Keegan-Michael Key received four Emmy nominations this year to add to the one he received last year, but in the mix is his first acting nom for his work on Comedy Central’s sketch series Key & Peele. (He has three writing noms and one for exec producing a Key & Peele short-format live-action program.) After three years and five seasons of relative obscurity—at least as far as the average Television Academy voter is concerned—it’s a nice milestone, coming quickly after an even better one: Being asked to play his famous character, Luther, President Barack Obama’s anger translator, at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier this year. Where do you go from there? In this case you announce that the fifth season of your critically acclaimed series will be the last, as Key and Jordan Peele did just days before Key sat down withAwardsLine to discuss the surrealism of acting alongside the President, and about ending a series the network would have been happy to see continue indefinitely.
Can you talk about why you’re ending Key & Peele?
First of all, I want to continue to go on record saying vehemently, as many times as I can, that this was 100% not Comedy Central’s decision. The Internet is what it is, so you see things like, “I can’t believe they cancelled the show.” They didn’t cancel the show! They have no intention of canceling the show.
There are three big reasons: One is the amount of time and effort we need to put into the show to make it what we want it to be—very, very time consuming. It takes about 10-and-a-half months to make the show from the first writing to the last day of blocking the last episode. As other things have started to come up that we have a desire to do, both together as Key & Peele and alone, this was really digging into that time. Just professionally, things have been growing and burgeoning. It felt like we knew we were kind of moving toward the end anyway.
Number two, everything’s challenging in our industry. Sketch is its own challenge and it’s a grind, it’s a real grind. Now, I’ve never experienced a network show where they do over 20 episodes a season, so I imagine that must be extraordinarily stressful. But for my personal well-being and sanity, we needed to take a break from this particular format. That’s me. I can’t speak for Jordan.
Thirdly, the big thing for me, for lack of a better word, is I’m a big classicist—that’s classicist, not classist. (Laughs.) I’m a firm believer in the idea that there are a limited amount of human stories that we tell—there’s about seven of them—and of course there’s variations on those stories, and they can take place in infinite places. But because our show isn’t topical, by it’s own nature it can’t be topical, we’ve always had to write sketches about big themes, or things we’ve seen in the zeitgeist. Because we’re using those big seven themes and trying to find good twists on them, my fear is that in a sixth or seventh or eighth season we would really just be repeating ourselves.
How do you mean?
Eventually those themes are the themes we’ve been dealing with since the dawn of human history. These are the things we talk about and we’ve never stopped talking about. But I don’t want an audience member to go like, “What? This is just that other scene from Season 4 but now they’re in the desert. This is that other scene from Season 5 but now they’re in a submarine.” I wake up with night sweats thinking that someone is going to think that about us.
Thinking about drawing from the zeigeist, your show became the vanguard of greater representation on TV but also tapped into a lot of the anxieties we’re seeing playing out now, for instance, the “Alien Imposters” sketch. What’s that been like?
That’s been the most surreal thing. But it’s a thrill and a privilege. You really get humbled by that, when people say, “This means so much to the gay community,” or “You really hit that on the head.” We were using it as a strategy because we couldn’t be topical, necessity is the mother of invention in this particular case. Like the alien apocalypse sketch, where that comes from first and foremost is that we’re geeks, sci-fi nerds. And so are our writers. And a lot of that comes from childhood fantasy. I mean, I’m never going to get to be an action star, so let’s write a sketch where we’re action stars. All of this stuff, it’s like a huge, enormous case of serendipity. I also have to speak to the diversity of our staff. We have white, Jewish writers, we have interracial, black and white writers, we have gay writers, we have an African-American writer who has a different experience than many, who has Jamaican parents. Jordan and I and another writer have a black parent and a white parent, and I have a parent from Europe. I think what happens is that we’ve always encouraged everybody to write from their perspective. So if you have a writer on your staff who’s gay and getting married and dealing with the challenges of a conservative family that’s about to become her in-laws, that’s just a truth taking place.
Who knew that kind of dynamic would catch on the way it did. We re-released another gay marriage sketch that the same writer did, which aired in the first season and is more topical now than it was then. We’re very lucky that these themes happen to be things that are touching on what’s happening right now.
You’ve been nominated for writing before, but this is your first Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series nom. Why was this your year to be recognized for it?
I’m extremely honored, but I’m very surprised because the experience that I have is a completely, holistically collaborative experience. Very often, the words that are coming out of my mouth are by brilliant people and that makes me look good. And we have an amazing D.P., an inspired director, an unbelievable crew—the whole thing has always been very communal. From a demographic point of view, perhaps it’s that when I did the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with President Obama more people in the TV Academy had seen it that then knew about our show. We’ve been kind of flying under the radar. Not amongst young people, but among quite a lot of Americans.
What was it like when A) you realized that the President of the United States had seen you as Luther, and B) were asked to do the White House Correspondents Dinner?
Him having seen it gave me one of the greatest senses of satisfaction in my professional career. One way of looking at it is, that sketch was actually for one person in America, and that person was Barack Obama. Only in our wildest dreams did we think that would happen. Now, I’ll be presumptuous for a second. I’m going to presume that Jordan and the President and I share an experience as biracial people in America. I’m sure there were kids at his school when he was growing up saying, “I don’t understand, how is that your mom? What do you mean ‘your grandma,’ she’s white?” I know I’ve heard that. I know Jordan’s heard that. So we’re akin to the President in that way. It was almost from our hearts that the person we most wanted to see that scene was him. The fact that he did is unbelievable. Then being asked to do (the dinner) was then a further fulfillment that I never expected from the dream. I wanted to be very comedic and put Jordan in the piece, and Jordan insisted he not be in the piece. He told me, “Keegan, this is it, this is what we were trying to achieve.” It was the only time that a character has left fiction and walked into the world and done the practical thing it did in the fiction. Like, what? That’s crazy!
That’s comic book stuff, like She-Hulk knowing she’s in a comic…
Exactly, that’s like Deadpool. I don’t imagine I’ll ever have an experience that meta again in my career. It was crazy.
Looking back on five seasons of Key & Peele, what are your favorite sketches?
All the valet sketches, all the Andre and Meegan sketches, all the Cedric and Levi sketches, and of course the two maniacs on the airplane on the premiere of this particular season. In those sketches, all the time Jordan and I flip the status, and you don’t see that very often. Like back in the old days, Abbot did one thing and Costello did another. I like the way we flip who’s the straight man and who’s the comic.