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Keegan-Michael Key Will Do Anything for a Laugh

By Reggie Ugwu

Keegan-Michael Key in 2018. His new podcast, “The History of Sketch Comedy,” involved a lot of research. “I loved school,” he said, so delving into a subject “kind of lights my fire.”Credit...
Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
Keegan-Michael Key in 2018. His new podcast, “The History of Sketch Comedy,” involved a lot of research. “I loved school,” he said, so delving into a subject “kind of lights my fire.”Credit...

There are people who enjoy comedy, people who are nerdy about comedy and then there is Keegan-Michael Key, an actor and producer whose deep and affectionate connoisseurship of jokes puts him closer to the realm of a jurist or sommelier. On Key’s new Audible-exclusive podcast, “The History of Sketch Comedy,” he plays resident historian, taking listeners on a laugh-laden and discursive journey — from ancient Sumer to 16th-century Rome to Abbott and Costello — in a lighthearted but earnest attempt to demonstrate the enduring power and understated complexity of the art form. For Key, who has spent the half-decade since the end of his award-winning TV show “Key & Peele” zigzagging between interesting projects on screen and off, the podcast was a labor of love. It was directed by and co-written with his wife, Elle Key, last year. On a recent phone call, he discussed the impetus for the show, performing without a true audience and the role his adoption played in his love of comedy.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

When you hear about a celebrity starting a podcast, you generally think of something personality-driven, or an interview show with other famous people. You don’t think of an in-depth, 10-part history lesson. What made you want to do this project as a podcast?
Well, one of the things that brought me and my wife, Elle, together is our love of humour and of comedy, even the science of it: What makes a good turn? What makes the joke work? I’m an academically-minded person — I loved school. So being able to do research and delve into a subject and turn that around and share with other people is something that kind of lights my fire. For years, Elle has been suggesting that with all of the combined knowledge and passion for this art form that we have, we should figure out a way to share it with others. And when the pandemic started, we used all of our time in quarantine to put it together. Her pitch to Audible was: “If Keegan-Michael Key was a guest lecturer at NYU doing a 10-week course called ‘The History of Sketch Comedy,’ it would be a very popular class.”

Have you always been a student of the history of sketch comedy?
That’s something that started in my 20s probably, when I was an undergrad fine arts and acting major [at the University of Detroit Mercy]. I never gave much thought to the history of comedy until I started studying commedia dell’arte. I was like, “Wait a second, you mean there are archetypes? Warner Bros. didn’t just invent the phenomenon of Bugs Bunny? The primary characteristics [of Bugs] have existed for hundreds of years?” When my professor said that, my mind got peeled back. I wrote a paper [in graduate school, at Pennsylvania State University] making a comparison between vaudevillian poster advertisements from the late 19th century and the images that you would see on Greek and Roman friezes from the comedies of Plautus and Terence and Aristophanes, just because that kind of stuff fascinated me.

Had you done much comedy of your own at that point?
Yeah, I think comedy afforded me social currency. You don’t have to be particularly athletic, you don’t have to be super strong and you don’t have to be on the dean’s list to be able to execute a pratfall or tell a funny joke or do a dead-on impression. That was the route that I went as a painfully shy, very skinny kid. That was the only power I knew how to wield. I remember once, when I was a kid, seeing my father, who was this very large, stoic, soft-spoken guy, guffawing at this impression. It was revelatory to me that a person could have that kind of power over somebody who was 1,000 miles away, or 10,000 miles away.

Did you try and make him laugh yourself?
I would try to impress him. If I had gone to see a movie, I would go home to my mom and my dad and act out the movie. Or, if they hadn’t seen a trailer for a movie, I would act out the trailer. Sometimes I would also use that as a kind of pre-PowerPoint presentation, trying to convince them to let me go see the movie if it was rated R. They were thoroughly entertained, but alas, it did not work.

That’s really funny given what you ended up doing for a living, especially all the movie-inspired sketches of the “Key & Peele” show.
Exactly. It’s not a surprise at all. Also, I’m adopted; so to say that I spent a lot of time trying to get my parents’ approval is kind of an understatement. I’ve been acting since I was born, you know what I mean? I’ve been putting my tap shoes on for people’s approval for a long time.

You chose an interesting starting point for the show, going all the way back to a Sumerian fart joke from 1900 B.C., which I couldn’t believe was real. How did you decide how far back to go? It started with the joke from the film “Airplane.” Lloyd Bridges storms in and he goes: “All right, everybody. I need this piece of information. I need that to happen over there, this to happen over here, and we have to start at the beginning.” And then the guy says to him: “OK. Well, first, there was dinosaurs, and then …” So we actually decided to use that joke as the basis for the beginning. Like, “What would it look like if we start at the beginning? Let’s talk about hieroglyphics.” And then the hieroglyphics brought us to the Sumerians. I think, at our most basic level, the way we captivate each other as human beings is through explaining the journey or the ordeal that one goes through. Literature, cinema, theater — they’re all basically the same at the core, but we express them in a different way.

The series begs the question of just what is a sketch. I’m curious how you define it.
I think one of the biggest components of sketch is brevity. The modern definition is: premise plus escalation equals sketch, or premise plus escalation equals comedy, which means that a sketch is just kind of an elongated joke that builds on itself. So I was trying to affix that measuring stick to these other pieces of art throughout history. There are lots of scenes in movies and plays where you could move it surgically out of the larger piece, and it could stand as its own piece of comedy. To me, that’s sketch.

How did you approach doing all the research for the show? Did you have to brush up on your William Dunlap or your Mathurine de Vallois?
Well, a lot of what Elle did is that, as we were putting the structure together, we started to go through history and just say, “What do we know about comedy and where there were comedic performers in history?” Then we just started putting them on the timeline. I discovered through our research about female jesters — was not aware that they existed. There are a lot of wonderful things that I discovered, like the “rural purge” and Beyond the Fringe.

Putting all that on a timeline and then being able to kind of zoom out, did it make you see comedy in a different way? Or affirm things you already knew?
I think that it probably affirmed things. One of those affirmations was the basics: that people figured out tens of thousands of years ago that it was satisfying to watch someone overcome obstacles to achieve a goal. That is somehow inherent in our programming, to excite us and bring us meaning. 

Yours is the only voice we hear in the series, and you act out a lot of the sketches you discuss. Was it strange to perform without an audience?
Technically speaking, I wasn’t alone: I had Elle in the booth, the engineer and a production assistant. I’d be in the booth looking at them [while performing], and I’d see them start to smile. To me, if I start improvising and I see people start to grin, that’s chum in the water and I’m a great white shark. I’m going to go right the [expletive] off script and do everything in my power to make them burst out in laughter. In certain episodes, you actually hear me talking to Cameron, the engineer. I go, “Right, Cameron? I mean, it’s a pretty filthy joke, but you’re laughing. Everybody, Cameron’s laughing.”

What have you liked most about working in audio?
One thing I like is the fact that sometimes it allows you to go bigger. It allows you to be broader, more energetic, because you have to convey something through a microphone. Especially when you’re doing animation work — the figure of what you’re performing with your voice is often so exaggerated that it gives you license to be peculiar or over the top. You can say to the director, “What if I just was like [yodels loudly and cartoonishly]?” And the director will go: “That might work.”