’s basically how I got into it. However, when I was a kid, I was the class clown and when I would do plays in school I would be typically be casted in the comedies, sometimes dramas but mostly comedies. I was mostly the “comedic character” in a drama anyway, so it’s safe to say that I’m a comedic guy.
So I’ve been doing it for some time, but I didn’t have any idea or plan for this to be my life’s work. However, they said “you should audition”, which I did, I got into the troop and then worked for the Second City Detroit for about four years and then I got transferred over to the Second City Chicago – which is the more famous one where John Balushi, Steve Carrell, Steve Colbert, Tina Fey and all of those guys came from. That’s how I “officially” got into comedy but I’ve been a comedy fan for most of my life.
What motivated you to try out for MAD TV?
I had no intention of trying out for MAD TV actually! I was in the Second City in Chicago and they were scouting me and I was told “would you like to come audition?” and I thought “Why would I? That would be a blast?” It wasn’t really that much of a shift in format because I was doing sketch comedy already, the only different being that this would be on television. To give you the simplest answer possible, I thought it would be fun! *laughs* I flew out to Hollywood, auditioned for the show, got cast and had five glorious years there. It was a blast.
You did a lot of celebrity impersonations on the show, which were really good. Is that something that you or the writers of MAD TV came up with? How did that collaboration come together?
What would typically happen is that the writers of the show would write a sketch with the celebrity in it. We would have a research team at the show, what they would do is get me a DVD of that celebrity so I could study their behavior and that’s how I learned to do most of the impressions. That’s kind of how I learned how to do the Snoop Dogg impression and others as well. In fact, the only impression I remember coming to MAD TV with was Bill Cosby and that was an impression that I already had under my belt. Of course I watched President Obama because I played him the first season and a half but it was a lot of really great work done by the research department. They were really terrific.
Is that where you met Jordan [Peele]?
I met Jordan in Chicago, one year before we both got on MAD TV actually. A mutual friend introduced us and it was actually a coincidence that he got MAD TV and then six months later I was cast on the show. Complete coincidence, but they we wrote tons and tons of scenes together and that’s how our relationship started.
Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele
And now you have your own sketch comedy show on Comedy Central, which is finishing up its fourth season, what is it like transitioning from something like MAD TV to your own show?
It’s really terrific and the biggest reason why is because you are in charge. I remember, we finished a table read at MAD TV on any given day and as soon as you’re finished you would just go home and there are a bunch of people that would lock themselves in a room for a couple of hours and they decide which sketches are going to be on the show or not as well as who is or who isn’t going to be in the sketches. On Key and Peele, we make all of those decisions, we’re the ones that talk to the network, we’re the ones that get to say “we think the show should go in this sort of direction artistically” or “I don’t think the tone of this sketch worked here” so the big thing is having more control, more power in regards to what the final product is going to be.
There really isn’t anything like it and once you have that you’re spoiled. Once I work on other shows, I have t train myself to keep my mouth shut. It’s not my job to tell them that a certain thing is going the wrong way whereas on Key and Peele I’m involved with all of those aspects. I’m involved with every aspect of the program.
I interviewed Aaron Rodgers , the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers a couple of weeks ago and he said he’s a fan of the show. You also have other celebrities like President Obama who watch the show, what does it mean to you to have all of these famous people embrace Key and Peele like they’ve been?
It’s a really wonderful feeling. I actually met Aaron Rodgers, we had dinner together and that was awesome, it was really terrific to talk to him, especially as a huge NFL football fan. However, it’s hard to really answer the question. I think it’s a satisfying feeling, an exciting one but at the end of the day, all of that is secondary. The primary thing is that you work as hard as you can, you make the product that makes you happy, that you’re passionate about and people will either come to it or they won’t. If you write to try and make everyone happy you’ll end up with a watered down, washed up, general product but if you write a very specific product you’ll get more fans that will go “oh my gosh they are speaking directly to me.” In some cases, it’s different then sketch because we write a variety of different kinds of sketches so because we write a variety of different sketches, different sketches appeal to different people and that has worked to our advantage.
