‘Key & Peele’ On Their Second Season, Barack Obama’s Sense of Humor, and Telling Jokes on Touchy Subjects

When I talked to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the stars of the sketch and standup show on Comedy Central that bears their name, in February, they were about to start airing for the first time, and they laid out their approach to everything from code switching, to Christianity, to Michelle Obama. Their second season begins tomorrow, and I checked back in with Key and Peele to talk about how meeting the President has changed their very funny sketches about Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator, what they think Giancarlo Esposito’s performances on Revolution and Breaking Bad mean for our understanding of race in America, and how to nail a potentially offensive joke without getting in trouble. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

As you say in the first episode of the new season, you met the president! What was your conversation with him like? And how has seeing him in person affected the Anger Translator sketches?

Jordan: One of the impresisons we had was that he was just very funny. That little bit you’re talking about, where he took a bottle of water form an aide when he had a cough in his throat, and he checked with the Secret Service jokingly, saying “We trust her?” We couldn’t believe that. He said, “I need Luther…He said to Keegan, I need Luther. I need him”. That was cool.

Keegan: I think also, it was more of a confirmation of things already assumed than it was anything else. I did have an impresison of him that he was more in real life than I expected him to be. He was taller, he was better looking. For as cool as he comes across, there was a very palpable warmth that he has about him that, frankly, I didn’t know that I was expecting. He’s right there, he’s with you, he’s talking to you. He has such a calming energy to him.

Jordan: That little sense of humor we’re talking about. You can tell it sneaks out now and then, even though he knows he needs to be the master and commander and dignified and together, so when it slips out and he says something funny, you can see him regather his posture a little. It felt like we hit [what] he may kind of be thinking on the head…I think he knows he can’t exactly align himself with the sentiments we explore. Whether or not it affects the comedy we do, our take on him has always been based on how we feel and what we feel are the unspoken truths that will get a laugh because they ring true. Nothing’s changed…we do a sketch where I play him back in college when he’s in Occidental College, and we do it as if it was found footage of him smoking weed, and more than smoking weed, but owning the party. And what if he brought his charisma and his people together to organize a party on the Occidental College campus. That was the premise of the scene. We felt a little bit rascally about it, especially having met him, to point out the fun side of Obama when he needs to bring his seriousness to a lot of the issues. It’s something that rings true and it’s funny. And at the end of the day…He brings that gravitas and that sense of American ideals to every little exchange.

Since your first season, FX has started airing Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and BET has announced the launch of TJ Holmes’ late-night show. I’m curious what you think of this mini-boom in late-night shows built around African-American men, and where you think Key & Peele fits in this new landscape?

Keegan: I’m not aware of these programs. I think probably a lot of it has to do with we have our foot on the throttle right now because we’re coming so close to the premiere.

Jordan: I do think that this is sort of a continuation of the evolution of things from, with Obama as a catalyst, even four years ago. It was very interesting, the way African-Americans have been in culture in general. Sidney Poitier back in the day…When I was growing up, there was Denzel Washington, and the idea of a black president came around, Morgan Freeman was cast as a president all of a sudden. The ideas of African-Americans as a leading man has sort of conjealed. What’s fascinating to me is these characters like Giancarlo Esposito, his character in Revolution seems kind of allegorical to Obama. They’re trying to do that somehow. There’s this refined black man who is in charge and somehow mysterious, and he plays it as a good guy.

But he’s kind of a conservative fantasy of Obama, right? He’s a black man who’s taking away white people’s guns and levying heavy taxes on them.

Jordan: Exactly. You put it exactly. The way, the casting is perfect. Gus Fring, as well, on Breaking Bad, though it was much less allegorical. The character of the controlled, I guess he was Columbian or something, but the controlled African-American gentleman who is scary and owns everything, is a little bit a piece of this whole thing.

Keegan: Backlash is a little too soon. It’s only been four years. I think what we’re seeing is an oposite backlash. The leader of the free world has melanin in his skin. Because most power structures are still run by Caucasian people, I concur with everything Jordan just said. But even more popular consumption, as in commercials, you’ll notice very often, white males, I will see frequently, are being tasked or portrayed as buffoons. [In one ad], there’s two neighbors, an African-American and a white neighbor. [The white neighbor tries to trim his tree and a ] limb comes down ad crushes his African-American neighbor’s car. There’s almost this early nineties political correctness that we’re seeing in commercials. Because the president is black, and this may not be congruous, but I think it is, the most responsible person in commercials or the person who makes the right choice, is an African-American person. Letting African-American people be the responsible people in commercials, we’re not done yet.

