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Q&A: 'Key and Peele' Star Jordan Peele

Brittany Frederick Brittany Frederick
January 31st, 2012 2:00pm EST

Jordan PeeleJordan Peele and his partner Keegan-Michael Key are out to bring a different brand of sketch comedy to television.

With their new series Key & Peele, which bows tonight on Comedy Central (10:30 ET/PT), they're aiming for many different targets. Last week they put a new spin on the State of the Union address and other sketches spoof Nazis and fraternities.

The former MadTV alums are entering a TV landscape where sketch comedy can be hit or miss. Some say Saturday Night Live is in decline. Other sketch shows have come and gone. What's going to make their show different? I sat down with Jordan Peele recently to find out what Key & Peele is all about.

How did you two decide that you wanted to do this and do it together?

We knew each other even before our MadTV days, and then we really started writing together and performing a lot together. By the time we were off Mad and exploring separate projects, it was strikingly apparent that it would be a good idea to continue that relationship. We had so much fun.

We have the same manager who, about a year and a half ago, brought us in front of Comedy Central and we pitched the idea of a sketch show with Keegan and I. At that point, we didn't know too much except the types of sketches we'd like to do, and with Comedy Central, we started tearing down what the show could be. From there, we were in our comfort zone.

Is there anything you learned from working on MadTV that helped you with pulling this show together?

Oh, so much. First of all, we both come from a big theater background, Keegan even moreso than myself. We do sketch and improv live. That's our background. Putting that same stuff up on TV, it's a big difference. It's sort of hard to describe. For me, I found that very quickly, being on camera required a certain amount more sublety from me than I was used to. It became a whole new project to perfect comedic timing.

What's the writing process for a sketch show?

Our writing process was a real pressure cooker. We got some of our funniest friends together and had a great staff. Then we really sort of focused on what type of things Keegan and I can do that other people wouldn't be able to pull off as well, whether it's because of our unique point of view or if it's a brand of racial humor that's never been tapped.

We wrote about 260 scenes to produce about 54 of them. We really ground and made sure that all the stuff that we were left with was stuff we were happy with. That tended to be stuff that starts out with a funny nugget and then we just sort of add and layer on to that, all these different elements of the scene. We have our collection of sketches that are all very layered. The main focus of the show being to not feel like any other sketch show we've seen before.

We really worked real hard to do sometimes three sketches in a day. We got a good production value.

What's the criteria for your material? Is there anything that you won't poke fun at?

As far as universality is concerned, we very much believe that the amount of people who find something funny affects how funny it is. We do go for a wide variety of audience types. One of our goals was that if you watch an episode, everybody walks away with a different favorite. It's kind of impossible to truly compare. We cover the silliest stuff to the most subtle political stuff all in one show.

We believe that any subject matter can be fodder for a successful scene if that scene is written in the right way. We definitely try to make sure that nothing is edgy for the sake of being edgy without backing it up.

Is there a sketch that you really enjoyed doing?

I would answer that differently for different types of people. If you like political humor, you'll be happy to know that we hit Obama off a couple of times. That's one of the few sort of recurring bits.

One of my favorites is called Bobby McFerrin vs. Michael Winslow. It's pretty crazy. It's a fictional account of what a fight might be like between the two kings of mouth noises. It's a scene that's completely done without dialogue. That's my particular taste.

There's also sketches that are real line drives like the "bitch" sketch from the pilot, with the two husbands talking about their wives behind their backs. There's a couple where we hope people end up saying the lines from [but we didn't try to create catchphrases.

How often do you two crack each other up?

It's just an ongoing, all-day process. We're each other's biggest fans comedically. If we weren't working together we'd be admiring each other's work. Not only is he the nicest guy in the world, he has this remarkable energy. When we get improvising with one another, it's a matter of time before we both can't even hold it together anymore. That's why it's so fun.

How has doing the show compared to what you thought it would be like?

It's been a little bit of a blur because everything is happening. One of the crazy parts is that we're writing and producing this. It opens up a world of meetings we have to go through and decisions and calls we have to make. It's very nice to feel the security of, "If the wrong choice gets made, at least it's our fault."

Having worked on Mad for so many years, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life, it does get a bit frustrating at a certain point to have your ideas filtered through other producers, especially with something like sketch comedy. Being able to own what we do and do it as far as we want to do is awesome.

What's going to make you two consider the show a success?

Certainly, more seasons and money is always good. But one of our biggest goals is to inspire black comedians to go into sketch and improv. A lot of black comedians end up in stand-up, which is great. Black sketch shows tend to be cast with brilliant stand-ups. We hope to get more black kids doing improv.

Who do you two consider to be funny?

 

I grew up watching In Living Color, SNL, The State, Chappelle's Show. I knew by the time I was in college that I wanted to be a sketch comedian. I left Sarah Lawrence College to pursue that. I was very inspired by all the sketch shows. One of our very favorite sketches of all time is the SNL sketch where Eddie Murphy dresses like a white guy to go on the bus. Just an amazing premise for a sketch.

Keegan and I have a place in our hearts for Richard Pryor. We can't let that conversation go on too far without Richard Pryor. We also love British humor. The Office, Ricky Gervais. The Daily Show is probably the show I've watched the most in my life. I love [Lewis Black]; he's such a genius. I'm so happy that he's as successful as he is. I've always been a huge George Carlin fan. One of my guilty pleasures is Martin Lawrence.

What shows are you currently watching?

We tend to follow the popular cable dramas as a unit so we've done Breaking Bad, Homeland, Game of Thrones, American Horror Story. Interestingly enough, I guess because we're grinding on comedy for the last 15 years, and for the last year and a half on this show, it becomes hard to watch comedy. It becomes a situation where you can't just relax. You have to be analyzing it.

We're students of comedy. We're fans of comedy. We really tried very hard to make something fresh and that we would stay proud of. The thing that I'm most proud of is that we've achieved something you will not know what to expect.

My thanks to Jordan Peele for this interview! Find both him (@jordanpeele) and Keegan (@keeganmkey) on Twitter, and tune in to the debut of Key & Peele tonight at 10:30 ET/PT on Comedy Central.

Key & Peele

(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. Appears at Starpulse with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.

Photo Credits: Comedy Central/Matt Hoyle


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