The razor-sharp comedy of Key & Peele


Keegan-Michael Key (left) and Jordan Peele, of the Comedy Central series, "Key & Peele."

Ian White/Comedy Central

Keegan-Michael Key played President Obama's anger translator, Luthor, at this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner. Luthor is just one of the real characters Key and comic partner Jordan Peele portray on television -- creations that helped them win a total of eight Emmy nominations this past week. John Blackstone sat them down for some Questions-and-Answers. (An earlier version of this story was broadcast on September 14, 2014.)

On their Comedy Central TV show, "Key & Peele" transform themselves into hundreds of unpredictable characters, like the college football players with the exceptional names:

Tyroil Smoochie-Wallace, D'Squarious Green, Jr., Jackmerius Tachtheritrix, D'Jasper Probincrux III, Leoz Maxwell Jilliumz, Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar, Davoin Shower-Handel, Hingle McCringleberry, L'Carpetron Dookmarriot, Shakiraquan T.G.I.F. Carter, X-Wing @Aliciousness

... or the extremely knowledgeable movie hecklers.

KEY: "Do not go into a crane shot right now! You kiddin' me?"
PEELE: "Yeah, man. Y'all, this movie's got a inconsistent visual language!"
KEY: "Handheld, like he a Dogma filmmaker? That's funny, since Dogma clearly forbids temporal geographical alienation!"
PEELE: "Oh, I loved that shot the first time -- when it was in 'Nosferatu'!"
KEY: "I mean, this [bleep] trying to do some homage to the German Expressionists, or something."

Now in their fifth season, Key & Peele are getting the attention that fans and critics have felt they've long-deserved. Sketches from their TV show posted online have made them hugely popular on the Internet.

SUBSTITUTE TEACHER: "I said it like four times, so why didn't you say it the first time I said 'A-Aron'?"
AARON: "Because it's pronounced 'Aaron.'"

Last year, they were named to Time's "100 Most Influential People" list, and also featured on the cover of the magazine's Ideas Issue ... and they won a prestigious Peabody Award, which honors programming excellence.

"Trust me, it's an honor, mistake or otherwise," said Key. "We weren't vying for a Peabody. So this has been one of the most pleasant surprises of my life, like since I got that bike when I was eight."

Peele said, "People don't know our names: Who's Keegan? Who's Jordan? Just this past year, there's been a difference. We feel very lucky."

Keegan-Michael Key (married, 44 years old, from Detroit) and Jordan Peele (single, 36 years old, from New York City) first met at a sketch comedy club in Chicago, then worked together on "Mad TV," creating comedy built on surprise.

"We love to use an audience's expectations against them," said Peele.

Who would expect a slave auction as a subject for sketch comedy?

"I think our intention was that people go, 'Oh, I'm not gonna be able to laugh at this because it deals with an atrocity,'" said Peele. "And then we use judo, or try to, to make it a scene that is not exploiting the issue of slavery, but is really examining these characters."

"It's a scene about vanity that happens to be in the framework of slavery," said Key. "And then you go, 'Oh, OK, I see, they actually made me laugh with this!'"

Bidder: "Eight dollars on Lot A."
Auctioneer: "Going once, twice, three times. Sold!"
Peele (Lot B): "How does that happen?"
Key (Lot C): "No, not true!"
Peele: "How does that happen? Look at him!
Key: "OK, that can't be true, because what can this dude do? Look at him. What can he pick? A cotton plant is like this tall. No, offense, brother, I'm just sayin'."
Slave: "Offense taken."

"You don't want to just change the way people think about comedy, though; you want to change the way people think about race," said Blackstone.

"We view comedy as transformative," said Peele. "If you laugh at something, it's because you've had some sort of cathartic moment. We have a perspective that hasn't been explored. So that's an easy place for us to go and say, 'OK, well, how does a mixed person deal with something like this?'"

Key & Peele: Our partnership is like a marriage

Mixed, as in biracial. Peele's mother is white, his father was African-American. Key, too, was born to a white mother and black father, then adopted by a white mother and black father. At junior high, other kids did not understand.

"So they say mean, harsh things like, 'Man, you're lyin', man, that ain't your mom. Quit playin', dude, quit playin'. That ain't your mom,'" said Key. "And then here I am, in the class, weeping, going, 'It's my mom!' you know? That discovery comes and you start to go, 'Oh, my gosh, what a drag. I didn't know I had to pick sides.' That's the problem: They just throw the pieces down there, and walk away, and no one ever told you it's a bunch of pieces to two different puzzles.

"And then you meet someone like this [Peele], who wants to facilitate what you want to do."

How lucky that this meeting of minds and backgrounds occurred during the Obama years.

"Significant for you to have a man elected president who has a white mother and a black father?" asked Blackstone.