It is fulfilling to know because you need that variety, that very often we are firing on all cylenders with that variety, which makes me very happy. We are achieving goals that we set out to achieve. My seventy yea r old mother will like one sketch whereas my fifteen year old niece will like another sketch and that’s part of how sketch works so that makes us very happy.
I’m a big fan of the show and it really appeals to me because I like comedy a lot more so then any other genre. I saw the Family Matters sketch that you guys did, where do you come up with ideas like that?
A lot of those parody sketches that you watch, they are generated primarily by our writing staff and by Jordan. I’ll be completely honest with you, when Family Matters was on the air I was in college trying to have sex with girls and Jordan was eleven. So although the show was in his orbit, it was by no means his favorite show but that show was in psyche of everyone his age at the time. It’s interesting because we are eight years apart from one another but those shows did not hold as much weight to me as they did to him, only because of where we were in our lives at the time. The writers are more Jordan’s age then my age and so those sketches such as Family Matters were important to those guys because they were kids and in a way geared to them, Urkel was certainly geared to them.
Where the idea of those sketches came about was because we’re television writers and we have to put ourselves in the place of those television writers in the 1980s. I mean, Urkele was a phenomenon, a social phenomenon, a juggernaut and if you go online and look at old Family Matters synopses, it will blow your mind. Some of the shows that Jordan is describing in the sketch aren’t as crazy as some of the actually, real life Family Matters shows that aired.
Oh yeah, I’m around Jordan’s age and I lived through the Family Matters era.
Right, well, here’s an example, a perfect example of what we’re talking about. It’s so acutely directed towards you and I believe that, last year, the reason we got an Emmy nomination for best song in the variety category is because that Les Mes sketch we did last year, that sketch appeals to people in their 60s and 70s so they’re going to go “Well those two young men are pretty clever!” You know what I mean? We are really trying to appeal to a lot of people and that goes with the Family Matter sketch. Where that is a 8 on the important scale for me it’s a 10 and a half for Jordan and for people his age so it’s a really fun sketch.
Something else that I wanted to bring up, aside from being a part of your own show, you’re doing movies, you do a lot of stuff online as far as YouTube and I had a chance to check out the Epic Rap Battles of History, when are we going to see another one?
I don’t really know, we’ve been so busy recently that we’ve not talked to Peter or Lloyd about doing another one yet but I would love to do another one but time hasn’t permitted us to do so, that’s all. Once the show goes down and we start editing, we start to gain back a little more time and we can schedule things like that into our lives so I wish I had an answer for you on that one.
They’re just so good!
Yeah, the MLK/Gandhi one I think was really great and I think it turned out really well. I also super duper enjoyed the Michael Jordan/Muhammad Ali one but the Martin Luther King/Gandhi one was by far my favorite. It just made my heart feel good.
Key as Gandhi & Peele as MLK Jr. (Epic Rap Battles of History)
You’re in the new Horrible Bosses 2 movie that comes out later this month, so tell me a little bit about your character and about the movie.
It’s funny because I’m in the first scene in the movie, we actually shot it on the first day of shooting and the movie opens with the three guys working together on their own business now and they have their own product called the Shower Buddy and they are going to hawk the product on this morning show so the morning is kind of like a Michael Strahan/Kelly Ripa kind of show and it’s me and this amazing young lady, Kelly Stables, who is just so funny, she’s also in the trailer and just terrific. So, we shoot this morning show and these guys come on the morning show and that’s really all I want to say because I want you to have the delight of seeing what comes next.
I do know this though, I know when we were in post production and I had to go through ADR that the director told me that they had to add extra time on front of the scene that happens after our scene because in the test audiences people were laughing so hard they were missing important information that Charlie Day was saying in the next scene. That’s how hard people were laughing. They were hysterical and the scene was so much fun to shoot. Charlie and I are buddies and I’ve done a couple episodes of “It’s Always Sunny” this year and it’s so much fun. Charlie, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton, those guys are executive producers and creators of their own show too, so we all know how it “works” but they were always gracious and gave me a lot of creative leeway when we taped this episode, it was just terrific.
