Comedian Patton Oswalt, during a recent Paley Center for Media conversation with Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, was less moderator and more unabashed fanboy for their Comedy Central series, which will return for its fourth season this fall.
But Oswalt’s approach highlighted one of the factors that makes the Comedy Central sketch series “Key and Peele” — and Key and Peele themselves — such a fresh voice in the comedy atmosphere: The fact that no one is doing comedy like them.
While the duo’s background includes stints on “Mad TV,” Key and Peele said that they work hard to draw on their unique experiences for the show. “The way we look at creating a ‘Key and Peele’ sketch is, what is something that only Keegan and I could do — or that only Keegan and I would do?” Peele said. “Sometimes that will mean doing something about what it’s like to be mixed [race] in 2014. Sometimes — most of the time — that’ll be something that goes to such a dark place that… We’ve never seen anyone end a sketch in such a dark matter. We love to infuse other emotions, aside from fun, in comedy.”
Key did note, though, that “At the end of the day and also the beginning of the day, the fact that there’s a solid comic premise is first and foremost in our minds. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.”
Just because “Key and Peele” tackles racial issues doesn’t mean it has to be ONLY about race. One sketch featured that evening was a parody of musical theater tropes — very specifically, the interrupting that occurs during key numbers of “Les Miserables.”
“Both Keegan and I love theater, we love musicals,” Peele said. “That sketch is very important because it marks one of the first times we made a sketch that wasn’t pinpointed at any social issue. There’s no racial issue other than ‘we get to do this now.'”
“The most revolutionary scenes are scenes like ‘Les Mis,'” Key added, imitating a confused fan: “It’s the 18th century, but… they’re… black…”
“Then,” Key added, “You’re dealing with a 21st century mind.”
Speaking of things only they can do: Key and Peele are probably best known for the “Luther” sketches, which stand out both because of the premise — President Obama, after being criticized for being too emotionless, hires an “anger translator” named Luther to communicate how he’s really feeling — and Peele’s pretty-much-perfect Obama impression. (Obama himself is a fan; when Key and Peele met him, Obama not only complimented Peele’s work, but admitted that “I need Luther.”)
The “Luther” sketches, however, represent a different approach to comedy than other “Key and Peele” material: “Normally, there’s an unspoken game of a scene,” Peele said. But with “Luther,” the premise is set up at the beginning of the sketch (by Obama introducing Luther to the American public). “We’re telling you what the game of the scene is and then we’re playing that game,” Peele added.
Also, during the 2012 election, “Luther” worked differently in terms of production — while most of “Key and Peele” that season was shot months in advance, each episode was built with a “Luther”-shaped hole. Then each week, as the season aired on Comedy Central, the “Key and Peele” team would shoot a “Luther” sketch touch covering a topical issue from the Presidential campaign.
Some of those sketches are downright iconic (Luther celebrating over Romney’s “47 percent” remarks is especially great), but in retrospect, Key and Peele weren’t huge fans.
“Looking back, those are the ones I would pass up,” Peele said. “For the most part, what began as kind of a curse, that we had to make sketches evergreen, became a blessing because we had to make them evergreen.”
And in fact, the bulk of “Key and Peele,” years after the fact, is thoroughly enjoyable sketch comedy, anchored by charming interludes featuring Key and Peele themselves. Attendees of the Paley panel probably already knew that Key and Peele are a joy to observe interacting. But it was fun to confirm that in person.