It’s never easy to say goodbye, but there’s no denying that after five years of making one of the best sketch shows of the current century, everyone involved with “Key and Peele” will go on to great things.
That includes executive producers Ian Roberts and Jay Martel, who were with the show from the beginning and oversaw every season of production of the Comedy Central sketch series starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Reached by phone, they revealed to Indiewire what changed about making “Key and Peele” over the years and which sketches will stand the test of time.
In terms of looking back over the experience of the show, what strikes you most about the overall arc of it?
JAY MARTEL: Well, first of all, it didn’t seem like five years because it went by very quickly. And I think it was just the show evolving over time and becoming more true to itself. I’m very proud of the fact that I think every season was better than the season before, and I think that was just a testament to us learning the range of what we can do and also getting more freedom from the network to try more things.
MARTEL: In the beginning, because Jordan and Keegan are biracial, there was a lot of emphasis on sketches in which they played African Americans, and there’s also a live segment between the sketches in which they talked about themselves and their backgrounds. And then, as the seasons moved on, we were less tethered by that and Jordan and Keegan got more freedom to play characters of all different kinds of ethnicities, and the reach of the show started expanding more, and what things that we could talk about opened up. And also the live segments were originally replaced by them driving around in a car and talking, which seemed more true to their personalities and the way they related to each other.
With that structure of combining the segments where they’re being themselves and then adding the sketch element on top of that, what is it about that format that you think plays especially well with sketch comedy?
IAN ROBERTS: The problem with sketch comedy that doesn’t exist in other shows is that you don’t have something comfortable to return to if you don’t have some element that’s confident. And so it helps to have the actual actors out there talking to the camera because it’s something you can depend on formally. Sketch can be sort of random without that, so you’re looking for some framing device that can gimmick what other shows have by way of returning to the same characters every time you see the show.
And it also lets them reveal their own personalities as well.
ROBERTS: Yeah. Basically, how that evolved: When we first did the interstitials on the stage, Comedy Central required that it be scripted. But when we improvised enough during those, it became clear that they could wing it, and that combined with the fact that we decided that the best way to get to know them was not by them talking about their personal lives, but by them acting the way they act together, and being comedians that involves doing bits with each other, playing around. So, it evolved from a scripted segment where they talked about themselves to an improvised segment where they basically were themselves and did what we do in the office, which is kid around with each other.
Is there, looking back, a specific tipping point you feel, when Comedy Central started really trusting you guys?
ROBERTS: There was a difference after Season 1. Would you agree Jay?
MARTEL: Yeah, but it happened again after Season 2. There was more of a loosening of the reigns, and I think that each season there was something that I noticed that was a little different, a little more relaxed about their attitude towards what we were doing.
ROBERTS: I want to make sure it comes across; Comedy Central, there wasn’t a lot of a need to trigger a workaround. We had great producers, great executives who were very smart. Usually if they had a note, it was a great note, it made a scene better. Please mention that. In all my experience working in TV and in movies, these are the best and smartest executives I ever worked with.
Of course. I mean, from the beginning, you’re working with the network to figure out what the show is. So, it makes sense that that relationship changed over the course of the seasons.
ROBERTS: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Having worked on a lot of shows that lasted one season, getting past that one season mark was kind of a revelation because a lot of things change and shows become more watched and more successful.
We’ve talked about how the show has evolved. Are there other elements you feel like you wouldn’t have been able to do in Season 1 that you were able to do in Season 4?
ROBERTS: I wouldn’t say wasn’t able to, but there was definitely a lot more improv. Season 4, we started doing what they call a “five page take” and that was like running a half marathon because they would improvise so long.
MARTEL: They’d just go on and on and on and on usually. As the seasons went on, more and more of those scripts ended up in the show.
ROBERTS: There was one about two guys having dinner, where one guy ends up– It’s revealed that he’s a man-child. He’s a little boy. [What] I saw happen, compared to what was written, it was all about improvisation. And we got more of those, like the anti-terrorist one on the plane. Highly improvised. What else did we do?
MARTEL: Mostly the subject matter getting opened up. Jordan and Keegan got a lot of sketches that couldn’t have happened in the first two seasons. When did the “Star Wars” sketch happen? The things that Jordan and Keegan felt, that Ian and I as well felt most passionate about, basically pretty much all got made, with the exception of a couple that were just too expensive to produce.
