They met a decade ago in Chicago, where Key was performing in a Second City improv troupe and Peele, then in the Amsterdam-based Boom Chicago comedy group, was visiting as part of a cast swap between Boom and Second City.
Needless to say, they found they had much in common.
Both soon found their way to Los Angeles where they spent several years in the ensemble of Fox’s “Mad TV.” Key also appeared on the sitcom “Gary Unmarried” and “Reno 411!” Jordan performed on “Chocolate News” and “Childrens Hospital.”
Then, earlier this year, they unveiled the first season of “Key & Peele,” an ideal showcase for them to find the funny in issues that may or may not address race explicitly, but often use race as a way to score laughs.
“We love to show bravado, and then undercut that bravado,” says Key. Example: two hit men are on a stakeout when one of them, struggling to maintain his gangsta toughness, announces he has just soiled his pants.
Does this sketch somehow demean the black race?
“We want the audience to think, `They were going to do a hit, but he pooped himself!’” says Key, bursting into laughter. “That’s not about being black, brother. That’s just funny!”
In another sketch, Key and Peele play a pair of natty businessmen grabbing lunch at a soul food diner. As they place their orders, they slip into a duel of “competing blackness” to see who can think of the most “authentic” soul-food cuisine. The grand winner is Key’s character, who orders up “a platter of stork ankles, an old cellar door, a possum spine and a human foot.” With gravy.
A routine like that makes a telling comment on how people feel a need to claim, defend, or reassert membership in one group or another. And this holds true especially when someone doesn’t naturally identify with any group.
Sometimes the urge for membership can lead a person astray. In one sketch, Key plays a prison inmate who, being bald, seeks kinship with a group of likewise bald prisoners. But rather than accept him, they keep beating him up. No wonder. They’re shaved-head white supremacists.
“You can talk about a comfortable WASP experience or a comfortable blackness,” says Key matter-of-factly, “but we’ve never occupied either of those spaces.”
All the better for their comedy to demonstrate how people modify their style in response to each person they encounter. Key and Peele are both splendid actors who, with the help of transformative makeup, adopt a seemingly limitless repertoire of characters, dialing in cultural traits with amazing nuance.
One sketch finds Key as a man with a cell phone speaking “white” to his wife about attending the theater. But when he’s joined at a street corner by a glowering ghetto-looking dude (played by Peele), the man begins adapting with “blacker”-sounding lingo. Then the traffic light changes and Peele’s character, out of earshot of Key, breathes relief in effeminate tones: “Oh, my God,” he trills into his own cell phone, “I almost TOTALLY got mugged right now.”
Key and Peele call it code-switching, and all code-switching, they say, is playing characters. They’ve been doing it all their lives.
“I wonder,” Peele muses, “how much both Keegan and I were pulled toward a performing career _ where we’re shifting personalities and doing different characters _ because we grew up walking a sort of racial tightrope.”