Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele comprise the sketch-comedy duo "Key & Peele," whose Comedy Central series returned for its second season last week. (It airs Wednesday nights on Comedy Central at 10:30 p.m.) Key and Peele, who previously worked together on "Mad TV," are both biracial and their comedy reflects that: A significant proportion of their work involves issues of cultural translation, who sounds like what and to whom and in what specific circumstances. Their most famous sketch is a recurring bit about President Obama and his anger translator Luther, who puts into words what the always-calm world leader might really be feeling.
Key and Peele spoke with Salon about the new season of the show, how it will be less explicitly concerned with race, and meeting Obama.
Are you guys surprised at how much the anger translator sketch has caught on?
Peele: I think when Keegan and I wrote that sketch, the very first one, I think we knew there was something special there that we had tapped. It’s not the subtlest expression of comedy — we are screaming at the screen — but I think we knew that we would have that connection with the audience, in the way Garrett Morris did at “SNL” in ’79, where he translated Chevy Chase’s words for the hearing impaired and all he did was scream them. I definitely had a feeling that it was going to be a direct communication, and therefore accessible.
Key: Put it this way, there’s enough people who are watching Luther express what they would like the president to express. So there’s a cathartic reaction they’re experiencing: “Yes, that’s what the president should say!” So if 50 percent of people are experiencing catharsis — I’m making up wacky math here— and a small section of those people are consuming our show, then I think it’s not terribly surprising.
P: Luther is relatable, and he can away with saying the most politically incorrect things, and people will still love him. In that character that Keegan does, we have a real vessel to do something that other people can’t do.
K: If you’re watching the debates, or watching a speech, or something that you would construe as spin, in the moment, inside of you, your id wants to respond as emotionally as it can in the moment, but you stop yourself. The best way to describe Luther is he’s just unbridled id. He expresses what you want to express, but of course in the context of the scene, he’s not only expressing what you want but what we believe the president would want to say. There’s a cathartic element and that may be why it’s resonating with people.
A Luther sketch aired the same night at the debate
P: We planned ahead, so we could slip Obama-Luther pieces that are topical in.
That one suggested that Obama was going to kick ass at the debate, which he didn’t really.
K: [laughing] Yeah that aired literally 15 minutes after the debate.
P: That was made during our regular season and it was initially designed to be the first episode and at the last minute that got changed. It was more a reaction to Mitt Romney in general, and not tied to the debate.
Do you guys like watching politics?
K: I’m very concerned with what’s going on the news, but I would not call myself a political animal, per se. I pay more attention during election years, or if I see some topic or issue that I care about. But I would never call myself a political animal or political junkie.
P: I’m the same way. Until I feel like I can relax and I’ve been successful or something, all my attention out of work is spent on being happy. It’s a no-win situation with politics, it’s always going to be stressful. I’m more into the comedy of life.
What are some changes you’ve made going into season two?
K: We’ve actually made a few changes. This year the feeling of the show is looser. The live segments of the show are all improvised, we just talk about the scenes and whatever struck our fancy in the moment.
P: Whereas last year it was a mixture of scripted stuff and improv.
K: And in the sketches this year there are moments where there are windows — and I hope they’ve been captured in such a way that it comes across to the viewer — where there are moments where you see us screwing around with each other and having fun and we’re off script. Last year, the sketches were, for lack of a better word, very proscribed. We wrote them very carefully, we monitored how the writers wrote the ones they wrote very carefully, and we really learned the lines, and we did them by rote. The comedy was going to exist in the premise of these sketches. And this year there are some sketches where we would be like “this sketch is really good, but we think our performances on the day are going to take them to another level.” Also, and I think Jordan agrees with me on this, less focus on race this year, and more focus on sketches where it’s not just going to be “Two guys with brown skin in this situation.” Less emphasis on being biracial.
P: It’s almost like the first season was our first album, and we were finding our style and finding our voice.
K: We had to establish our identity. So this year — and god willing there’s a third season — you’ll see more and more of this is why this is funny, and less and less of these people are on a mission to make some kind of racial or anthropological or social statement.
It’s been widely noted that you guys are very interested in issues of cultural translation and communication. Is that something you explicitly set out to explore?
P: That was a theme that arose in the process of pitching the show and creating it, in the getting ready stages. It centered around Keegan and I finding the stuff that hadn’t been done. We looked for the pieces of our personalities and what makes us us that had not been explored in comedy, specifically racial comedy. It is part of what makes "Key & Peele" unique, but it’s more of our hook, than the true extent of what we do.
