The plot of your new movie, Keanu, involves two guys trying to find a stolen cat?
Forgive us for saying so, but that doesn’t exactly sound like the smart social satire that you and Jordan Peele are known for. Are you slumming it, or is there more to this premise than meets the eye?
It started out as a sort of exercise. Our platform has mostly been exploring male African-American masculinity and what it means to be a person of color in America. That’s a recurring theme in Key & Peele. So how do you do that as a movie? Jordan tried putting that into a feature-length script, and we realized there was something missing. These guys, the two main characters, weren’t pursuing anything. I thought the cat was Jordan’s way of being sly. I thought it was a reference to the Blake Snyder book “Save the Cat,” which is a screenwriting book. But he told me, “No, I just thought cats are cute. Everybody likes cats, right? Especially women.” That was seriously his justification for the cat. “We can get women to come see the movie.” It’s really quite brilliant.
Are you having any second thoughts or misgivings about ending Key & Peele yet?
Not in the least. The show was a chapter, and the chapter’s over, and it was a really rip-roaring chapter of this book. Honestly, doing Key & Peele was just so exhausting. From the first day of writing to the last day of shooting, it usually took about ten and a half months. It’s a very long haul. So one day, Jordan and I just looked at each other, and it wasn’t like a big declaration. We were kind of sheepish about it. “Should we just be done? Yeah, let’s be done.” So that’s what we did. Let’s get out before we start repeating ourselves.
It’s hard to imagine you guys running out of ideas. Couldn’t Key & Peele have run for another 20 years and still been the most original show on TV?
I don’t think so, no. I’m a structure nerd. I like Aristotle and Empedocles and Sophocles and Euripides and all this stuff. Since the beginning of theater, there’s pretty much been seven plots. So when people ask, “Why’s your show done?” I tell them, the show’s done because I don’t want anybody to watch season seven and go, “I feel like they did this sketch already.” Oh, we totally did, but this time the characters are in space suits! You know what I mean? Same sketch, but now they’re old-timey prospectors!
You’ve said that you and Peele “fell in comedy love.” How is that different from actual love?
It’s not different at all. I get the same butterflies in my stomach. I saw him the other day, when we were doing voiceovers for a movie. I think because we haven’t seen each other a lot recently—absence makes the heart grow fonder—but I was like, “Wow, he’s amazing.” We both have our own natural intrinsic goofiness. He’s a little more . . . actually, I’m going to use some fancy words so I sound super smart. Jordan has a very phlegmatic demeanor, and I have a very sanguine demeanor. [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Laughs.] So we fit together kind of perfectly. When I’m standing across from him with a big microphone, and I see him saying these lines in a very particular way, it’s just a rush.
Comedy Central promoted the first season of Key & Peele with the tagline “If you don’t watch this show, you’re a racist.” Do you think the show changed any minds about race in America?
That’s a very interesting question. I guess the unsatisfying answer is, I have no idea if we’ve changed or modulated anybody’s thinking at all. Sometimes I’ll get approached by somebody—and let me say, I’m well aware that what I’m about to say is racist. I’ll be approached by a 62 year old white man from Wichita and he goes, “Are you that substitute teacher guy from TV?” When someone says that to me, and they’re of that demographic, first of all, I can pretty much guarantee they’ve not seen the show. Their nephew showed them a YouTube video over Thanksgiving. And then my fear is, what if this man is thinking in his mind [in a redneck drawl], “That’s what they do, man. Niggers, that’s what they do. They give each other fucking stupid names.” I would love to be more positive and think that’s not what’s going on, but that’s what my suspicions are.
But maybe something good comes from it. What if the racist 62 year old white guy goes looking for more Key and Peele videos, and a more positive message starts to sink in?
That could happen, sure. That’s the warm, unicorn, rainbow side of that coin. Maybe that racist guy goes, “Those two black guys are clever. I didn’t know niggers could be that clever.” Now, that’s still racist, but it’s at least cracking the nut open a little bit.
When you and Peele accepted your Peabody Award in 2013, you thanked Comedy Central for letting you “show the African-American experience as not a monolith, because it’s not.” Isn’t that an awful lot of responsibility for a comedy show, to make sure you’re fairly representing an entire race of people?
