For nearly two decades, Keegan-Michael Key has been tirelessly chiseling out a successful path in comedy. Name a standout sitcom from “Reno 911” to “How I Met Your Mother,” “Parks and Recreation” to “It’s Always Philadelphia,” “Modern Family,” “The Muppets” or “Ricky and Morty,” and Key has popped by to add his hilarious flare. The path began back in 2004 when he was cast on “MADtv,” and eventually led to he and castmate Jordan Peele spawning their own sketch show, the critically heralded and sharply satirical “Key and Peele.”
Through all of the above, Key has shown himself to be one of the boldest and most entertaining comedy performers working today. But in his new film, “Don’t Think Twice,” the funny man smoothly slides into drama. Which turns out to be an important next step for the challenge Key’s looking to take on next.
Written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, “Don’t Think Twice” follows an improvisational comedy troupe called “The Commune” through a creative moment of crisis. When one of their group gets cast on the hit comedy sketch show “Weekend Live,” tensions flare and friendships are strained. Rather than a happy-go-lucky comedy about comedians, Birbiglia and his co-stars (Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chis Gethard,and Tami Sagher) deliver a funny, poignant and sometimes devastating look at what happens when one’s showbiz dreams turn potentially toxic.
IndieWire sat down with Key in New York to discus, “Don’t Think Twice,” his own brushes with success and “learning opportunities.”
Is there a particular moment in “Don’t Think Twice” you related to as an actor?
It’s when Gillian’s character was kind of thrust into a situation — well, it’s a whole series of moments — but she’s thrust into a situation where she’s forced to teach an improv class. And then you see her fall in love with her potential there. I think what she discovers in the movie is you didn’t know that you could make this decision any time you wanted. That success is simply what you make it in your mind.
If I want to teach improv classes in the city, and that’s my goal, and I think this is going to fulfill me, then that’s what I should do. But there’s this maelstrom that gets built off of this myth that the only measure of success is that you end up on “Weekend Live” or “Saturday Night Live,” or that you end up on television. Success isn’t measured by the amount of people that watch you unless you allow it to be.
The Film Arcade
I liked how Gillian’s character realizes we want different things. We want fundamentally different things. And I think on the negative side, there’s a small moment at the end of the film where the character Jack, the character that I play, is standing on the church steps and he’s yelling at somebody at the show that he works on. The one thing that he has coveted his entire adult life, he’s now complaining about…he’s got his dream, but now he’s shackled by his dream. Be careful what you wish for.
Like Chris Gethard’s character says in the film, “Your twenties are all about hope–“
–and then your thirties are all about how dumb it was to hope.”
The film argues it’s not so much about letting a dream die, but letting your idea of success change.
My mother had a little sign on our refrigerator when I was growing up. It was a guy at a chalkboard and he’s making a tick on the chalkboard and on the top of the chalkboard there are two columns. One says “Successes,” and he’s made four little ticks in the success column. The other says “Learning Experiences” and there’s like 50,000 ticks. And my mother had that there so that my brother and I would reframe a failure, and make it be a learning experience.
I think if you can do that, your life might be relatively smooth sailing, to go “Oh, that was a learning experience. Oh! I’m so glad that thing — that most people say is bad — just happened to me, because now I know this.” You learn.
For you personally, what was an example of a “learning experience” moment?
I had one recently because I’ve been trying to make a change in my career to go back to what I used to do, which was drama. And it’s getting into rooms and shaking peoples’ hands and they go, “Now, um, I’m sorry — you’re Key, right? You’re Key?” And I go, “Uh huh.” (Faux-flustered straightens his tie.) Instead of letting that hurt my ego, you have to go, “No, no, no. You have to earn you’re way into this part of the business. You’re leaving comedy. You’re moving close to drama.”
But my ego says, “This is ridiculous! I have a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts and Acting! I’ve done Chekov. I’ve done Shakespeare.” They don’t know that. And they don’t care until you prove it. So in my very recent life that is something that has happened, where I’ve said, “Okay, this is you earning your dream again.”
This is your next challenge.
This is your next challenge! The next chapter, you got to gear up. You got to read it. You don’t just get to skip to Chapter Four. You got to read Three.
What for you would be a dream role to take on in drama?
I would play just about any role male or female in the Anton Chekov play “The Cherry Orchard,” which I love. Who doesn’t want to play Hamlet? I would love to play a fun character like I would love to be in “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” I love that play. I’d play Edmond or Jamie. I don’t care which. Give me fifty years, I’ll go play Tyrone. Classic theater, American theater, I’d love to play Stanley Kowalski (from “Streetcar Named Desire”).
The Film Arcade
There’s a very famous South African playwright named Athol Fugard, and I’d be in any play he’s ever did. If I could play Troy in “Fences,” though I’d need a few years on me. That’s an August Wilson seminal work; it’s the retired baseball player who’s a garbage man in Pittsburgh. That’s a play I know that I love.
