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.