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Keegan-Michael Key Explains Why “Key & Peele” Characters Never Wear Out Their Welcome

Keegan-Michael Key talks about Key & Peele’s philosophy toward recurring characters, and the Mr. Garvey movie, as the show enters season 5.

It was an ordinary day in the Key & Peele writers room when substitute teacher Mr. Garvey was hatched. Nobody did backflips or popped champagne after the group worked out all the beats for the season-two character. Just another sturdily built sketch in a show increasingly known for them. About 80 million YouTube hits later, the staff realized they were on to something and brought Garvey back. They did so warily, however, because on Key & Peele, recurring characters are more meticulously fussed over than the show’s legendary wig collection.

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Keegan-Michael KeyPhoto: Matt Hoyle, courtesy of Comedy Central

“When we started the show, we decided we weren’t gonna do recurring characters until we figured out a new way to do it,” says co-creator and star Keegan-Michael Key. “By season two, we were trying to figure out how to avoid some of the inherent challenges with it that we’d seen in other sketch shows throughout history.”

These challenges include not giving into the temptation of having once-beloved characters play the same comedic game in a new environment (think: It’s Pat,) or play the slightest variation of that game in the same environment (think: The Californians.) Basically, the goal was for viewers to not turn off a rerun at the mere sight of a familiar character because his or her presence suggests this sketch has been done to death already.

Instead, Key and creative partner Jordan Peele wanted to keep the audience guessing which way the characters would swing each time . They wanted the initial surprise to evolve into something else. The solution? Letting each sketch dictate the terms of the character, not the other way around.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan PeelePhoto: Ian White, courtesy of Comedy Central

“If a writer on our staff writes a sketch with a really great premise and a comedic game that’s pushing the sketch forward, why don’t we take one of our recurring characters and put it into that sketch, even if it wasn’t written for the character in the first place?” says Key. “We figure let’s make sure the sketch is funny first as opposed to trusting that a character is so beloved that we’re gonna skate by on the popularity of the character rather than the comedy. It’s always starts with a funny sketch, then the question of should we make brand new characters or revisit other characters and make them the stars here? At the end of the day, it’s whatever is funniest, let’s get that on television.”

One of the characters on the show recently became so popular that he’s now set to go beyond television and into movie theaters. Mr. Garvey will soon be seen in his very own movie, with series director Peter Atencio at the helm. (It’s one of several film projects Key and Peele have in the hopper). The character had become so popular that the show’s creators couldn’t ignore any further franchise-expanding possibilities. Paramount, part of the parent company of Key & Peele’s home network, Comedy Central, was interested. The show’s staff just had to decide whether the character truly had legs or not.

“We didn’t want to fall into the trap that a lot of movies have fallen into where you go, ‘Great sketch, how are you gonna get 90 more minutes out of that?'” Key says. “So between me and Jordan and the guy who invented the sketch, Rich Talarico, if we think we can find some fun comedic game that works on an overall arc, let’s do it. So we discussed that for a few months and we came up with an idea. Eventually, Paramount bought it. Of course, the movie’s still in its embryonic stages. It’s being written right now as we speak.”

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If all goes according to plan, the movie will have the same quality Key and Peele have worked hard to craft in sketches with recurring characters: the ability to stand on its own. In Key’s eyes, the movie will be a victory if it’s a high school-set comedy that could just as easily star Jason Sudeikis or Adam Sandler, rather than relying on well-established bits that have made the Garvey character a YouTube hit.

In the meantime, the show’s sprawling universe of characters is getting a workout at the outset of the just-launched season 5. As the second episode bows tonight, have a look through the slides above for notes on all the recurring characters so far, featuring some input from Key.

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