For Key And Peele, Biracial Roots Bestow Special Comedic 'Power'
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Today, we’ll listen to Terry’s interview with the comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. One of the best-known sketches in their Comedy Central series features Key playing Luther the anger translator for President Obama, saying what the president wishes he could say. At the White House Correspondents dinner in April, Key surprised everyone by appearing at the president's shoulder and translating Obama's remarks into what the president was really thinking.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: In our fast-changing world, traditions like the White House Correspondents dinner are important.
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: I mean, really, what is this dinner?
KEY: And why am I required to come to it?
KEY: Jeb Bush, do you really want to do this?
OBAMA: Because despite our differences, we count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day.
KEY: And we can count on Fox News to terrify old white people with some nonsense.
KEY: Sharia law is coming to Cleveland. Run for the damn hills.
KEY: Y’all is ridiculous.
OBAMA: We won't always see eye to eye.
KEY: Oh, and CNN, thank you so much for the wall-to-wall Ebola coverage. For two whole weeks, we were one step away from “The Walking Dead.”
KEY: And then y’all got up and just moved on to the next day. That was awesome. Oh, and by the way, just if you haven’t noticed, you don't have Ebola.
DAVIES: A lot of Key and Peele’s comedy is about race. Perhaps because they’re biracial, they’re perfectly comfortable satirizing white people and African-Americans, as well as everybody else. Key and Peele each have a white mother and a black father. They met in Chicago when they were part of the improv scene and also worked together on the sketch comedy series “Madtv.” Key and Peele recently announced that their Comedy Central series will wrap up this September after five seasons. Terry spoke with them in 2013. She began the interview with the sketch that introduced the president's anger translator. Jordan Peele does the president. Keegan-Michael Key is his translator.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JORDAN PEELE: (As Obama) I know a lot of folks say that I haven't done a good job at communicating my accomplishments to the public.
KEY: (As Luther) Because y'all [expletive] don't listen.
PEELE: (As Obama) Since being in office, we've created 3 million new jobs.
KEY: (As Luther) 3 million new jobs.
PEELE: (As Obama) We ended the war in Iraq.
KEY: (As Luther) Ended the war, y'all. We ended a war, remember that?
PEELE: (As Obama) These achievements should serve as a reminder that I am on your side…
KEY: (As Luther) I am not a Muslim.
PEELE: (As Obama) …And that my intentions as your president are coming from the right place.
KEY: (As Luther) They're coming from Hawaii, which is where I'm from, which is in the United States of America, y'all, OK? This is ridiculous. I have a birth certificate. I have a birth certificate. I have a hot diggity, daggity, mama-sey mama-sa ma-ma-kos-sa (ph) birth certificate you [expletive] crackers.
PEELE: (As Obama) OK, Luther?
KEY: (As Luther) Yeah?
PEELE: (As Obama) Rope it in.
KEY: (As Luther) Yeah, dial it back, Luther, damn.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. So let's start with the sketch that we just heard. How did you come up with the idea for the Obama anger translator?
KEY: Well, we were sitting around writing the pilot for the show, actually, in Jordan's apartment, and we were trying to figure out - we knew we wanted to do something with Obama because we actually felt that Obama was kind of responsible for us even getting a show in the first place because there’s this biracial person who might, you know, have to ride the divide between two different races. And we weren't sure exactly how we wanted to do it, but we kind of went through a bunch of ideas, and then we decided - Jordan has a really amazing Obama impersonation.
PEELE: Oh, thank you for saying that, Key.
KEY: And I remember Jordan was saying, you know what, something that - what if - here's the thing. We know we're frustrated when a person like Joe Wilson had screamed during that State of the Union address, and he was like, you lie to the president. And we were like, the president can't react the way millions of Americans right now are going, what - oh, God, he can't say anything. He can't rail at this man. He can't get upset. What if we had a surrogate who could get upset for him? That was the embryonic stage of creating Luther, so that he'd have somebody who could translate him when he's having, like, an internal fit of pique but could do it externally for him.
GROSS: Jordan, when you met President Obama, which I know you did, did you get some insights into how to perform him?
