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One More Reason Why ‘Key & Peele’ Is So Funny: The Cinematic Vision of Director Peter Atencio

One More Reason Why 'Key & Peele' Is So Funny: The Cinematic Vision of Director Peter Atencio

Sketch comedy isn’t traditionally concerned with how it looks. Jokes and punchlines are the point, not visual flair — it’s rare to think of the person directing from behind the camera. But Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s sketch series “Key & Peele,” which starts its third season on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30pm, has a cinematic sensibility that sets it apart — sketches aren’t just thoughtfully staged and shot. The humor stems as much from how they look as how they play out.

There’s the pitch-perfect recreation of a sports show, complete with swooping graphics packages introducing players with increasingly ridiculous names, or the dramatically lit gang drama that gives way to some not-so-tough commemorating of a fallen comrade. The look of “Key & Peele” is the work of Peter Atencio, who’s helmed every episode of the show since its premiere in January of last year. “It was borne out of my habit of being a bit of a control freak,” he admits, adding the pilot had been such a good experience he couldn’t bring himself to let someone else in. Indiewire caught up with Atencio by phone to talk about directing the series and making it look so good.

What’s the process like in making “Key & Peele”? When do you come in to start talking about what an episode’s going to look like?

We do everything at the sketch level. The writers have their time, and there are weekly table reads, and I try to come to those because it’s really helpful. The more I can give input from a creative standpoint but also from knowing the challenges of shooting — to say we can tackle this visually and it doesn’t have to be exposition in dialog. It’s really valuable to be there as early as possible.

Then once we’ve assembled and selected all of the sketches — the writers end up writing more than three times as many sketches as we actually end up shooting, so we whittle it down and have a whole internal criteria for how we select which sketch we use — then we treat it like a feature film. We shoot all of the sketches at once, with no idea which episode is going to go with what, then we start arranging the show.

Was the look of the show something you talked about with Keegan and Jordan going into the series?

In our initial meeting in the pilot, I told them my philosophy on sketch comedy — and this comes from watching the sketch comedy that influenced me and developing my own thing. I feel like every sketch should inhabit a world and we should do as much as we can to create that world to support the comedy. I want to make every sketch a scene from a bigger movie, or a scene from a whole show, and have each one stand alone in such a way that as quickly as possible from the beginning of the sketch you know where you are you know and what the tone is — it sets up your expectations, so we always try to analyze every sketch and see what the best way to accomplish that is.

It that a rare thing? Comedy in general is often shot so serviceably — it doesn’t seem that visual sensibility is much of a priority. Do you see that changing at all?

I definitely think it’s changing. The sudden rise of internet video, specifically internet comedy video, from 2006 to now where they’ve become such a huge part of the culture. There are not a lot of sketch fans — it was kind of a comedy nerd thing, besides “SNL.” But fillmmakers suddenly have access to better tools — HD cameras and DSLR that shoot video — at the same time as you’re able to upload more and more content to the internet and more people are able to watch it. The thing I think it’s closest to is the music video film of the ’80s and early ’90s where suddenly people who wanted to study filmmaking had an opportunity because there was this business model supporting them.

I think that sketch is getting better and better and the people who make sketch are becoming aware that the more you can have a story and the more you can care about the details, the better it turns out, the more fully the vision is realized and the comedy is allowed to breathe. I definitely think it’s changing and it’s something that I’ve always tried to push forward, and there’s other filmmakers I know or admire who are part of the movement to move the needle on that. There’s people doing amazing stuff on the internet.

Who are some of the people you like or the video you think are really that needle?

It’s funny, the two groups who come to mind are two directing duos, one of which I know personally and actually work with doing our visual effects, a team called Fatal Farm. They’re not by any means a household name, but I really feel strongly that they will be huge someday. We were so lucky to get them to work on the show. They are people who are just constantly pushing the envelope and are so clear in their vision. And there are these other two guys who form a directing duo called Daniels, they’re doing more music videos and commercials, moving into that world where it’s more experimental and art-based, but the stuff they’re doing is really funny and really visually creative and interesting.

Now that the show’s in its third season, how do you feel it’s changed and is evolving — particularly in your approach?

The third season, I think we really found our voice. The first season, there’s a lot of expectations and people trying to shape the show into their idea of what it’s supposed to be, and it’s taking it’s first steps, it’s a little ugly and a little rough around the edges, but there’s something there. The second season, it started to take shape, but our second season was so close to our first season, we got to work on it before we were even done with our first season. They were so close together it almost felt like one season.

This time we had a little time off, we came back and I think we all have matured and definitely have a lot more knowledge. We’ve made over 200 sketches now, and we definitely slipped right back into the groove. The show just has a confidence about it this season that I think it hasn’t really had before.

Obviously “Key & Peele” revolves around its two stars, but in things like the “Les Mis” sketch in the season three premiere, a lot of the humor comes in the way it’s shot and the way it’s made, the way it references the visual style of the movie.

It’s interesting that you bring that up. I feel like the writers, having processed the first two seasons and having their first chance to step away from the show a little bit more and observe, I think they’ve now recognized on a certain level that they can sometimes give me material that doesn’t necessarily read as super funny, but that there is a stylistic or execution-based component that can do something interesting with it, that’s one thing that I hope that we’re going well, because we’re doing it a lot this season. This is the first season where it felt like I was reading scripts where it was like okay, here’s kind of an idea, and Peter, do what you’re going to do.

There’s one sketch in particular, this crazy “Miami Vice” parody/homage, and without giving too much away, something really tragic happens, and the joke of the scene has become the way in which it’s shot and how over the top the style is, this crazy, Michael Mann, operatic style. And that wasn’t in the script at all, and it became what that sketch is about. There was a lot more situations where the writers trusted me and the crew more, we all kind of worked together to figure out what we do, and how it can help the comedy. Sometimes sketches turn out completely different than we ever thought they would because of that, and it’s truly fascinating to watch that happen.

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