This past weekend, in advance of tonight’s star studded “Keanu” Hollywood premiere, set to take place at the Arclight Cinerama Dome Theater, All Hip Hop correspondent Kylie Krabbe was able to catch up with the comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. Here is what this comedy team had to say about their creative process post Comedy Central, the black experience as viewed through their comedic lens, BET and how their first major foray into movies from television came in the unexpected form of a kitten.
As an established comedy team, you both owe a huge debt to Comedy Central and the extremely popular sketch show that you created there titled “Key & Peele.” Though that show is now over, it really put you both on the map, earning you an impressive number of viewers and a cult of fans due to the diversity of your sketch characters and the more inclusive point of view when it came to the comedy on offer. Nevertheless, it’s a certain viewer who tends to watch Comedy Central and that viewer is more likely to be white versus black or multi-ethnic, and that viewer is also more likely to be suburban versus urban. Given the diversity of your brand of comedy and it’s subjects, does “Keanu” equal a chance to really open up the floodgates with regards to reaching a more inclusive audience that is more mass audience versus niche?
KEY: I think so.
PEELE: Yeah. It’s hard. You know, we don’t study the demographics for anything like that and in our experience you cant really label what makes a “Key & Peele” fan. Everybody kind of gets into it once they’ve been introduced to it, but you’re right. If we had started our show on BET, black people would have heard about us earlier and faster. It’s taken a couple of years of the internet and people passing it around, (taking) their favorite sketch and passing it on. I think that black people will come out to see the movie.
KEY: I think it’s definitely going to make a difference because it’s just a much wider band width. So, hopefully that’s the case because the comedy is for everyone. At the beginning of the day, all we concern ourselves with is does this make us laugh? It makes him laugh it makes me laugh. Okay were both laughing, we’re in unison on this, let move forward. And then, anything that people say about the show or the material in the film culturally is really up to the filters that they are seeing the film through. If it’s not funny, who cares? If you’re black or white, we’ve just not done our job if it’s not funny. And I think that becomes paramount.
A lot of people who are deep into Hip Hop and the more urban side of that style choice, often they haven’t heard of you guys because you didn’t start on a BET or some other entertainment outlet with which they might be more familiar. With “Keanu” that can potentially change on a dime. Is there anything that you would say specifically to them to get them to go and see this movie about two guys who they don’t necessarily know but are just hearing about now?
PEELE: I’d say it’s funny. This is a really funny movie. There’s people all over – all kinds, of every group, a lot of people who haven’t discovered our brand of comedy yet. I would say, look, we make our comedy specifically for – this is going to sound stupid– for laughter. Laughter, that’s everything to us. We find it transformative. I think whoever you are, if we can get you to laugh, we can get you to think about whatever we are talking about.
KEY: Also, I would like to say it’s funny as hell. Everything is. You are going to see faces that you recognize in the movie. I think that is a big part of it – that you are going to see faces that you recognize. So, hopefully the movie is for you. The movie is for you. There’s all different types of humans in the movie. Not black humans, just humans in the movie. So there’s going to be somebody in the movie that you can identify with.
A lot of the comedy in this movie comes from the characters that you play, essentially two black surburban nerds, Rell (Jordan Peele) and Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) pretending to be stone cold gang bangers in order to survive amongst the real killers and gangsters that may or may not have Rell’s adopted kitten, Keanu. You both have called what they are doing in these scenes “code switching,” i.e. when people become another version of themselves in order to fit into alien or unfamiliar societal territory. Under less heightened circumstances than are present in the movie, it would seem that “code switching” is something that a lot of people do in societal situations where they are the odd man out – no matter who they are in terms of race or class.
KEY: Absolutely. Yes.
Certainly “code -switching” offers some very universal comedy. It’s also something that was used to great comedic advantage on your Comedy Central show. However, sometimes black people and other people of color in America have a harder time allowing themselves the permission to laugh at comedians that look like them doing this sort of thing. Unlike most white viewers, sometimes they worry that to allow themselves to laugh at this is to be inauthentic. Do you find this stricter standard frustrating?
KEY: Well, when you say stricter standard, how do you mean that?
I work in Hip Hop. At my kid’s suburban school, most of the parents I know, I’m guessing they aren’t into Hip Hop, and they aren’t generally people of color. As such, there’s things that I’m not likely to bring up with them, like what did they think about Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and do they think that Rachel Roy is in fact Becky With the Good Hair? This stuff interests me and I enjoy talking about it, but it’s not really who I am when I am at my kid’s school. Does this make me inauthentic as a black person? I don’t think so. But some people with stricter standards might disagree with me because of who I am and the country I live in.