PEELE: I actually did it for him at one point. He says, you know, I do a pretty good me myself - he said something like that. But, you know, the - he's - he is a close talker. He's a touchy guy. Like, he will…
KEY: He is a very tactile individual.
PEELE: He will touch you on the shoulder and, you know - in that big brother or father figure kind of way. And you really do feel sort of shepherded by him. He's very funny. So I think I - I think after meeting him, I was inclined to turn up the - just the humor of him, that he has a sense of humor. And again, I think that is also something he, in the beginning of his presidency, he couldn't really explore and couldn't show. You know, he had to be almost a one-dimensional, stoic leader during that first election.
GROSS: A character you do, Keegan, that I really love is the substitute teacher. And this is a teacher who's taught in an inner-city school for, like, 20 years, and now he's teaching in, like, a middle-class school that’s, like, somewhere at approximately 100 percent white (laughter).
KEY: That’s right.
GROSS: And I want to play the first of these sketches that you did with the substitute teacher, and then we'll talk about the character some more. But first, just, like, physically describe how you look in this sketch, so we can get an image in our minds.
KEY: Well, I think - what you're dealing with is a guy who has a real kind of military persona about him. He's very rigid and a little haggard yet still aggressive. He's got a really - his hairline is really far back. He's been balding probably since his 20s. And he has a very kind of tight - like a - this isn't the - the best way to describe is like a high and tight kind of moustache. So he looks like he might have been in the Army or something - or an MP. And he wears a short-sleeve, drab shirt and like a twill tie. He just looks all business, like he's ready to rumble.
GROSS: OK, so this is the substitute teacher, performed by my guest Keegan-Michael Key.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “KEY & PEELE”)
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) All right, listen up, y'all. I'm y'alls substitute teacher, Mr. Garvey. I taught school for 20 years in the inner city, so don't even think about messing with me. Y'all feel me? OK, let's take roll here. Jayquellen (ph)? Where's Jayquellen at? No Jayquellen here?
CARLSON YOUNG: (As Jacquelin) (Coughs)
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Yeah?
YOUNG: (As Jacquelin) Do you mean Jacquelin?
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK, so that's how it's going be. Y'all wanna play. OK, then. I've got my eye on you, Jayquellen.
Bill-lock-ay (ph)? Where is Bill-lock-ay at? There’s no Bill-lock-ay here today?
JULIAN SERGI: (As Blake) My name’s Blake.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Are you out of your damn mind? Blake. What? Do you want to go to war, Bill-lock-ey (ph)?
SERGI: (As Blake) No.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) ‘Cause we could go to war.
SERGI: (As Blake) No.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) I'm for real. I'm for real. So you better check yourself.
GROSS: That's really great.
KEY: I love it ‘cause Bill-lock-ey, Bill-lock-ay - he’s got two different pronunciations.
GROSS: Jordan, do you want to describe how you end the sketch?
PEELE: And then - yes, at - I believe Garvey says Jo-Nathan (ph), and then...
KEY: Is it Tim-moth-ee (ph)?
PEELE: It's Tim-moth-ee.
PEELE: Yes, yes, yes. I mean, maybe at one point it was Jo-Nathan, but...
KEY: It was Jo-Nathan at one point.
PEELE: But yes, he says Tim-moth-ee, and then, you know, me, the first black student we've seen, sort of emerges from behind a white student - pre-sent (ph). And then it's over.
PEELE: It's a pretty absurd little piece of heightening...
KEY: This is…
GROSS: So when you were in school, did you have - were there a lot of students in your classes that had names that their parents had obviously creatively made up from scratch?
PEELE: Oh, yeah.
PEELE: Oh, yeah.
PEELE: Keegan's from Detroit, and I'm from New York, and...
KEY: So the answer to that question is yes (laughter).
PEELE: Yeah, I had a…
GROSS: What were some of your real favorites, like, of the real names?
KEY: There were literally, in my neighborhood, there were two kids - now this is kind of a urban legend. Jordan and I both know this legend. Everybody knows this legend in kind of African-American lore. There's always somebody in your neighborhood named Orangejello or Lemonjello. And that's spelled – Orangejello is spelled O-R-A-N-G-E-J-E-L-L-O.
