"The Essential Comedians for the Age of Obama: A Conversation with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele"
If you’re not watching Key & Peele, the half-hour sketch-and-standup show that airs on Comedy Central at 10:30PM on Tuesdays, you’re doing yourself a disservice—particularly if you find yourself missing Chapelle’s Show, Dave Chapelle’s short-lived but legendary exploration of race in America. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, both biracial themselves, have nailed comedy for the age of Obama. It’s not just that Peele has the best Obama impression in the business. In their exploration of code-switching, whether it’s in conversations between black people and white people, men and woman, or people of different classes, Key and Peele have identified an essential element of our changing American landscape. I spoke with both men last week. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the things I’ve found interesting about many of your jokes is the way they explore code-switching. It’s not just that you find the humor in the way that people of color adapt to white society, but a lot of these sketches suggest that white people need to learn to switch codes, too.
Keegan; It’s funny, we were just talking about that recently. I think that this climate we’re in nowadays, code-switching can be thought of as a positive. Being a hybrid is not necessarily something to hide, but something to celebrate. Code-switching, depending on the code, is something that happens in humanity. We shine a light on it in African-American culture more than anything else. But we have Caucasian friends who are from Arkansas or Alabama, and all of sudden, there was a twang explosion. And it’s a phenomenon that exist in the human condition…It’s very Pauline in a way. I’m a big fan of Paul in that regard. It doesn’t matter if you’re Sippian, or Greek, or Hebrew, I’m giong to speak to you where you’re at without judgement…One of our executive producers, he always says, we spend our existence as organisms trying to stay comfortable. And I thought that was very astute…The hardest thing in the world is to step out of our box or let our unique light shine.
You mentioned that you’re a fan of Paul. What are your religious backgrounds?
Keegan: I’m actually quite a spiritual Christian. I’m fascinated by spiritual thought across the board. I was raised a Christian, and I studied a little Buddhism and maybe a dash of Hinduism, but i’m fascinated by Hebraic culture, and how our culture has been informed by Hebraic culture. I’m fascinated by the fact that we practice a Near-Eastern religion in a super-Western society, and how our faith has changed. There are volumes of books written about how if you met a Christian from first-century Palestine, you’d say, um, that’s not a Christian. I was raised Catholic, and then I spent a good deal of time in the Charismatic church, and now I’m in the Disciples of Christ.
Jordan: I am not [religious]. I feel just very devoted to comedy. And I believe that is the way that I’m meant to take in the world, and that’s the way I’m meant to affect the world as well.
Keegan: Do you think that your gift is something that is divine? Or do you think it’s something that just through life and evolution you’ve become the being you are through nurture.
Jordan: I think that when somebody laughs, genuinely laughs, that something is happening within them that is special. I think it’s a revelatory thing. If you can laugh despite yourself, you can get into a giggling fit at a funeral of a loved one for some reason. It’s something that needs to happen for our minds, or our souls, emotionally, it’s a release. it forges the conversation. When something happens in comedy that sort of strikes a chord, [people] talk about it. I’m a big fan of discussion. I think it’s the best thing that we have for ourselves. I think comedy is just a special, special thing. It’s our favorite thing to do in the world.
In pursuing that release, is there any topic that’s off-limits? Or anything that you think is over the line?
Jordan: For me it’s fascinating that people are interested in the jester defining sacred…That’s what we’re all trying to do, figure out what’s sacred here. I think people think the comedian has a certain insight. We’re constantly walking that line. Is this too far to go? Does this laugh justify going to this place? That’s our job. There’s a couple of scenes that we ultimately just decided the laugh didn’t justify it. We have a scene were we address slavery. And we’re very happy with the way it turned out and we feel like we’ve really made a human commentary within the context…One of the two scenes in the slavery era didn’t make the cut because we felt like it’s something you have to be very gentle with…Everybody gets to decide for themselves if the payoff works. Louis [C.K.'s] a master. My comedy ideal, I have this fantsy that you can hit any topic in the world and make it funny if you are enough of a master craftsman. You see the greats, our heroes, are the people who do it. The Pryors, the Carlins, I think Louis pulls it off myself.
Keegan and I, we’re pretty good, I think our personal taste and our personal sense of adventure doesn’t go too much across this line, we don’t like to make fun of victims. We like to make fun of hypocrites, of bullies…Some of our heroes have even gone further than that…For instance, we grew up huge fans of In Living Color, which has a lot more of a schadenfreude to it, it’s a little more schoolyard.
Keegan: One of the holy grails for comedy, and for me, one of the holy grails for comedy is when people are actually laughing from joy. And you seldom get that…When you’re watching the Marx Brothers, you see this wrecking crew of three men marching into the hall of the hoi polloi, you’re laughing because you’re nervous. The best time to enjoy comedy is when you’re about 10 and you’re starting to figure out social mores. Once you hit late puberty or your formative years in high school, you start laughing the way Jordan said, like the Wayans brothers, like you’re eviscerating people in high school. Damon and Keenan took a stick and said this is society and cracked that stick over their legs.
Jordan, you’ve got this incredible Obama impression. Keegan, do you ever think about adding a Michelle impression to fill out the roster?
Keegan: Maybe. Maybe I should start doing Michelle.
Jordan: Michelle is on the border of sacred to me right now.
Keegan: That’s pretty close for me right now. I don’t think we’re going to mess with Michelle and not because we’re afraid of her.
Jordan: She’s just so awesome. I love her too much.
Keegan: We’re a senseitive about that one. You know what, you’re a jerk if you don’t like Michelle Obama. If you don’t like Michelle Obama, you didn’t like Eleanor Roosevelt, so as far as I’m concerned, you can go to hell.
Jordan: We’d have to do it with the most finessed stroke, where we let the audience sigh and fall in love with her…When I hear people talk smack about Michelle, it drives me so crazy. What on earth has this woman done?
Speaking of your Obama impression, the Luther sketch struck a real chord with me. Do you think there’s a hunger to see Obama express the same sentiments his supporters feel?
Jordan: We wrote that scene over a year ago, and it was in the height of the second Birther renaissance. It felt like there were a bunch of things that were not being said that should have been said. He was really being crapped upon. And you watch things, and you know people are all thinking the same thing. We’re all thinking in our heads what we all hope he’s thinking, but he has to maintain his composure…I think it is much more complex than just a racial thing. We hit him with the crackers line, which is just a sort of orgasmic moment. It’s a guiltily orgasmic moment for black people, probably. But it’s a fascinating thing because there are so many things going on. His foreign-sounding name. The scariest thing about Obama to most people is he challenges the whole structure. Everybody who thought they had a shot at a higher office because of how they looked all of a sudden has to reconsider that.
Keegan: I think [the presidency] is a miserable straightjacket for anybody. Part of the frustration is when others make it racial. They keep couching it in everything else. Talk about code-talking. I would respect you so much more if you said you were uncomfortable with black people or afraid of them. Just say it. At least we could start there and then we could talk about issues. I’m a big fan of George Lakoff, the behaviorist. Conservatives are so good, just absolute maestros, and with lots of think tanks working in this direction, we have to figure out how we can frame things to get at people’s fears. The president frames things in a much more 18th-century way, “You’re reasonable people and I expect you to look at facts.” He’ll do that through actions as well as words, and that’s threatening to people.