Comedy Central's Key & Peele is one of those home-grown oddities you only get on a network that develops not just comedy, but individual comedians. The series has only a couple of recurring characters (Luther, Obama's Anger Translator, is probably the best-known), making it a departure for the cable network, but the Wednesday night show has become a priority at the net—it will have had two full seasons by the end of 2012, and some of its bits—two guys trying to out-order each other at a soul food restaurant, for example—are starting to seep into the culture already. Writer/creator/stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele spoke to Adweek about where all this craziness comes from, how they got to the new show from MadTV, and why you don't cut funny, ever (especially not racist dog funny). It's on tonight at 10:30.
So this show is totally unlike anything on Comedy Central or anywhere else—what are you guys aiming for with this show? It's really funny, but it's not funny like any other TV show.
Key: For a couple of kind of obvious reasons, I think people draw comparisons to Chappelle's Show. It's kind of unavoidable. Our manager asked us if we wanted to work together, and we thought it would be fantastic since we'd worked together on MadTV, and we kind of don't look at them [the segments] so much as we do scenes or short films. The sketches that are on our show look like the funniest five minutes of a 90-minute movie. So sometimes there's this nice, rich depth to the piece.
Peele: I think part of that is we have a really well-polished team all around, from our writing staff to the director; everybody on the crew sort of gets what we're going for and is really enthusiastic, so for us working has been a real dream.
The production values seem really high—it's not scattershot or improvy at all. But nothing on cable gets super expensive. How does that work?
Key: I think a lot of that is the quality of technology and how accessible all that technology is. You can see a lot of stuff on the internet now that looks great. That doesn't make it funny, but it does look great.
Peele: And because of reality TV and everything, there's a shift in comedy toward the mockumentary style of The Office. It took a turn toward the less broad, and at the same time shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad came out and networks began putting together shows that looked really great and weren't for a general audience.
Where did the soul food restaurant sketch come from?
Peele: In our first season, we had a directive to our writers to have black one-upsmanship scenes. Keegan and I realized that we could benefit from it in a way that nobody else could. And this competition of who's a cooler black person is intrinsic in our nature and unique to us. This was the brainchild of Coulton Dunn, a biracial writer on our staff. The first time we read it, we were like, "This is correct."
Key: That piece was a catalyst for the rest of the season. Everyone grabbed on to it.
So what's the catalyst for this season? You guys have the Anger Translator, but not a lot of recurring characters.
Key: It's been very interesting because the way we write is very… it's almost diametrically opposed to the way we wrote on MadTV, where people tuned in to watch characters. It's less a character show than a game show. So we do on occasion recur characters, but for the most part it's what the characters are trying to achieve in one sketch.
Peele: We like to give everybody a little something. We like to take the good things about a sketch, and I think we recognize that for Obama and Luther to recur, it's a good thing for people to have something that they can come back to and expect and hope to see. Just like Keegan described, our sketch-writing process is so different, and we get so excited about new characters and new scenes, we tend to go 96 percent new stuff. The universe of Key and Peele has a certain integrity. Certain side characters in season 1 are going to be characters in season 2 and so on. That will help the "deep cut" fans.
So you guys are really into making it something with a lot of themes running through it?
Key: It's interesting. We don't know any other way to do it. There's a slapdash quality, but that comes from tradition. If you remember, this tradition started with a group of people on Saturday Night Live. They used to be the Not Quite Ready for Primetime Players—I think Lorne's idea for it was to have that slapdash quality for it, and that was the benchmark, which was low in terms of production value.
Peele: And In Living Color comes around, and their thing is, 'We just put this together on a roof!' 'We're just doing this on a fire escape!'
Key: Then you get something like Mr. Show, which blew everybody's mind.
Peele: We really worked hard at this very strange craft of character-making and sketch comedy. We like to consider ourselves polished. [At MadTV] there was a level of underground guerilla-ness to it that didn't show our actual style.
Where do you guys look for inspiration?
Peele: SNL, In Living Color, The Office—we tend to just talk about the same shows. We watched The Mitchell and Webb Look. Really, this might sound like a boring answer, but we love the great parts of everything. We try and get our influence from the best parts of all of them. Everything has something.
Key: There might be a couple of shows we're more similar to than others. Chappelle's Show was great, because we were like, 'Oh, this brother's just gonna be smart.' The Rick James sketch was really crucial for us. The fact that he and [Neal] Brennan said, 'Charlie told this amazing story, let's make that the center of the episode' [was great]. You don't cut funny, no matter what.