KEY: So, you know, that's - and then...
PEELE: Right, which, I mean, if we really, you know, dig deep into it, you know, especially when talking about African-American culture, it's got - you know, names have such a deep history, you know, just from being - having our names taken away in the first place…
KEY: Right, exactly, right.
PEELE: …Since we were renamed, and, you know, now, you know, it feels like 80 percent of the African-American population have - you know, has the name Washington or Jefferson or some, you know, some president or slave owner's name. And, you know, I almost wonder is this, like, is this part of a way of taking back the principle of naming your - I might be going too far into this - but naming your kids something of your choice?
GROSS: We were talking about your substitute teacher character, Keegan, and I want to play another sketch with that substitute teacher, the guy who taught in an inner-city school for 20 years and now is in a middle-class, predominately white school teaching as a substitute.
This sketch is really funny. It's the same group of students as we heard in the one where he's taking attendance, and he's mispronouncing everybody's names ‘cause he's used to unusual names. So this sketch starts with one of the students asking a question to the teacher.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “KEY & PEELE”)
ZACK PEARLMAN: (As Aaron) Mr. Garvey?
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) What is it, A-aron (ph)?
PEARLMAN: (As Aaron) Some of us need to leave a few minutes early today.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Oh. Oh, is that so? And what, pray tell, is the reason for this premature exodus?
PEARLMAN: (As Aaron) Yearbook photos. We have to leave 15 minutes early to meet up with our clubs.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) All right, you know what? That might work with other substitute teachers, but I taught in the inner city for over 20 years. Now y'all want to leave my class early so y'all can go meet up at the club. Ain't none of y'all old enough to go to the damn club - ridiculous.
PEARLMAN: (As Aaron) Mr. Garvey?
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Son of a [expletive]. Did I stut-t-t-t-ter?
PEARLMAN: (As Aaron) Just then? Yes.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) I'm going to throw you out that damn window. What, Jayquellen?
YOUNG: (As Jacquelin) Mr. Garvey, we're telling the truth. We have clubs at this school. We have clubs for special interests.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK. What the hell club are you in, Jayquellen?
YOUNG: (As Jacquelin) Future Leaders of America.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK, OK. How would you know if you going to be a leader in the future? Is there a “Stargate” in your bedroom? Can you travel through time, Jayquellen?
YOUNG: (As Jacquelin) No.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Then sit the flip down.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's Keegan-Michael Key as a substitute teacher. And, Jordan Peele, do you want to explain how you end the sketch?
PEELE: I believe Tim-moth-ee raises his name, and Mr. Garvey says, what - you know, he calls on Tim-moth-ee, you know, what club do you have to go? And Tim-moth--ee says, yeah, I got to go pick up my daughter.
KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) You're excused.
DAVIES: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele recorded in 2013. We’ll hear more of their conversation with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. And we’re listening to Terry’s 2013 interview with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Their Comedy Central series “Key & Peele” airs its final episode in September.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You both have white mothers, African-American fathers. Was it ever an issue of, like, which group you were going to fit into, if you're going to identify with the white students or the black students? Or were there groups within the schools you went to that were multicultural enough that you didn't have to worry about, like, choosing a team?
KEY: Yeah, for me the - I think the reason I went into theater, ultimately, was because that was one of those multicultural groups. Because you identify with other people that share similar passions to you, so it didn't matter how much melanin was in their skin. It's just that clan is born out of love and passion as opposed to born out of some sense of obligation to belong to a certain group. So for me, that's what salvaged my life, I think, in high school for the most part.
PEELE: Yeah. It's such a loaded question I think for both of us. But I really do feel like growing up, you know, I was lucky enough to be in a great town and great schools that had a certain amount of diversity. And so, you know, this is all - all of this goes into our work. And I think both, you know, like Keegan was saying, I think the reason both of us became actors is because we did, you know, a little - a fair amount of code-switching growing up, and still do. You know, we will - if Keegan and I are just hanging out with each other - it's funny, we'll - all of a sudden, we will go into a more casual black dialect.
KEY: Yeah, a more urban space, in a way, yeah.