KEY: Of course. Yeah. That speaks to where you are culturally at the moment. I think that any guy who came to your house to take you to prom, was going to speak to your father differently than he was going to speak to anybody that you were spending time at prom with. So I think that you are right. There’s not, there doesn’t have to be – we say this all the time with “Key & Peele” – it’s certainly a strong belief that we have – the African American experience is a spectrum, not a monolith. We should all be able to accept where everybody else is on that spectrum. That’s my feeling. As opposed to saying no, no, no, you’re not African American unless you behave this way. So you’re right. We’re the only creatures on this planet who can do this dance with each other. We are the only ones who do this cultural dance. Every other creature, they are completely trapped in what they are. ‘I need food, I need shelter.’ That’s why we watch animals fight. But we don’t do that. We go, ‘well I can disagree with you, but also I have a malleability about myself’ because only humans can do that. I think it’s important..
PEELE: It is. We live in a country and a world that’s really caught up with identity and what does identity mean. And for a lot of us the way you talk is a big part of one’s identity. I agree with you that code switching is a universal thing. We all have different facets to our personality. We all have a warrior in there. We all have a nerd in there. We all have a nurturer-
KEY: A lover-
PEELE: And an artist in there. The different facets of our personality speak differently.
And so what’s up with all the food references for the gangland people? You got Cheddar (Method Man) , you got Bacon Diaz ( Luis Guzman)… what was that about?
PEELE: What was going on there? You know, really good question. Sometimes when you are making a screenplay, you’ll just need a name for a character and you’ll just name them out of a whim. Say, ‘ok, I’ll change that later.’ This was a situation where we named them real fast – really fast and then we kind of went back and said what should their names really be? And it’s like, ‘no I already know him as Bacon! He’s already Bacon Diaz to me now, so it’s done!’ We did have a joke in there at one point –
KEY: I was going to say that! I was going to say that we had a joke in there. Go ahead!
PEELE: Where my character is like, calls it out. ‘So what, you got lettuce around the corner or is it tomato?’ But you can’t really make fun of the world you set up. (Key & Peele laugh) It’s like, yeah you wrote it, you idiot. Yeah.
“Keanu” was something that Jordan developed and then Keegan came on later, which was surprising. A lot of people who are big “Key & Peele” fans assume that you both work on everything cohesively together from start to finish. Was “Keanu” the exception to the rule or is that an inaccurate assumption with regards to how you work together creatively?
PEELE: All of our sketches happen completely differently. (It’s) very unique to the sketch. (“Keanu”) got started when (Keegan) was shooting a movie and one of the fellow “Key & Peele” writers and myself just sat down and started, ‘well what would a “Key & Peele” movie look like?’ It’s one of those things where you think, ‘yeah, this is for fun. Who knows? this will probably never get – most movies that you write are never gonna get made.’ But the pieces kept falling together. We had our first draft. We got (Keegan) in and a bunch of other friends to read it and it evolved more and more. (Keegan’s) collaboration on the project is undeniable. It’s all over the place. I mean, not only in the choices throughout the film but on the day we did a lot of improvisation and a lot of the best lines in any sketch or this movie that we’ll do are happening once on the day. You can tell it’s something that the character just said and it wasn’t planned. So it’s both. A total collaboration. But this one, in it’s very first –
KEY: In it’s infancy.
PEELE: In it’s infancy, (Keegan) was doing a movie.
Got it. So then, last question – what were your favorite scenes to write and or shoot in “Keanu”? Which scenes were the standouts?
KEY: I certainly enjoy the car scenes cause that’s the most “Key & Peele” of us. But the scenes that are the scenes where we are really fish out of water – I like in the beginning of the movie where we are both getting our sea legs because my thing is that Clarence panics (and) jumps off the cliff. My favorite moment I was going to say earlier is this moment when he’s just declared that the worst thing we can do in this situation is say the n word, and then he can’t stop saying it. He’s like his vocal box is possessed. And I just thought this was something that always tickled me, I loved playing (it). He’s like ‘ n** n** why I am I doing that!?!’ He just can’t stop himself from saying it and there’s something about playing it that’s fun, but also what does it say? What is it doing socially? Like you’re seeing a human who’s panicked but he happens to be doing it through this filter and these moments I love. The moments of the eye darting and just, ‘I’m going to maintain this situation right here, brother. You know, I’m scared to death. Let’s try to get the f*ck up out of here as fast as we can!’ But he’s just Clarence. My big thing as an actor, the actor choice is always ‘where’s the exit at?’ He’s just trying to be as tough as possible but all I’m thinking is ‘where’s the exit?!?’
So just playing the complete and totally painful opposite of what he actually wants most.
KEY: Yeah. The thought in his mind is the exact opposite. And just put more bravado on it the more scared you get.
And for you, Jordan?
PEELE: For me, yeah – that was very fun playing the whole duality of fear and cocky. I loved that scene as well. Shooting the scene with Anna Faris was fun. Mostly because we were inside and cozy from the harsh New Orleans conditions. But (the Anna Faris Scene) was just fun to the point in the movie where it escalates to a very heightened very real very scary place.
KEY: The Homage to “Boogie Nights.”
PEELE: Yes, the scene in “Boogie Nights” sort of informed it a little. Yes.
“Keanu” from New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. Pictures, starring Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Will Forte, Nia Long, Method Man, Tiffany Haddish and Luis Guzman will be released in theaters nationwide on April 29, 2016.