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‘Key & Peele’ On Mastering Cinematic Sketch Comedy, with a Whole Lot of Improv (And Football)

'Key & Peele' On Mastering Cinematic Sketch Comedy, with a Whole Lot of Improv (And Football)

I can now tell my grandchildren that one sunny November day in Long Beach, I watched Keegan Michael Key walk back and forth down a hallway, with a sword, for over four hours.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration. (It wasn’t quite four hours. They took a break for lunch.) But when I visited the set of “Key and Peele” earlier this month, I was reminded of why the Comedy Central series has become one of the more innovative comedy powerhouses happening now — specifically, its balance of beautifully shot, precise sketch comedy, performed by two great improvisers. 

A set visit can go a lot of different directions; in this case, I spent a good portion of time hanging out by the video monitors, watching as Key carefully strode down a hallway with the aforementioned sword, to complete the scene’s elegant climax. The shots they were getting had a clear sense of choreography to them; Key almost seemed to be engaged in a slow dance with the scene. “What you’re watching today is super precise,” he told me later. “I seldom do this, but today I’m counting steps, all of that, because you want it to match exactly.”

When it’s in production, “Key and Peele” bounces around from location to location on a daily basis, because its sketches require a wide range of locales; that day, the shoot had taken over part of the stadium at Long Beach City College. (Lunch was set up right by the field, during which everyone got occasionally distracted from eating by the extremely limber track team bouncing over hurdles.) 

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I won’t describe the details of the sketch I saw being filmed — in part because, having only seen one component of it, my description wouldn’t do it justice. But more importantly, the actual sketch won’t be aired until next year: Borrowing a move perfected by AMC of late, Comedy Central is splitting up the fourth season of “Key and Peele”; the second half will air in 2015. (Does that make “Key and Peele” Comedy Central’s “Breaking Bad”? Perhaps.)

That long lead time requires that “Key and Peele” sketches have a timeless feel, though every once in a while a fortunate coincidence comes into play: A sketch that leads off Episode 2 of this season featured Peele as a news anchor, rattling off a series of brutal crimes perpetrated by men against women — buttoned with the punchline “And that’s it for sports.”

The sketch reflects a particularly resonant theme this fall, but it was actually shot nine months ago. “The only thing to be glad about in that whole horrible Ray Rice thing was that the sketch became so much more topical,” executive producer Ian Roberts (one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade) said to me during a break. “Sadly, there’s always something going on along those lines.”

During filming, Roberts sat front and center in front of the video monitors, laptop on his lap. But at one point, he did get up and walk to the actors in the scene, and then in the next take, one of them raised his hands just a little bit higher into frame — a minor detail, but one that better sold the joke.

I asked Roberts about it over lunch, if those sorts of adjustments were a big part of his role during production. “That’s all I do on set,” he said. “If I see something, 90 percent of the time Peter, the director, has seen it at the same time and is like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ But every so often I add something. It’s more than just looking for little problems. If I think of something that might be funny I always offer it up.”

But Peter Atencio, who’s been directing the show since its very beginning, takes the lead. “I’m just here to take chippy shots if I see them,” Roberts added. “This is [Atencio]’s deal. All I’m here to do is to tweak tiny moments when I see fit.”

Before lunch the other half of “Key and Peele,” Jordan Peele, was also sitting in Video Village watching the scene in progress; when I asked him about one particular beat of the sketch, he explained it succinctly, framing it in the context of a classic movie cliche — because of his focus on achieving the cinematic qualities of each sketch. 

“Thank god I have Jordan, because very often I just get caught up in the moment,” Key said, regarding the process of getting the necessary coverage for certain bits. “I won’t remember to go, ‘Oh wait stop! We have to get — I got to do it again. Cause I went like this, I didn’t go like this.’ To be able to think of all that stuff, I’m still learning that.”

Both are incredibly nice, but Key is the talker (it takes focus to interview him, because without it you’ll end up gabbing about reality TV and HBO’s “The Comeback” like you’d just met at a cocktail party). Peele is the quieter of the pair — he left the set after a little while to retreat to his trailer and write.

“Every now and again, Jordan and I, when we have a spare 20 minutes to ourselves — which is never — but when we do, very often scenes will be born of us just in our office screwing around. One of us says ‘Did you see this on the news?’ and we’ll improvise with each other. Then, the next morning I come into work and he’s written a scene!” Key laughed. “So, nobody asked him to do that, but I’ll take it! He expresses himself so well through the written word.”

Key himself, however, is very different: “I’m a very, very active person, so I kind of have to write on my feet. Like, if I had a choice, I’d have somebody who can type 140 words a minute standing next to me at all times. And I’d just start doing characters. When I was at ‘MadTV,’ that was how I wrote — I’d go into an office and sometimes writers, [when] they wrote the scene… they typed the scene. I’m standing in the office and they’re going ‘Uh huh, yeah, uh huh, uh huh. That’s good. I think we’re done!'”