K: I would say that for the first season it was like 60/40 that we were conscious of doing it, because everyone that we were working with, it was kind of plan we were using as we went forward as a group, but I would say that it’s 40 percent innate. Part of it is that we’re trapped in it because it is our journey, we’ve spent a good deal of our lives measuring out where we fit in, and that informs our comedy.
P: And that’s probably part of the recipe for every comedian, where does he fit in?
K: And how do we express the comedy that expresses ourselves, as opposed to how Louis CK expresses himself, or Richard Pryor expresses himself, or Eddie Murphy expresses himself. That’s a journey every comedian goes on. Part of our job, is examining your journey. The way we were raised, and the world we live in, and the prism with which we watch the world and how we behaved so we could make it through the world. Because we’ve been playing characters since we were 3. As soon as we were sentient, we were aware that the world was looking at us perhaps in a different way than it looked at other people. It looked at us differently than the world looks at other black people and other white people. So you spend your life making adjustments and being a social chameleon then what other line of work would you go into?
Do you have sketches from last year that you don’t like anymore?
P: Part of the answer to that question from my perspective is that the ones that people like from last year tend to be favorites, just because they worked and getting a response from the audience is a big part of what we’re doing. I don’t think we’re the type of dudes, who are like, “Man if you don’t fucking get it, fuck you. That’s our jam.” So we love those. We love the Forest Whitaker.
K: I think Forest Whitaker just grows with age, it’s like a fine wine. This is a different way to answer your question, but a sketch like Black Jeff/White Jeff is an important sketch in our maturation as Key & Peele. Not that I don’t enjoy it anymore, I certainly enjoy doing it, but I don’t know that we need to it anymore. Like that was a sketch that was very literally about being biracial, hence the name. We learned from that sketch. We may not do something in that vein again, or it might have a twist on it.
P: There are other scenes that we both still love, that do not carry as much artistic coolness to the audience as we would like. There were a series of scenes we did in one shot last year that we were really in love with during the process. One was a guy who had just gotten a record deal and so I’m walking down the street, and all of a sudden people start coming out of the woodwork. And we had a few of these one-shot stories winding through, and we found that they didn’t really leave room for a laugh moment, a laugh moment, a laugh moment. So we don’t have any of those in season two.
K: That’s true. We don’t. I think those had a lot of artistic merit to them, and they are, both of those scenes, are compelling stories.
P: The one one-shot that did work was the phone call.
K: The very first thing we aired last season.
P: That’s one of my favorite "Key & Peele" sketches.
K: I think so too. Because that is an example of getting to show who we are at our core, it has a good old-fashioned vaudeville twist to it. So it’s classy and new at the same time, and it happens in one shot. And brevity, of course Willa, is the soul of wit, so that little minute-and-29-second piece, or whatever it was, is perfect.
P: The president loved that piece.
K: President Obama digs that piece, if you will, don’t you know.
That's right you got to meet the president. Did it go as well as you hoped?
K: It went even better. I don’t think it changed our comedy, although I definitely came back from that day, like, okay, let’s get that guy elected.
P: The first thing we did was air that sketch where I’m impersonating him smoking weed at Occidental College. All the same, I feel closer to him.
I read an interview you did where you were like, "We’ll know we made it if we meet the president." Do you feel like you need another goal now?
P: Now we have to work on getting rich. We’re still working on Comedy Central time, so might take a while.
Have any of your sketches seemed to particularly offend people?
P: We are aware that we’re going to rub some people the wrong way. Someone doesn’t like the idea of two biracial guys playing guys on an auction block, and they’re not going to finish the scene. That’s part of comedy, and that’s part of doing stuff that rides the line and is on the edge. The most offensive thing about us is that we’re doing new stuff and scary stuff and stuff people don’t have a box for. A lot of the comments that we have wrestled with are, are we allowed to play African-American characters who are negative portrayals of African-American characters? That’s as much of our bread and butter as anything. We’re black guys, and we play characters, and comedy is a sport of people behaving badly. But I think the fact that we are mixed confuses people on that issue, on how to take it.
K: To make an absolutely gross generalization, I think a lot of people feel like if you’re mixed, more often than not you’re quote unquote white. So if you’re mixed you embrace the mainstream culture more than the African-American culture.
P: And white people feel the opposite.
K: And then white people feel the opposite. So we get criticisms from African-Americans saying all your portraits of African-Americans are negative and that’s because you grew up in the mainstream culture and in your heart and soul you are white and you loathe the black part of yourself. When in fact what we’re doing is what Jordan just mentioned: You can not have comedy unless people are behaving badly. You can’t have it. So we have characters that are behaving badly