Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are plenty proud of their hit sketch-comedy show Key & Peele, but they have no delusions about why it was put on the air. In 2006, the Comedy Central smash Chappelle’s Show, starring African-American comedian Dave Chappelle, publicly fell apart. The network was “looking for someone to fill that void,” says Key (the tall, bald one), who is hanging out with his comedy partner in their Sunset Strip production offices. Comedy Central wanted Key and Peele to follow Chappelle’s old formula to the letter–so much so that the network insisted that these new guys introduce their sketches onstage in front of a live audience, just as Chappelle did.
Key and Peele do that–but nothing else about their show resembles Chappelle’s hit.
“The duo discards almost one in four sketches. Says Key, ‘When it gets heart wrenching is when it gets exciting.”
As devoted students of improv comedy, Key and Peele wield their individuality like weapons. It’s an arsenal that prominently features two lifetimes’ worth of biracial experience and a skein of nerdy interests. (When I first meet the two, they’re riffing on Game of Thrones, the source of a running gag of references on their show.) That duality has helped the pair create a show unlike any other on television. Sketches are as likely to explain the electoral college as they are to explore the condition of not feeling black enough. Every scene is a beautifully shot cinematic opus, edited down to a YouTube-friendly three minutes, and capped with a dark-twist ending. “I think the mark of any great sketch show is that it’s a true outgrowth of the creators’ organic voice,” says David Wain, a performer in the seminal ’90s comedy troupe The State, who has cast Key and Peele in several movies he’s directed. “They’re not trying to fit someone else’s mold. They’re both just so damned talented and versatile and funny.”
Nearly every element of Key & Peele has a basis in improv, the comedic training renowned for in-the-moment creation and one-upmanship. The two met in the Chicago improv scene and got their first big break when they were MadTV cast members in the mid-’00s. Every member of the writing staff has a background in improvisation; show runner Ian Roberts is a cofounder of Upright Citizens Brigade, whose Los Angeles and New York improv theaters and schools have become the preeminent industry breeding ground.
Improv emphasizes showing over telling, a principle that often manifests in a technique known as “the invisible game” on Key & Peele. The central joke of these scenes is ladled out, beat by beat, but never spoken of. “The audience loves to figure things out,” says Key, who has extensive professional acting experience and a unique physicality honed by emulating silent masters such as Chaplin and Keaton. “They love it when a performer leaves a trail of bread crumbs for them, and they get to participate in the comedy.”
This sense of coconspiracy extends to Key & Peele’s creation process, a rigorous winnowing down of more than 330 sketches to the 82 slots for the upcoming season. A giant whiteboard in the creators’ office is awash with notecards bearing neatly scrawled words such as “honest bully.” Many represent “dooks”–half-baked scenes unloaded at the writers’ meeting. Everyone dog piles on these ideas, trying to figure out the comedic engine that will make them work as sketches. Once that’s thought through, the dook originator writes a draft. Then come notes from Key and Peele, an internal table read, and more than three presentations to the network before Key and Peele decide which sketches get on air. “Anyone who’s really utilized collaboration,” says Peele, citing Pixar and the Muppets, “has a philosophy like, ‘Let’s throw it all against the wall and see what sticks.’ That’s how we do it. At a certain point, we’re cutting scripts that we love.” Key adds, “When it gets heart wrenching is when it gets exciting. And that’s where we are with the third season right now.”
Season three of Key & Peele, which premieres September 25, will continue the pair’s steady move away from explicitly racial sketches into new territory. Although the series has mostly steered clear of recurring characters, the half-proud gay couple Samuel and LaShawn will return, and there will be a spiritual sequel to the East-West College Bowl sketch, for which the staff famously created 32 separate looks and such far-fetched football player names as J’Dinkalage Morgoone and X-Wing @Aliciousness (nerd alert for fans of Game of Thrones and Star Wars).
Key and Peele are branching out beyond TV, too. Keanu, a feature film script cowritten by Peele, is a fish-out-of-water romp wherein a gangster with an exotic pet menagerie kidnaps a cat belonging to Key and Peele–who fight back by making like gangsters themselves. The scenario sounds like the logical extension of a Key & Peele sketch, which makes sense given that the duo and series director Peter Atencio strive to make each sketch look like the funniest set piece in a 93-minute movie. Fans of Key & Peele‘s season two Halloween episode, as well as all those macabre sketches in which characters meet grisly fates, won’t be surprised that the pair have a fondness for horror movies. Key costars in the fall indie horror comedy Hell Baby, and Peele has his own horror script in development. If Key and Peele’s dedicated skewering of clichés has had any effect on pop culture, nobody will care whether the black guy dies first or not.
It Should Come From Character.
“We don’t try to target catchphrases. There are so many things people say. They giggle when they think of Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. There may be a phrase that people are saying more frequently, but it’s simply being generated from her character. I don’t think [McCarthy] ever sat down and thought, What would be a good catchphrase for this character?”
It Should Already Exist.
“In the pilot, we almost stumbled upon ‘I said, bitch.’ We didn’t create the syntax; it was something that we both knew. If it becomes a catchphrase, then it does so in the best possible way, as opposed to generating syntax in a vacuum.”
It Should Come From Behavior.
“We were screwing around in the writers’ room, saying, ‘Delete it, delete it,’ and then we realized, Ah, that’s a catchphrase. The catchphrase came after the behavior.”
A version of this story appears in the June 2013 issue of Fast Company.