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.