It’s pretty easy actually. You just remember that black people are human being who happen to have melanin in our skin, and then you write about the human experience. The racial point of view comes second. If you write comedy with huge human themes, then you appeal to everybody. You’ll hit on something that even a Taliban member has felt. That’s the ultimate goal for me. Not to make African-Americans feel understood, but to make everyone feel understood. I want to be salient to humankind. To all humankind. Then you slap some cultural stuff on the back end, and they give you a bunch of awards for being black. That’s our formula.
What are the ground rules for racial humor in 2016? What’s acceptable? Is it about the skin color of the performer, or the content of the joke?
The thing is, we’re not dealing with the real problem. Race is the symptom. We’ll eventually get to a point where race becomes secondary, or not even an issue. It’ll become a strange phenomenon that everybody barely remembers. Like, “Remember when everybody got all worked up about skin color?” It’ll be like when we talk about the world before penicillin. “Seriously, people died from a staph infection?” It’ll seem weird to us. We’re heading that way. In another 75 years, everyone will look like me. And then it will only be about class. It will be rich people and poor people, and skin color won’t even be noticed anymore. But until we get to that point, you can’t make jokes about a race that isn’t your own. You can make jokes about people with a certain amount of melanin in their skin only if you have the same amount of melanin in their skin. And yes, I’m aware that this is the second time I’ve used the word “melanin” in this interview.
You originally wanted to be a dramatic actor. Your dream was to do Shakespeare plays, emoting in iambic pentameter, but somehow you ended up in comedy. What happened?
I fell in with a bunch of guys at the Second City theater in Detroit. It was 1997, I think, and it was just something to do while I waited for other opportunities. I think I was secretly harboring desires to do comedy. And I was getting a paycheck, which is a very rare thing if you’re doing theater, especially Shakespeare. I joined the Chicago cast a few years after that. And then in 2001, MADtv came calling, and I did that for awhile, and that led to Key & Peele, and well . . . let’s just say I’ve been on a 19 year detour.
If you went back to theater, what’s the big Shakespeare role you’ve always wanted to play?
I have a standing invitation to play Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. That’s something that scares the bejesus out of me. Because, you know, when I’m ready, I can do it. But then, well . . . then you have to do it. [Laughs.] It’s one thing to imagine yourself playing Hamlet. It’s quite another to get onstage in front of an audience and actually do it.
Especially when there’s going to be a few people in the audience who think, “Is Hamlet going to have an anger translator?”
[Laughs.] Now there’s an idea! Can you imagine? Hamlet’s anger translator would be like, “Why don’t you just kill this motherfucker!” I like that. I might just find a way to make that happen.
Luther, the Anger Translator for President Obama, was one of the most popular characters on Key & Peele. And weirdly relatable, especially if you’ve ever felt rage that you’ve bottled up or disguised. Do you, personally, have a lot of repressed rage?
Absolutely. Which I know is a scary answer. It’s like, “Oh wow, Keegan-Michael Key is a sociopath?” We’re not taught, certainly in this segment of Western society, how to healthily express anger. I’ve suppressed a lot of how I’ve felt for years and years and years. So playing Luther has been very cathartic to me. Sometimes that is my truth. Sometimes it’s real. Because I’m in a sanctum sanctorum, I’m in a safe space. The only difference is, it’s not a private space. But it’s like a force field. I can express myself truly. And also, for commerce. [Laughs.] It’s really kind of perverse. It’s devastatingly public commerce. I’m ripping myself open so I can have a cathartic response. And then I get paid. It’s win-win.
When you played Luther with President Obama at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, did you feel like Obama enjoyed the character because “That’s a funny joke” or “Yep, you nailed it, that’s pretty much exactly what I’m feeling?”
Without a doubt, the latter. He’s said as much to us. The very first time Jordan and I met him, that was one of the first things out of his mouth. [With a perfect Obama impression.] “I need Luther, I definitely need him.” Before the Correspondents’ Dinner, he was reading some of the jokes, and one of them—I think it was about how everything he does in the White House is blocked on the Hill—he just stopped and went, “Well this isn’t even a joke. This is real.” And then he said, “This shit is ridiculous.” [Laughs.] I can’t tell you how awesome it was to hear him swear.
How funny is Obama really? How would you rate him, in terms of timing and delivery?
He gets a 10 as a straight man. His timing is just . . . you can’t teach that. It’s scary how good his timing is.
Can you really not teach a sense of humor? Is it all nature and no nurture?