Sometimes, “Key and Peele” shoots two sketches a day, but that Monday, Key seemed visibly relieved that they were just doing the one. Of course, the reason it was just one sketch for the day was that it was a more complicated epic (similar to past larger-scale scenes they’ve produced, such as a full musical tribute to “Les Miserables”), one involving a higher level of attention to detail — and no improv.

“The best time to come to set ever is when the cameras are locked off,” Key said. “When you see these dollies, it’s gonna be a little bit of a boring day. When you see sticks, that the guys have just locked the cameras down, it means it’s a Keegan and Jordan scene.”

That’s doubly the case if they’re shooting with a two-camera set-up, allowing them to capture both sides of a scene. “Not until you see that cross coverage do you know that we’re not gonna say anything in the lines in the script,” Key said. “We’ll get like three or four, and then Peter will say — we have a short hand, where we say ‘You have what we need for the cut?’ and then he says ‘5K.’ 5K means we’re gonna run ten miles away from home and come back. 5K means we’re gonna improvise and just get super loose.”

One recently aired example was the “Family Matters” sketch, which featured Key as a cocaine-addicted sitcom executive and Peele as Reginald VelJohnson. “Yeah, we screwed around with that a lot,” Key said. “‘I’m high on cocaine’ became a new beat with [Peele] saying the thing, ‘I’ve done more cocaine than you weigh’–”

Thomas, who was nearby, chimed in. “And the stuff about the plays he was in–“

“Sherman Hemsley, Tempestt Bledsoe–” Key added.

“You’d just take a famous old TV actor and say they’d done something, like the Mamet play–“

“Yeah,” Key said. “‘Speed-the-Plow’ with Marla Gibbs.”

And that’s the trick — finding the balance between Key and Peele’s talents for discovering great jokes on the fly, and the sketches which are driven largely by a specific genre they’re parodying.

“With these guys, sometimes the script is barely getting touched, but it depends on the written scene. There are times when I step in and say, ‘Everything is great, but this one thing we really need,'” Roberts said. “[But] they only improvise within the basic, big boundaries of what we’re doing. We’ve never had something where we had to spend more money or do reshoots because of improvisation. They understand the mechanics of filming the show, so they improvise within those boundaries. I can honestly say this has never been a problem.”

That doesn’t mean risks aren’t being taken, especially when it comes to sketches that are more execution-dependent than others. “There was one about an execution that I had grave reservations about,” Roberts said. “The Hall of Mirrors” sketch from the Halloween episode. I didn’t know if they could figure it out, because it was all about reflections everywhere and not knowing where the guy was. It was something from a suspense movie, and that’s one where I just tipped my hat to Peter. That was one of the most satisfying things, where I stood back and marveled at how well it was coming together. You secretly confess after, ‘I didn’t know if we could pull that off.’ It was the technical part I had doubts about.”

No matter what the style of the sketch, there’s a consistent undercurrent to it. “Keegan and Jordan like humanly recognizable foibles. They love to undercut secret weaknesses and the things that are humiliating about human nature, like selfishness and pettiness. They tend to be more humanly recognizable than absurdist,” Roberts said. “I consider Monty Python to be more along that line too. We love that moment when it’s something everyone can relate to, like airplane boarding or trying to cross the crosswalk and someone has pushed the button. Those are obvious ones, but if you looked at most of the scenes you’d find something about human nature. They love to go after machismo and manhood, generic things about manhood.”

This lead me to ask if that might be why football was such a huge part of the show (the East-West Bowl sketches remain classics). “I think football might be a huge part of the show because they love football, particularly fantasy football,” Roberts responded. “When the season comes around, it becomes crazy in our office.”

That’s not the only personal passion that’s become incorporated into the show’s structure. This season, “Key and Peele” shifted from its previous framework (Key and Peele performing improv in front of a live studio audience to introduce each sketch) to a “True Detective”-inspired format where each sketch is introduced by the duo driving through an endless desert, riffing with each other Woody and McConaughey style.

I asked Key about why that shift had occurred, and he said that they’d been wanting to shake things up for a while. “To be honest, it had always felt fractured to us. It was such an abrupt change from two guys standing on stage, which we’ve seen for 60 years, to then these, like, small movies. So, wouldn’t it be interesting if the whole show had this cinematic veneer to it? And that was part of why we wanted to change things.”

But why “True Detective”? “I loved ‘True Detective,’ but [Roberts and Peele], they adored ‘True Detective,'” Key said. “The thing is, we have this show, we get to be in charge, we get to do whatever we want, so why not do that? Why not drive in the car? And I love to drive! And [Peele] can’t drive. So it was perfect.”

Talking to everyone in between takes took a good chunk of the day, proving to be an important reminder that the actual process of making any filmed entertainment can be a bit monotonous. As Roberts told me, “The fun of film is the finished product. The doing of it is very tedious — it’s all about repeating and matching.”

But, he added, “On stage… It’s so gratifying in the moment, but it’s nothing afterwards. With this, it’s all about afterwards. Improv is all about the joy in the moment. Doing the film side is work. Improvising is play.”

Somehow, in just a couple of years, “Key and Peele” has found an ideal mix.

“Key and Peele” airs Wednesdays at 10:30pm on Comedy Central.

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