Back on point, I think Jason Bateman, is like this amazing veteran and I think pound for pound the best comedic straight man out there right now. He does this thing that other straight men out there can’t do and I can’t put my finger on it, and of course [Jason] Sudakis I love him, he just blows my mind and he’s second city! He’s family and we’re both from the comedy mafia!
You’ve been doing movies, you have the TV show, what kind of schedule do you prefer?
To be honest, I don’t know if I “prefer” it but I’m just going to be honest and say that I’m used to the “old” schedule, which is kind of just sitting around, learning your lines, bringing something to a role, then going about your business and then being sort of a “hired gun” of sorts but I’ve now really been bitten by that bug where I’m the kind of person that can stop a shot after the director says “cut” and I’m the kind of person that’s allowed because it’s our show that’s allowed to say “you know, we really need to get a take where this happens because in the editing bay I would like to do X, Y and Z.” Whereas you are just acting and you don’t get to do that, so the funny thing is that I don’t prefer either one. They’re Fiji apples and Honeycrisp apples. I enjoy them both and they’re both delicious in their own way.
There are some days where I don’t want the trappings of responsibility, I want to show up, communicate with a fellow actor, go home and have dinner with my wife. Other days, I would like to grind out a scene, and Jordan and I have experienced this wonderful thing where a scene starts out in one place in the beginning of the day and we creatively change the scene throughout the day, and then it goes through a third metamorphose where it goes to the editing bay and that’s fantastic. It’s such an amazing experience to have that. Whereas with acting, not that I “prefer” it, but it’s different. It’s sort of like when this, when you are producing and acting you’re sort of like a player coach, it’s sort of like being an offensive coordinator, when you’re acting you are just being the wide receiver and they’re days where I just want to be the wide receiver and other days where I get to be the offensive coordinator. I would have to say that I enjoy them similarly.
Speaking of all the sports analogies, I have a sports question for you. Do you think the Detroit Red Wings are going to make it to the Stanley Cup this year?
I think that the Red Wings will go deep, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this but I think they are going to make the conference finals but I don’t think they are going to make it to the Stanley Cup. I think they are going to make it deep, deep into the playoffs this year. Datsuyk has to get healthy, I know he has a groin thing right now but I think once he starts getting back on the ice the team will start clicking again.
I love a lot of those guys, I love [Pavel] Datsuyk, I love [Justin] Abdelkader but I miss the guys that were there when I was younger because it was like we were the Yankees of hockey but I think they’ll make a deep run in the playoffs this year. I have a lot of high hopes for my Lions and my Red Wings.
Lastly, I know you have Horrible Bosses coming out this year, Key and Peele is wrapping for its fourth season, what other projects do you have coming up that we need to know about?
Ok let’s see what I can talk about here! *laughs* so it looks like March or April, Jordan and I will be shooting a movie called Keanu, which Jordan wrote with one of our writers, it’s going to be the first official Key and Peele movie and we’re going to be doing that with New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. We’re going to begin shooting on that in either March or April of 2015. Then, my guess is, there will be new episodes of Key & Peele in 2015 and they stuff we are wrapping on now will air in the new year.
In May of 2015 I will in both Pitch Perfect 2, which will be a mid-May release as well as this big, upcoming Disney film that I’m really excited about called Tomorrowland. George Clooney will be in that. Both of those you can check in out in May of 2015. Also, I just shot a really fun scene for the new installment of the Vacation universe. You know, the Vacation movies? Well Ed Helms is doing that and will be playing a grown-up Rusty and he’s taking his kids to Wally World and along the way he – oh I can’t tell you the surprises! However, I just got back a couple of weeks ago from Georgia and finished shooting on Vacation. I think it’s going to be a late 2015 release.
There is also going to providing a voice in the upcoming sequel to Hotel Transylvania and if people have Netflix there is a really great, funny animated show on there called Bojack Horseman. It’s a really funny show, the lead voice actor is Will Arnett. Amy Sedaris and Alison Brie are both involved but I play a recurring character on that show and the new season should be out pretty soon. It’s really interesting funny and weird, it’s about the industry and really terrific.
Make sure to check out Key & Peele Wednesday Nights at 10:30/9:30c on Comedy Central and look for Horrible Bosses 2 in theaters November 26th.
Interview conducted by Mike Nagel