PEELE: You know, that's kind of our comfort zone with each other when we're making each other laugh. Yeah, I mean, it's fascinating. It's fascinating.
GROSS: Keegan, you're adopted.
GROSS: You were adopted by a white mother and an African-American father who grew up in Salt Lake City?
GROSS: One of the few African-Americans there when he was growing up. What do you know about the racial background of your birth parents? I don't know if you know them at all or know who they are.
KEY: Oh. Oh, yeah, I do. I know my biological mother quite well, and we have a wonderful, wonderful relationship. And I - it's the exact same demographic. So my father has passed away. He was African-American. My mother is white. So I was adopted by a couple that was of a similar dynamic as my biological parents.
GROSS: So just curious - this is kind of off-topic from your comedy - but what's it like to have a close relationship with the biological mother who put you up for adoption?
KEY: I'd say it's been like - it's been, like, 16 years of some kind of constant healing, is how I feel about it. Because I - you - like every human, you - you know, Jordan said earlier, we have to categorize ourselves, so you kind of start to build a mythos ‘cause I had no information about her. So you have to build a mythos around yourself. And so my mythos included me not being wanted or me being a wretched person, which is just great fertilizer for comedy.
KEY: It's just - it could turn you into an exquisite comedian. Ask Richard Pryor's ghost. But I didn't have any idea of what my life was, and then - so I had this kind of sense about who I was. And, of course, my adoptive mother tirelessly worked most of her life to build up my self-esteem. So what happened was finding her started to shed light and destroy my mythos. So for the first year of knowing her, my mom kind of actually literally visited me in Detroit and kind of gave me a tour of my life - where I was conceived, where I was born, where she found out she was pregnant. It was amazing, Terry, and very emotional. But what it did is, you hold precious what you create for yourself in your life that makes you comfortable, and everything she was saying was shattering all of that. So - oh, my gosh, there is this worthwhile human in the world who somebody did want to keep. And it's a long, very personal story, but, you know, it's been a really wonderful, revelatory story.
GROSS: Jordan, do you know your father?
PEELE: Good question. I - my father passed away in 1999. I knew him up until about 6 years old. That would've been, you know, my going to his place of work once a month, once every couple of months, until he was sort of out of the picture without any real concrete explanation as to why he was out of the picture. Now, you know, I've since learned that, you know, he's got many kids across the country and other countries. You know, he was definitely a rolling stone and had kids before me and kids after me. So it was definitely part of his MO to procreate and move on. But, yeah, I mean, to answer your question, no, not really.
GROSS: So you hardly knew your father, and he was, like, totally out of your life by the time he was 6. But since you have dark skin, a lot of people just automatically identify you as African-American. But the person who was African-American in your family - your father - was gone and your mother is white. And the part of your extended family that you've been most in touch with is your mother's side, which again is white. So I can imagine a sense of disconnect of being, you know, externally identified as African-American because of your skin color, but at the same time feeling like everybody in, you know, all of your, like, blood family that you know that's still in your life is white. Not sure what the question is.
GROSS: Not sure what the question is, but it just seems like it must be a very disconnected feeling in some ways.
PEELE: Yeah. It's - I mean, you really summed it up very well. That’s exactly how I would phrase it. There is these identity questions. And, you know, all I can say is my mother was very good in that she helped me feel like I was a special person. You know, I didn't need to go any farther than, you know, who I was and what I liked in order to find my identity. But, yeah, clearly there has been, you know, a huge imprint that it's made on my personality and my art and my craft. And I think the most trying part of it involves how I speak. That's always been the part that I felt most insecure about.
GROSS: What do you mean?
PEELE: Is that the world has wanted me to speak differently than I speak. You know, I speak like my mom. I speak like, you know, like the whitest white dude. I speak like a “Def Comedy Jam” comedian doing an impression of a white guy.
PEELE: That's how I've, you know, sort of grown up. So I’ve always - I've been very lucky to have a family who, you know, has welcomed me and not been hung up on anything racial, almost, you know, overlooking the fact that there was a racial difference. But I can honestly say I do feel like I missed out on some lessons, you know, of what the African-American experience is like growing up. I mean, I could have used some advice from my dad of, you know, how to deal with somebody who’s accusing you of being shady in a store. I would have liked to hear those things.
