Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the two stars of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele—have a funny way of presenting race in their sketch comedy show: They make it elemental yet somehow beside the point. It’s a finely honed balancing act unlike anything else out there right now. (In no place else will you find a sketch about what it might have been like to be the speaker following Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech.)
Key & Peele occupies its own lane in sketch comedy, informed by experience both in the performance sphere and in the creators’ respective upbringings. Read on for the boundary-pushing duo’s approach to making racially informed sketches that aren’t explicitly about race.
Jordan Peele: I don’t remember what we were talking about in the writers’ room, but I just got the image of Keegan and I standing next to a huge guy on a slave auction block, and my comedy alarm went off. What they see in the room is me standing up and saying, "Oh, oh, oh!" like "I have to get this out right now!" So basically, I wrote the scene, but it was based on just seeing that image. I think I was having a hard time figuring it out, though.
It was an attractive idea to me because I love impossible scenes or impossible situations. I love if someone tells me, "Man, you can’t find 32 different football player looks and characters for one scene." That to me is just a challenge. That’s what’s going to be amazing, is when we do it. To me, if you can find the thing about slavery that actually makes people laugh in the right way, and is not offensive, that’s a treasure trove. Because that’s a feat.
The real eureka moment in writing that scene was when I had the idea to not be characters in it. I just decided not to do slave characters; that we’d essentially be ourselves. Then it became an exploration of something else. For me, it became about how the modern human being, let alone the modern African-American like us, has no idea what those guys had to go through back then. It’s just on a whole different plane. As ourselves, we can explore the fact that, even though it’s not a postrace world right now, it’s at least evolved enough that we as ourselves would not be able to hang physically or emotionally in that situation.
Peele: We don’t like to pick on the underdog. We like to make people feel good. But that doesn’t mean we don’t subscribe to schadenfreude. Sometimes we’ll be giggling at something and it will hit our funny spot and we’ll love it. For instance, there’s a sketch that all of us, every time we read it, we’re cracking up. It’s called Lil Homies. It’s this thing that’s sort of just these two sensual guys, doing a commercial for [does a campy voice] all the little homies to come be at summer camp. It’s just this creepy thing where they don’t realize how creepy they’re coming across. But even though the scene cracks us up, our fear is that it will be misinterpreted as a homophobic comment, which we’re not trying to make. Until we figure out a perfect way to make it not picking on people who are in the middle of their civil rights movement, or even be able to be interpreted as that, it’s gonna be on the backburner.
Peele: A lot of the process is just taking anything that makes you laugh that you haven’t seen explored in sketch and thinking "How can I pull this out into a sketch?" The sketch, "Bitch," when Keegan and I wrote that, it came from a small moment that happened on The Bachelorette show, where one guy was talking to the bachelorette on his date, saying about the tough things he said about another one of the contestants, which we knew he didn’t say. He kept doing that thing where he looked over to see who was around while he was telling her something like, "Yeah, I pretty much told him what the rules are." So that thing, it rang true, and then the project became: How can we pull this out and make a scene out of it.
Keegan-Michael Key: The comedy writing room is like a locker room—it’s that kind of business environment. There are corporate business environments, and then there are what I call tribal business environments. This is a tribal business environment. I cannot repeat some of the jokes that have had us on the ground laughing, because they’re so horrible. It’s a thing comedians do. There’s a desensitization. A regular person has more delicate sensibilities. We haven’t had delicate sensibilities since we were probably 8 to 12 years of age.
Where I think sketch comedy shows have gotten into trouble is when you go, "Well, it’s making us laugh." We’re not normal. If you were an NFL quarterback, you wouldn’t walk up to a normal person and go, "I’m just gonna chuck down to the 4-6, and then go to razor 8, 334, short side, to the weak." I don’t know what that means. Every football player has an idea of what it means though. An actuary doesn’t know what it means. So it’s important that we be accessible to an audience that’s unlike us and at the same time maintain what it is that we want to do.
Key: Something that comes from our upbringing [Key and Peele both have one black parent and one white parent] is that we understand being, well, I certainly always felt like I was on the fringe of the African-American experience. Then, all of a sudden I remember—wait, there’s not a singular African-American experience. African-Americanism isn’t a monolith; that’s not a thing. So that’s always in the stew that is Key & Peele.
Peele: I think part of the restriction that we felt on us as black comedians was that we couldn’t make fun of ourselves. We can’t make fun of African-American culture. Black people almost aren’t allowed to lose in comedy.
Key: There’s a national guilt.
Peele: It’s a blowback that’s been happening since the Blaxploitation movies. So I think part of Keegan and my voice is that we like to explore characters with weakness, and I think that there’s not a lot of variety of black characters with different human real weaknesses out there.
Key: It’s nice to be able to write a scene where a black person has a fear about something other than a white man murdering him or murdering his family. But not to every black person. Why can’t you be afraid of getting embarrassed, or afraid of pooping yourself? Gangsters don’t poop? But you already made the point about the Blaxploitation films. We needed to feel our oats in the '60s and '70s. We needed to be—if not the captain of the football team, at least pretending that we were. We needed that in our maturation. But we should be beyond that now. We’re humans.
Key: We believe that the most revolutionary thing that could happen is viewers will just go, "Oh, this is a sketch show. And the people who are the stars of the sketch show just happen to have melanin in their skin." Is the sketch funny? Oh, then who cares what color they are. That to me is truly revolutionary. If we’re gonna play two guys from 18th-century France, slap on a big old pile of wigs, and give us birthmarks and let us do the scene. Who cares?
We concern ourselves more with our comedic voice than with making a point. That other part’s always going to be dappled and peppered into the show, because that is still part of what we’re saying, but it doesn’t have to be the focus.
Peele: And we’re certain there’s a lot in there that no one else is going to be able to explore right now. We have a little bit of a responsibility, I feel, to move forward the racial conversation in this country. But I think ultimately the best way to do that is, when you see a sketch, race or no race, it’s just funny, and it doesn’t matter the color of the performers in it.