By Rob Bradfield
Comedy veterans Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are no strangers to cutting-edge improv, but their new show explores topics that until recently remained untouched.
Their new show “Key and Peele”, which recently premiered on Comedy Central, explores their own experiences as bi-racial Americans. Known from their appearances on “MadTV” and in “Funny or Die” sketches, the duo’s new sketch show picks up in the same vein as established comedy shows like the “Chappelle Show” and “Saturday Night Live” but features the unique vision of Key and Peele.
“We really, really wanted to do something different,” Peele said.
Sketch-driven improvisational comedy is nothing new to Key and Peele. Both are former members of the Second City theater troupes and castmates on “MadTV,” where they gained a reputation for their character development and celebrity impersonations. Most recently Peele has gained recognition for his impersonations of President Barack Obama, with Key supporting him as the president’s “Anger Translator.” On the whole, their new show derives more of its comedy from their experiences than any of their previous work.
“Most of it comes from the way we see the world as African-Americans, and the way we see the world as bi-racial Americans,” Key said.
“Key and Peele” has also given the duo a chance to explore a little known facet of black comedy that they call “the nerdy black guy.”
According to Peele, the idea of a black character that was funny and intelligent has been nearly absent from comedy until very recently, with the exception of cartoonish characters like Steve Urkel from “Family Matters.” The other extreme they cited was intelligent artists that adopt the gangster image in order to be accepted.
“You can be street wise, and be as smart as Cornell West is, but what matters is the way you’re packaged,” Key said.
According to Key and Peele, the election of Obama has significantly changed the way African-Americans can be portrayed in comedy. Comedians have a difficult time writing traditional political material about Obama, but Key and Peele have zeroed in on his reputation for calm responses to stressful situations in their “Obama Anger Translator Speech.” His greatest contribution, according to Key and Peele, was making black culture mainstream.
“One of the things that Obama did was put our type on the map,” Peele said. “There wasn’t a place for bi-racial, nerdy, black guys before in society.”
That doesn’t mean that they won’t still poke fun at the president, or anyone else for that matter. The duo is almost constantly brainstorming ideas for new sketches. Even while on a conference call, they unintentionally started pitching ideas for a sketch about Liam Neeson’s recent run of revenge movies.
Even with constant brainstorming it can be difficult to write timely material. Writing, filming and production can take from anywhere between several weeks to several months, so sketches have to have broad and lasting appeal. From pitch to premiere, the initial episode took nine months to complete, but the pair is committed to their show and even are even hinting at the possibility of a second season.
“It’s been a long process. It’s been a fulfilling process, but long,” Key said.