DAVIES: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele speaking with Terry Gross in 2013. Their Comedy Central series “Key & Peele” wraps up in September after five seasons. Coming up, we’ll hear more of that conversation and an early interview with Jon Stewart, who ends his 16-year run at “The Daily Show” next week. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies back with Terry’s interview with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. They just announced they’re ending their sketch comedy show, “Key & Peele” after this - its fifth season. The series finale airs in mid-September. Key and Peele are both biracial and often deal with race in their comedy. They met in Chicago, where they were both doing improve and worked together as cast members on “Madtv.” Terry spoke to them in 2013.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: I think before joining the cast of "Madtv" - or maybe it was after that - that, Jordan, you had auditioned for "Saturday Night Live?”
PEELE: That was - that was actually after. During my last year on "Mad," was the year of the writers' strike. And there was an instance where we had a few episodes left of "Madtv," but there was this big question mark whether we were going to - the show was going to come back at all after the writers' strike ‘cause that strike was, you know, really just - you know, just totally displaced...
KEY: Decimated, yeah.
PEELE: Yeah. Everything in Hollywood was just turned on its head. And within that timeframe – yeah, I mean, Seth Myers is a good buddy of mine and he - this was also during the election - the Obama election. So he called me and he asked me if I had an Obama impression. I didn't at the time. But, you know, "SNL" had always been a dream of mine. And so, yeah, I worked on the impression for a week and then went out and flew out, and I was actually offered a job on the show, but I couldn't end up taking it because "Madtv" ended up coming back after the strike. So, you know, there was - you know, basically I had four more episodes in my contract that overlapped, and I didn't get to fly home and continue on that show.
GROSS: Was that a great disappointment that you had to turn down "SNL?”
PEELE: Oh, yeah, that was a huge disappointment. The big - the most disappointing part, besides the fact that, you know, like I said, that had always been a dream to be on that show for obvious reasons, but, you know, after spending eight years away from New York - nine years, or whatever it was - I desperately wanted to go back and live with my, you know, friends and my mother and, you know, where my grandmother was. And so I wanted that homecoming very bad. And not being able to was, I think, ultimately served as a huge motivation, you know, to end up doing what I'm doing now, which is, you know, we have our own show. It all kind of worked out for the best, of course. But, yeah, that was the biggest blow in my career.
GROSS: Did both of you do a lot of, you know, characters or impressions when you first auditioned for "Madtv?"
KEY: I did more characters. I mean, I had a lot of characters kind of in my bag from Second City. And so there were some characters that had been incubating at the Second City in Chicago. And so, you know, when you're at Second City, Chicago, kind of the unspoken thing is everybody’s kind of - you're doing your work and you’re making your art and you're having a good time and it's really a kind of fertile time in your life, but there's that thing in the back of your head that’s saying, boy, you know, "SNL" might come calling, or "Madtv" might come calling. And so you're kind of like - I would just kind of catalog characters that I liked performing and that - also that audiences seemed to enjoy.
GROSS: Jordan, what's one of the characters you developed early on that you could tell us about?
PEELE: I was much more impression-driven in my audition. And, I mean, one of my impressions was, I did Ja Rule. I did an impression of Ja Rule showing off his crib in "Cribs."
PEELE: And then on the other, you know, I went all the way to the other side. I did an impression of John Malkovich ordering a pizza, which - in which he does not want any of the extra bells and whistles. I just want a pepperoni pizza, please.
KEY: Hit her with some Morgan.
PEELE: I did Morgan Freeman, of course. Yeah. Yeah.
PEELE: I'm Morgan Freeman. I don't remember what the context was.
PEELE: As sure as the black dots all over my face, I did this impression. Yeah.
GROSS: It's been so much fun to talk with both of you. Thank you so much.
KEY: Oh, thank you, Terry.
PEELE: You, too. Thank you.
DAVIES: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele speaking with Terry Gross in 2013. Their Comedy Central series “Key & Peele” wraps up in September after five seasons. Coming up - an early interview with Jon Stewart, who leaves the anchor desk at “The Daily Show” next week. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.