'Key & Peele's' Jordan Peele Explains How to End a Sketch Show

"We're just people who are really into the idea of doing it right," Peele says of the decision to walk away from the Comedy Central hit.
Courtesy of Comedy Central

The world only found out about the end of Key & Peele in July, but the two title stars and their collaborators knew the show's time was coming for the better part of a year.

"I think we knew coming into last season," says Jordan Peele, who co-created and stars in the Comedy Central series with Keegan-Michael Key. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Peele discusses what that decision means for him and Key; why now — the final episode airs Sept. 9 — is the right time to go out; and what viewers can look forward to (Continental Breakfast Man is returning!) in the last three episodes.

A lot of your sketches seem very labor-intensive. Was the show just eating up too much of your lives at this point?

That's a part of it. I think artistically, we feel like we did five seasons that we wanted to do and sketches we wanted to perform and [showcased] a comedic point of view we felt was important. I think we're at the point, as far as sketch is concerned, that I don't know either of us feel hungry in that format anymore. I could see us going another season, and maybe the quality dips a little bit. We're just people who are really into the idea of doing it right, doing it well and not letting it wear out its welcome.

How do you end a sketch show, as opposed to a traditional comedy or drama?

Certainly we set out to make our final season be the best season of the show. I think with the help of our entire team, that was possible. I think that's all sort of summed up with a sketch like "Negrotown." We previewed [it] online, but it's also in our last episode as we originally intended. That's a sketch where certainly on the production side we achieved a different level of synchronicity with our team, especially Peter Atencio, our treasured director.

But more than that, I think we ... pulled comedy from a very touchy place, and a place where I feel like the world needed a breath of positivity, a topic the world needed a breath of positivity around. ... I think that's the real answer. We don't like to be preachy or hit people over the head with messages. We like to make people laugh. But that sketch and a few others this season felt very important to us.

The sketch about the trigger-happy white cop from this season seemed particularly pointed as well. Did you just go all in knowing this was your last shot at some of these topics?

That would kind of imply we were holding back. ... I realize that's what I implied, but we've always gone into this show looking for sketches that nobody else out there is going to be doing. That one just felt like a place and a time — both of those sketches felt like this is the place and time where those sketches can work. You couldn't make those sketches five years ago, 10 years ago — they work now. They symbolize a very complex time we're living in. I think that's why they stand out as important. Hopefully in five, 10 years, those will be looked back on fondly but they won't hold up. [Laughs.]

Are there any ideas you had put off for a long time that made it into these final episodes?

There are a couple of things. On the opposite side of the relevance chart is a sketch called "Gremlins 2"  [which aired in Wednesday's episode] ... That's a sketch I've wanted to do for a while, but it felt so broad and referential that there wasn't really a place for it on the show. ... This past season, I looked at it and said, "You know what? I'm never gonna get a chance to do this sketch again." And I love it. That's the cool thing about having your own show — if you really want to do it, you get to do it. ...

So yes — that's the kind of passion project I would never get to do again. [Laughs.] But the bigger piece of the picture is we love movies. We want to do movies; it's just so fun. I'm directing a horror film right now, and Keegan is starring in a movie; he's in New York right now. But there's something to what you say. We could probably get two or three movies done in the amount of time it took to do a season of Key & Peele.

Why did you decide to switch to the moodier, True Detective-style opening credits and drop the live-audience segments in favor of you and Keegan driving through the desert?

To be honest, that was actually the show we had pitched originally. ... Ultimately it came down to, Keegan and I, when we're driving around, we're making each other laugh more than ever. That's the time for us where we really have the most fun together. We also noticed the sketches that seem to work the best are the ones we're having the most fun doing on the day, the ones we're laughing at. ... They just kind of rise to the top. That fun is contagious.

Yes, there's definitely a kind of True Detective allusion in it. We chose to put it in the desert for that reason. That was just kind of the synthesis of the moment, and the True Detective-style opening we did centers on the Rorschach test motif. Which for me ... is sort of the perfect symbol for Key & Peele. Key & Peele is what you see when you look at it. We worked very hard in our careers to try and become chameleons, to become shape-shifters. In some ways, this sketch show set out to be a mirror to society, and I think the Rorschach motif is actually more accurate because you can still look in a mirror and see what you want to see.

It all sort of worked in theme, and we loved the idea of the packaging of the show satirizing something as well, being a parody of this integrity-laden drama device. It seems like every cool show we like has these opening [credits]. So it all did come from all of that and seemed to kind of fit together perfectly.

Were there any sketches you were really surprised that got a big reaction, or didn't?

You can never really predict what's going to be huge and what's not. Our text message conversation from last season, where we keep misinterpreting each other's texts — that was one we felt like was a pretty standard Key & Peele scene. It sort of pinpointed an observation I think no one had made yet, and because of that it sort of exploded online the day after it aired. We did not expect that. ...

It's interesting — because of the viral nature of the story of the show, we're left sort of judging sketches by how many views online it has. Which of course is a little bit tricky, because some things are more sharable than others — it doesn't mean it's not as funny. There are some I'm gonna send everybody in my family, and there's another that might be the funniest thing in the world to me, but I'm not sending it to anyone. So it's an interesting question, and ultimately we're left just judging by what our personal favorites are.

And what are those for you?

I think the Meegan character, Meegan and Andre, has ended up having a really cool lifespan. She's one of our most recurring characters. I think it's something people relate to, and it's very fun to play. We can improvise as those guys forever. My personal favorite performance I got to do was the continental breakfast guy. That was one where I thought it was kind of a passion project that would not necessarily win people over because it's so bizarre. [But] it's one of the things that people respond to the most to me. That's just a little something that kind of encourages me to trust my gut about what's going to work.

What can you say about the final few episodes? Will we see some recurring characters one last time?

One thing you can be sure of is we will reveal where we've been driving, which a lot of people ask. I don't remember if it's in the last three or the last two, but the continental breakfast guy will return. He'll be in economy plus on an airplane. There's also a special gift that we pieced together in the very last episode that may or may not be a collection of moments that never made the air. ... One of my favorites this year was a sketch I got to do as Ray Parker Jr. that's in the final episode. It was one of the harder things to get through, for some reason.

When you started, did you have any sense of how big Key & Peele would get or how much it would impact your respective careers?

I'll be honest with you — I did have a feeling we were onto something special. Keegan is just one of the most magnetic performers I've ever gotten to work with, so I felt very safe developing a show with him. The question for me was whether or not we would last past one season. I knew if we did, we'd be able to do some very cool things and reach some cool heights.

But with sketch, like most shows — I think even more so with sketch — there's this wall of skepticism that comes up immediately. You get compared to people's favorite sketch shows. The advantage of sketch is the same as the difficulty of it, in that people like to watch TV ultimately because they know what they're going to get. ... The nature of sketch is all over the place. There's no consistency, minus whatever the device we're breaking up the sketches with is or recurring characters. ... The real challenge with our show was, the first season we had to establish what we could bring to the table that no one else is willing or able to do. That led us to some sketches that were really custom-made for our point of view. This is a long answer, so pick and choose whatever you want from here.

But we would write three or four times the amount of sketches that we needed, so ultimately we could look at them and say, "You know what? Great sketch, but Saturday Night Live might do this sketch." ... Or, "This is a great sketch, but it feels like In Living Color." All great shows that we're inspired by, but we sort of knew, this sketch here, I don't think we'd see this on any other sketch show, because it's so Keegan and Jordan. We focused on those sketches, and that's how we got over the hump. I knew if we got over the hump, we'd be good.

Key and Peele airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central.

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