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A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 3, 2014, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Since their sketch comedy show bowed in January 2012 on Comedy Central, Key and Peele have become cult heroes by hilariously puncturing the myth of a utopian post-racial America in the era of Obama. Averaging 2 million viewers on Wednesday nights, Key & Peele is the No. 1 cable show in its time slot among young men and a multiplatform phenomenon, boasting 400 million video streams. Their ongoing sketches featuring President Obama (Peele) and his volatile “anger translator” Luther (Key) have catapulted the duo into the zeitgeist. The president is a fan — he told them he needs his own Luther — and so is comedy kingmaker Judd Apatow, who will team with the duo on a semiautobiographical film set up at Universal.
Like Obama, both men are biracial. Key, 42, grew up in suburban Detroit, raised by progressive social worker parents who adopted him before having a biological son. When Key was 18, he began to search for his birth mother (who is white) and learned that he was the product of her “illicit affair” with a married African-American man. And Peele, who turns 35 in February, is the only son of a single white mother who raised him on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “We both had similar experiences of going to school and having other students be like, ‘That’s not your mom,’ ” recalls Peele. Adds Key: “Being biracial, we have been acting since we were born to fit in in any given situation. That’s our story. And for the president of the United States to share our story, it’s kind of amazing.”
Were you surprised that the Obama/Luther sketches hit such a nerve?
KEY: We were trying to solve a comedic problem: How do you make fun of this man who is calm, reasonable, smooth, levelheaded, competent? Of course, we hoped it would be successful, but I don’t know that we ever thought that he’d ever see it. What a gift for us to have actual confirmation.
Some of your comedy is quite risque. How do you get these things by the network censors?
PEELE: The standards and practices, like anywhere, are sort of arbitrary and weird. We can get away with certain super-edgy things, and then if we have a little bit of butt crack, you know, they’ll scrutinize that butt crack until we finally blur it. One of the joys of working with Comedy Central is at this point, they’ve had enough shows that have pushed the boundaries, so that now they’re like, “Go for it, fellas.”
You seem to have a very close relationship. Do you ever disagree about sketches?
KEY: We don’t fight and yell. He’s the heavy lifter [in the writer’s room]. I write a lot on set. Jordan’s very good at being in the office. We’ll sit down with the other executive producers and Jordan will say, “Just so you guys know, I’ve talked to Keegan about this already.” That’s a phrase he uses all the time, we might as well be married. It’s like Star Trek in a way: There’s a prime directive. So there’s not a lot of argument in our office.
PEELE: There are some sketches that will be a first draft and it’s done and there are some sketches that will use every brain in the building to make it perfect over the course of two and a half months.
When did you know performing was your calling?
KEY: I was a painfully sad, shy child. So this was not an option for me. Why would I want to stand in front of a bunch of people? But it’s all I really wanted to do inside of me. I got cast in plays in grade school; wouldn’t do them. And then in high school I had a drama teacher who almost grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, “I want you, young man.” That was at Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic High School in Royal Oak, Michigan, under the wonderful tutelage of Miss Mary Rashid. And as a freshman I ran the lights, as a sophomore I played one small role and when I was a junior I played Jesus in Godspell. And that was it. I no longer wanted to be a veterinarian.
PEELE: As a kid I was in this children’s musical theater in New York called Tada! I went to high school at The Calhoun School on 81st and West End Avenue, which was a great match for me. I got a scholarship to go there. After going to public schools for elementary, junior high, I was just so ready for more attention from teachers.
Saturday Night Live has been widely criticized for having had only three black women in its cast during the show’s 39-year history. They are likely to add at least one by January; partly in response to the outcry. When asked about this, Keenan Thompson reasoned that there has been a dearth of African-American women ready for SNL. Thoughts?
PEELE: I think everyone sees what’s going on, which is [SNL executive producer] Lorne Michaels has a history of relating to white men, and it is a field where there are a disproportionate amount of whacky white guys. But the truth of the matter is, we have so many friends who are African-American women who are straight-up ready that it doesn’t really hold water to us.
KEY: That would be our opinion. But we run in different circles than Lorne Michaels does, if you can believe that.
Can you reveal any plot details of the film you’re writing with Apatow?
KEY: It looks like it could be a movie about family and what family means to different people. Jordan has just found family members recently. And I’m adopted, and I’ve had a relationship with my biological mother for about 16 years now. I have siblings that I didn’t know 16 years ago; and what is the difference between these blood relatives and the brother that I grew up with my whole life? One of Judd’s great talents is he knows how to inject the heart into a story.
PEELE: He’s a real master of starting with truth, autobiographical truth. The only siblings I know I have I’m starting to meet right now. My dad’s litter, as I call it, is sprinkled around the country. We would be playing characters close to ourselves with a similar [family] dynamic.
Photographed by Smallz + Raskind
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