ROBERTS: Jordan had an interesting theory about certain things, because he and one of the writers were trying something that had certain cultural references that if you were my age, you wouldn’t know, and Jordan said, “Look. Most people won’t know, but the people that do will watch our show forever.” It was interesting, I’d never quite heard that before. It might not reach wide, but you’re going to blow some people’s minds. You’re giving them crack.
I know that the “Gremlins 2” sketch was transformative for a few friends of mine.
ROBERTS: That’s awesome. That was one of them, that was one that I think he fought for. “Star Trek” movies, and “Star Wars” movies and “Ghostbusters.”
MARTEL: There’s like four or five years of pop culture sometime in the late ’80s that just got a lot more attention on the show.
In constructing the final episode, how much of it is business as usual versus saying goodbye to Key and Peele? Did you look at is as a big, epic farewell, or was it just, “We’re going to keep on doing the same sort of stuff we’ve been doing this whole time?”
MARTEL: I’d say the same sort of stuff. We have a big sort of surprise reveal at the end that relates to– I don’t want to give it away, but it relates to a sketch from the very first episode.
Okay. That’s great.
MARTEL: And also, I don’t know if you’ve seen that sketch, “Negrotown,” which we released on the internet back in May. But, that is the last sketch of the series.
Oh, yeah, I remember that. That was fantastic.
MARTEL: We were very proud of that sketch and thought it would be a fitting way to say goodbye.
Nice. I imagine it’s hard to answer this question right now, but 10 years from now say, looking back on “Key and Peele,” what do you think its legacy will be?
MARTEL: I think it will be seen as one of the great sketch shows, alongside “Monty Python” and “Mr. Show,” and I feel like it’s going to be known mainly, probably, for being the first sketch show to really blow up on the internet and it’ll be, I think still highly-regarded as a show that had amazingly high production values.
ROBERTS: That’s what I wonder, it’s all about legacy. I wonder if future sketch shows will be more likely to look cinematic.
Plus I think that there are some iconic elements to the show, as well, like Obama’s anger translator, Luther; just in terms of what he represents about the Obama presidency, especially.
ROBERTS: Yeah. The Obama presidency, for our show, was a great confirmation. That was certainly our first thing that helped us. When you start a show, it’s like you’re out in the middle of the wilderness or locked inside your garage, and you try to get people to notice you. And that was probably our first thing that helped break us out.
MARTEL: I think in 10 years, I don’t know if anyone will watch those sketches. I think the sketches that people will still watch will be the sketches that have nothing topical about them, that are more based on human nature.
Though I remember, at least one season during the 2012 election, you were producing topical stuff on top of the pre-filmed things.
MARTEL: Yeah, we had this crazy setup going because the show is just not built to be a topical show. The first couple seasons took a year each to make. That doesn’t lend itself to topicality, but what we did on those election shows, is we put holes into the show that were exactly two minutes long leading up the election, and then we erected a set, that Oval Office set, in one of our rooms, at the writers’ rooms where we were, where we’re doing post-production, and so we would write up to, I think it was about a week before. We would shoot something, edit it, and just stick it into that hole, and ship it off.
ROBERTS: I think also you lobbied to have a season start at a different time than we intended, so it could line up with–
MARTEL: Yeah, originally they wanted to start the season in January of 2013, I think, and I lobbied to start it in October of 2012 because, as Ian said, I think the whole thing that was getting us noticed was how could we produce a show not knowing who won the presidency? [laughs] Because, if we put Obama in there, who knows? We didn’t know at that point, we were so far out from the election, we didn’t know that Romney was going to completely tank.
ROBERTS: And it gave us the opportunity to comment about all that stuff.
MARTEL: So it worked out well, and it was really crazy. I think that was the busiest we’ve ever been because we were basically editing an entire season’s worth of a show, while writing and shooting segments in our spare time in a different room and putting those into the show with the other shows that we were putting together. So it was pretty crazy.
So, to wrap things up, is there anything you’ll personally miss about making the show?
MARTEL: Oh, yes. So many things, I mean working with Jordan and Keegan is foremost. Those guys are so funny and fun to watch, and Ian and I got so much out of us just watching them act. They’re so amazing, so professional, just great guys to work with. It’s rare in this business that you do something for five years. And so it feels really weird not to be doing it. And also, just being able to be part of the show that meant so much to so many people. It doesn’t happen very often. Hopefully it’ll happen again for us, but I was well aware while we were working on it, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with these guys and to work on a show that can talk about so many things that most shows can’t.