'Key and Peele' Director on Decision to End the Show, "Personal" Series Finale

"It's just how much time the show takes us all to work on, and it's so labor-intensive," series director Peter Atencio tells THR of the reasoning behind the show's upcoming curtain call.
Danny Feld/Comedy Central; AP Images/Invision

Keegan-Michael Key shocked fans last month when he revealed that the current, fifth season of his and Jordan Peele's hit Comedy Central sketch show would be its last. Although the news seemed abrupt to the public — the final episode will air in September — the writing was on the wall for those involved behind the scenes on Key and Peele. The decision is not only bittersweet for the duo but for the show's longtime director, Peter Atencio, who has helmed nearly every single episode and also recently directed the duo in their first film together, Keanu. Atencio spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the real reason behind the decision to say farewell, Comedy Central's hesitation to announce the end of the series and what viewers can expect from the "bizarre" and "personal" series finale.

When did you first hear that they were thinking about ending the show?

Truthfully, I've known for a while. I feel like we started talking about [it] in the beginning of conversations about the fourth season. It's just how much time the show takes us all to work on, and it's so labor-intensive. We love doing it, but at the same time, the guys are constantly turning down other projects because they overlapped, and so was I. So we started having the conversation of, "Maybe we should take a break for a while," and then we realized, "Eh, if we're going to end it, we might as well end it on our own terms and do it how we want." So when they asked for the double order of season four and five, 22 episodes, we were like, "OK, that's a great way to go out. It feels like that's going to be a ton of work, and then we'll be sick of it, and then we'll want to walk away from it without feeling too much remorse," which now, of course, we're all like, "Oh, my God, what are we doing?"

Were you surprised?

No, only because how involved we all are, and it's just so much time that it doesn't leave room for a lot of other things in life. It's wonderful to have the freedom that the sketch platform gives you, but it's also very limiting. You get to a place where you're doing characters that you love or stories that you're interested in, and you have to wrap it up in three minutes, 3 1/2 tops, and we're all just very hungry to do longer-form narrative. That is why we went and pursued doing the movie together. All of the things that we want to do are just longer stories. That's what it came down [to].

Productionwise, was there anything different you did knowing you were going into the final episodes?

Yes. Basically every sketch that I said no to for the first four seasons, that I was like, "This is unproducible," or we just didn’t have the resources for. Everything that I had been pushing down, saying, "We'll get to that one" — all those bets were called in. It was like, "OK, you've said we can only do this when there's no more sketches left to be done, so now we got to do it." We kind of weirdly have a lot of very difficult-to-produce sketches at the end because they were all the sketches that I had said no to in previous years. We tried to go out with a blowout in terms of, everyone got the stuff that they always wanted to do, that they were the sole champion of, into the mix at the end. So it was the stuff that only Keegan wanted to do or only I wanted to do or only Jordan wanted to do or only [executive producers] Jay [Martel] and Ian [Roberts] wanted to do. Everyone gets their favorites that we never shot into the pile. It ended up being very challenging.

Can you elaborate on that? Like, was it special effects or music?

Kind of anything. "Negrotown" came out of that — this big, insane musical that's in the style of 1940s musicals and includes all of these insane visual references. It just seemed very daunting to produce, and it was, but it's also one of those that we finished it, and it was a ton of work, and everyone did their best work, and it was like, "Oh, this is amazing." So big musical numbers, special-effects heavy, even just stuff that, tonally, nobody got. There are a few sketches that I was vehemently [against] — and that was part of the fun of having to bring in other directors at the end. Some of the sketches I didn't get. I was like, "Give it to the other directors."

You said it was a challenge, but was there also a renewed energy knowing there were only so many episodes left?

In a weird way, no, only because the last block of shooting was so different than how we had done the show previously. Because I wasn't able to direct every episode anymore, there were new directors for the first time, and I picked the directors. They were people I knew and trusted. But it was still — for our crew — it was a little bittersweet. We lost a lot of crew because we had to overlap. … We also were very much in denial, just as a production. So the last week of shooting, and particularly the last day, all of these emotions that we had been bottling up just came rushing out. There were people crying on set the last day of shooting — and people that I would have never expected to get as emotional as we all get. It was an incredibly emotional day. We pretended like it wasn't ending until the very end, and then it all came rushing out.

It also helped that no one knew it was ending until recently.

We wanted to announce it a little bit earlier than we ended up announcing it because I think the network was afraid that, one, I think they were a little afraid to confront that we were not coming back, and, two, everyone was worried that it would impact the ratings. That people would say, "Oh, that show is going off, anyways. We don't need to watch that." Ultimately, we engineered the last episodes, and particularly the very last episode, to be a nice sendoff for us. So we'd like to share that with other people out there. So everyone who worked on the show knew, and while there was never a [mandate that] this has to be top secret, nobody really talked about it because we all understood we shouldn’t talk about it. Then, as soon as Keegan and Jordan started talking about it, we knew we were allowed to talk about it.

What can you say about that last episode and how it stands out?

I will be interested to see what people think of that last episode because it has some of our weirdest [content]. Ultimately, we just really enjoy stuff that we felt like we hadn't seen before and stuff that nobody else is really doing. That episode contains some of our more bizarre, more personal sketches in that realm of, we don't think anybody but Key and Peele is doing things like this. And then it also has stuff that we've never done on the show, like we have bloopers for the first time, and we have an ending to the "Driving Through the Desert" portion of the show. So we tried to make that a wrap-up thematically for the show.

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