Jordan: I do think that all of this stuff we’re talking about is part of this same thing, which is again, Obama getting elected, being this catalyst for the possibilities opening up for the characerizations we put on ourselves. I think it points to a little bit of the absurdity of race and it mixes things up. I think there’s a broader undrestanding of what it means to be African-American, what it means to be American, what it means to be mixed, what it means to be Caucasian. One thing Keegan says very eloquently is African-Americans are not a monolith. There are many kinds of us. And that’s that’s being explored in art.

Keegan: I find it very interesting, Jordan, and what you said earlier, when you were discussing Gus fFing, you said here’s a new kind of portrayal of this controlled, corporate, African-American, and in the same sentence, you mentioned that he’s Columbian or Chilean. What’s funny is that the character isn’t African-American. We say, he plays that black character, Gus Fring, in Breaking Bad. And that character is South American. Here’s something worth exploring in race. I was talkin to someone about this yesterday. Evolutionary adaptation is why we have race. People are people. They just happen to live close to the equator or farther away. It’s just people with melanin. It’s people who don’t have melanin. The funny thing is, it is the 21st century, and we’re still talking about this. To me, this seems like an argument that should have been taken care of a long time ago. But it’s hard because humans, it’s so difficult for us, we’re hardwired to categorize. In the old days, you went out with your other hunter-gatherers and they ate a piece of grass and fell over and died and everyone else said don’t eat that stuff, that’s stuff’s bad. And that’s how we survived. It’s worked for thousands of years. At the very least, even infants, they mark a difference. That’s my only answer for why, it’s amazing that a comedian, today, at 2012 can say black people do this, white people do this and people still laugh at those jokes.

I liked how the Mary Magdalene sketch that’s part of the first episode of the new season worked as both a satire of religion and of depictions of pimps and prostitutes. Is that something your’e attracted to, skits that work on two levels? And what does it take to do a great religion joke?

Jordan: That is a fascinating question. I think I would have to start by going a little bit broader than religion, because it’s in the same category to me as something where a certain population is going to have a visceral reaction when it begins. I would relate it to the slave auction scene we did this year, or the two black guys hiding from the Nazis. They’re all subject matter that can easily offend people. My opinion is that when you have an expectation that something is going to be offensive is the best way to craft the bit is to use that against them and flip it on them…In the Mary Magdalene sketch, we zoned in on the pimp character. What if he came to collect Mary Magdelene from Jesus? We zoned in on the game of the guy who talks like he’s a pimp in a blackploitation film. You nimbly create something that is not laughing at people and their beliefs, but attempting to give them something to laugh about. We’re not trying to offend.

Keegan: We didn’t write the scene to offend. I think another way of putting what Jordan said would be comedic judo. You give them an expectation. And then when you’re laughing, they’re laughing in a pleasurable way, they’re hoisting themselves on their own petard. The sketch, much like the slave auction sketch, the slave auction sketch is about vanity, but it’s set in that milleiu. The Mary Magdalene sketch is, if anything, it’s a parody of a blackploitation film. It’s first century Palestinian Taxi Driver. My character is Harvey Keitel. That’s something I think that Key & Peele does. We love genres. So we find a scene that we want to play that we think we’ll get pleasure from playing, and the Key & Peele twist, maybe, would be putting some veneer or millieu or genre on it that you wouldn’t expect. You think, I never would have given this scene that treatment.

Jordan: One thing I would add in regard to that…I think although sometimes we aim to try to undercut bravado or hypocrisy, in general, our purpose is to generate the laugh and let people generate what they want to from that. Religion stuff starts getting really sticky when you have an agenda with it, whether pro, con, anti-.

Keegan: That’s what we’d like there to be, a cathartic moment for people. If that leads to dialogue, that’s great. We were simply telling a story. If we’d told the same story in modern day, a lot of it would be a dramatic scene, it would just be Taxi Driver in the 21st century. But a lot of what let us get some humor about it is the anachronism. [The writer who came up with the sketch asked] What if Mary Magdelene had a pimp. We were like, write it up?

Well it sounds like what you’re saying is that a lot of humor that comes across as offensive comes from the people telling those jokes positioning themselves as authorities, and you’re less interested in asserting that authority than finding slanted ways to come at these issues.

Keegan: I think that is a striking insight that you just said. We come from a place of observation and dialogue. Correct me if I’m wrong, Jordan, but you and I talked about this. This comes from me and Jordan, some of it stems from us being biracial. It stems from us living a life straddling two things. Which means it often delves into different things. I can speak for my mom…She taught me to look at people’s lives in their shoes. I was raised that way and I took it to heart. I spend some days with my wife going, “Now honey, now honey, Republicans aren’t devils. They aren’t evil spirits walking around. They believe things are going to be a better place in our way.” I believe my way fervently, but I believe people’s brains are different, and that informs how we write. My partner is not a snap judgement kind of guy. He has feelings about things, but he always has this penchant for backing up and saying “Why would he think that? Why would he think that?” And I think that’s an indelible mark that’s been made on both of us.