No, I was being flip. I’m a big nurture person. I’m going to say that with comedy, it’s 80% nurture, 20% nature. I had a big argument with the musician Bhi Bhiman about this recently. Bhi is convinced that anybody can learn to sing if they just practice. I don’t believe that at all. Because there are people who just straight up cannot sing, and they’ll never be able to. But I feel the exact opposite about comedy. I think a lot of it has to do with how you’re raised. Your upbringing informs your values and the beliefs you’ll carry with you through life. We’re not just born with default wiring, and you’re going to be this way or that way. Your parents can mold you.
How does that work with comedy? Is it just about being supportive? Or do parents lead by example?
They raise you to believe certain things. If your parents teach you, “Don’t you fucking act a fool in front of these white people,” it’s very hard for that person to become a comedian. There needs to be the fertile ground for that to blossom. You need to feel like you have a certain amount of freedom to even think you could be funny. Growing up, I never felt like being funny was wrong. I loved watching my father laugh at the television. My father was kind of a somber guy. He didn’t talk a lot. But when he watched sitcoms on TV, he’d just roar. He had the loudest, shriekiest laugh in a movie theater. And that didn’t just give me permission to be funny, it was like a challenge. The gauntlet had been thrown. I wanted to hear that sound coming from my dad, and I wanted to be the one who caused it.
Was comedy your defense mechanism? Were you ever funny because “It’s getting uncomfortable in here and I don’t like that?”
It was always a defense mechanism. If you’re raised by a sweet little farm girl from northern Illinois and a black guy from Salt Lake City, and you grow up in Detroit, you better figure something out.
You were in a Second City show in Chicago that opened in November of 2001 called “Holy War Batman!” In one of the sketches, you played a Pakistani cab driver desperately trying to prove his patriotism. It was about paranoia and race and terrorism, all raw subjects so soon after 9/11. Did you ever think, “This is too soon, we shouldn’t be doing this, we’re all going to die?”
Every night. Every. Single. Night. I’m telling you, man. There was a lot of trepidation going into it. I remember thinking, we should probably brace ourselves, because there’s a very good chance a chair or a beer bottle is going to come flying at is. But the first time we did it in front of an audience, I have never—and this is not hyperbole—I’ve never heard laughter like that in my life. I’ve never heard laughter that cathartic in my entire life. The place went bananas. It’s probably the character I’m most proud of. I mean from anything. Key & Peele, MADtv, any of it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever created in my life. Ever. I don’t see any way I’ll be able to match it.
That was, what, 14 years ago? Can you believe how much has changed since then? Thank goodness we live in a world when Muslims aren’t all assumed to be terrorists anymore.
Finally! All we needed to do was bring Democracy to the Fertile Crescent, and now everything’s perfect. Everything’s perfect. [Laughs.] Or exactly the opposite.
You’re a Christian, and your comedy isn’t always friendly to religion. There’s a scene in the second season of Key & Peele where you play Mary Magdalene’s pimp. How do you balance satire with your personal spiritual beliefs?
I think they compliment each other. To truly satirize something, you have to understand it inside and out. You can’t be coming from a place of fear. Look at somebody like Bill Maher. If Maher ever set foot in a church, I think he’d have a little more basis to understand what he’s making jokes about. I’m more qualified to make fun and test the veracity of spiritual stuff, because I have been a Catholic. I have been a Buddhist. I have been an evangelical Christian. I’ve been in the midst of it. I realize I’m being incendiary here but, Maher is just . . . I don’t know what priest molested him, or what spiritual figure hurt him, but you don’t have that much anger towards religion because you disagree with it intellectually, you know what I mean?
You think he has a personal axe to grind?
I don’t know. I like Bill a lot, but it really does feel like his entire comedic point of view about religion is coming from a place of fear. It’s always a polemic, and it’s always invective. He’s clearly blinded by prejudice. And that’s why I don’t feel conflicted when I do comedy about religion. It never comes from fear. And it’s not coming from blind reverence either. You need to be constantly questioning your faith.
You’ve questioned your belief in God?
All the time! Every damn day. And it’s not easy. I know what it’s like to have firmly-held beliefs. You cling to them. You fight for them. They’re sacred and precious to you. You don’t want to hear that something you’ve put a good deal of your life into believing and holding dear might be false. But you need to be constantly asking yourself, “Is this working for me? Or am I doing it because my parents did it, and they did it because their parents did it?” Those are terrifying questions, but true faith needs to be challenged. Otherwise, what is it worth?
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 2016 issue of Playboy.)[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]