There are these challenging roles that you see — like I just saw Mark Strong on Broadway last fall in “A View from a Bridge.” Oh, (throws his hands over his face, and dramatically drags them down his cheeks) what a role! These are the kind of roles that I love to play. Let’s put it this way: Any role where I get to interpret a lovely piece of art.
Speaking to successes you have had, what was a moment where — like your character in the film — you thought, “This is it. I’ve made it”?
I was standing on the Sunset Strip in front of the Grafton Hotel when I heard, “You’re going to come in and read tomorrow for the producers (of ‘MADtv’).” And I had that Jack moment where, “I just got this job!”
The funny thing is, you know you had the moment when you’ve had the next six moments. And the next six moments are, “Where am I going to live? Do I have enough money to pay for the flight? Oh, they’ll pay for the plane ticket?” It’s all those little practical moments that make you know it’s real. Any gig an actor gets, it’s when you go, “Oh, God, three o’clock on Wednesday is when I have to do the wardrobe fitting.” That’s when you know, the job is that far away. That’s when you know you’re close.
The moment you get the job is exhilarating. It’s the six moments after that, the practical moments that make me feel like it’s a real thing.
Elaine Stritch famously compared being in theater to being a prostitute, saying “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”
We say both in theater and in (screen acting), your job is to audition. Once you’re in the rehearsal space with the other actors, and you’re looking at them and you’re working together, and the director goes (snaps fingers), “Oh! There it is. That’s the moment.”
You’re unlocking everything the playwright wants. The greatest thing when you work with a playwright is when the playwright looks at you and says, “God, I never thought of it that way. I never thought of it that way. Took me six years to write this play, and you revealed something to me that I didn’t know was there.”
Your film “Keanu” was very well-received its SXSW premiere, then the criticisms started coming out. One recurring criticism was that the movie isn’t as political as “Key and Peele.” What’s your response to that?
Even on the show, we don’t make a lot of effort to make the show political. We just see the world from our point of view. Part of my response would be that I think it’s pretty political that we are trying to establish a world that exists and that a lot of people don’t know exists. And that world is a world in which African-Americans are not a monolith. We don’t all think the same way, talk the same way, believe the same way. Our culture is a mosaic.
Now, maybe that’s not political. Maybe that’s just social. But I feel like it’s helpful maybe, perhaps for certain members of our society to see that our culture being varied is a part of what makes us human. Just like you, so stop killing us.
Also, Jordan wrote the movie as an exercise. The exercise was “What does a populist piece of entertainment from Key and Peele look like?” That was actually the reason for writing the movie. But when you ask us, both of us typically answer the question the same: We’re just writing things to make each other laugh, really. If you find something in that, bravo.
You’re working on both “Substitute Teacher” and a reboot of “Police Academy.” With this kind of climate going on, how is it impacting how you shape those projects?
It’s impacting it significantly. The studio is very aware of it. We (he and Peele) and our head writer are very aware of it on both projects. What are we trying to say? What do we want to say? And what’s the funniest way to say it? We just keep coming back. We’re not even at tweak places yet. We’re not even at polish. Everything is about “can we say this?” And are we being responsible if we do so? What are we punching up at? (Mimes punching up.) That’s the big thing is that we have to make sure that we’re punching up. And the other thing is, how do you navigate the fact that the police are humans, and the people are being shot are humans. Where’s the middle ground there?
I feel bad for the guys writing these two scripts because these men have to go back to page one rewrites two or three times until we figure out how do we tell a story that’s effective, funny and tolerant. The problem is you can’t be 100% tolerant. Like in Mike Birbiglia’s one-man-show (“Thank God For Jokes”) that he just did off-Broadway, there’s only one guarantee in comedy: If you make fun of no one, it will not be funny. If you make fun of no one, it isn’t a comedy.
Are you seeing a shift in inclusive casting in Hollywood? Or is it just a lot of talk?
I think it’s mostly talk. Except for, well, watching the Emmy nominations come out has been very interesting, because we’re watching web series get nominated, small series on streaming services get nominated. I believe there is a turn happening, because when you see somebody being recognized like Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”) and that show’s on Netflix and another show is a female-centric show and that’s on a webseries that you can’t even get on television.
The fact that the Emmys are opening things up and saying, “Anything that I can view with my eyes in a broad manner should be included in this,” that will make more stuff racially and gender-wise inclusive. It will make all of that stuff more inclusive, because there’s enough of it out there. As long as they are looking for the quality, then it is moving in the right direction.
It is moving in the right direction. It’s going to take a while. The majority of us here are still white. So it’s going to take a while. But it’s going to happen. History is happening.
“Don’t Think Twice” opens on Friday, July 22.