Best laid plans, they say. Keegan-Michael Key once referred to his career as a “19-year detour into sketch comedy.” Certainly there aren’t too many Shakespearean-trained actors with an M.F.A. in theater who end up hitting it big with sketch comedy institutions like Second City, Mad TV, and the Peabody and Emmy-winning series Key & Peele—which he wrote, produced, starred in, and co-created.
A detour that has taken the seemingly-inexhaustible, self-proclaimed theater geek from playing the voice of a stuffed duck in Toy Story 4 to Horatio in the Public’s staging of Hamlet, to singing & dancing in Netflix’s insta-Christmas classic Jingle-Jangle, and even creating & hosting Brain Games for National Geographic.
But at heart, Key is also the Detroit-raised kid who grew up on Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, and touts Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason amongst his influences.
In January, he came around to fully embracing the hand that fed him, with the launch of his deep-dive podcast, The History of Sketch Comedy.
Here, he talks to us about the legends that helped him fall in love with comedy to begin with. Because full circle is the only way to go.
THE FIRST SHOW TO CATCH MY ATTENTION
The first show that inspired me and started me on my sketch comedy path was Saturday Night Live. There were kids at school who talked about it incessantly and I wanted in on the fun. Once I saw Eddie Murphy perform I was hooked… and the rest is history.
THE SHOW THAT MOST INFLUENCED ME
Saturday Night Live was the first show that shaped what I thought was funny. It also taught me what sketch comedy was, and how wonderfully different it was from movies or sitcoms. I was really taken at watching the recurring characters that the cast played and how those characters evolved throughout the years.
I also loved the goodbyes when the host and the musical guest and the cast would gather at the end of the show. I loved the sense of camaraderie it conveyed. As a teenager I would fantasize about being up there with everyone.
MY FAVORITE COMEDIANS GROWING UP
Growing up it was all about Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. I also really enjoyed Howie Mandell and Robin Williams. These are the people I tried to emulate. I loved their energy. What really resonated with me was how they would jump in and out of various characters. It was how they embodied characters that sparked my imagination and planted the idea that comedy could be a profession.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY
The 1980s was a fertile time for comedy because you had both the stand-up boom and SNL was starting to hit a stride. But I think the Golden Age of Television, the 50s and early 60s, may be my favorite era; with entertainers like Sid Caesar, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Jackie Gleason.
At that time it seemed like there were no rules or boundaries about what you could do, because television was in its infancy and that’s exciting. Also, I have always been a big fan of physical comedy and lots of artists from that time came from the traditions of vaudeville, slapstick and pratfalls, and they infused a lot of that into their work. The stories that these performers told with both their words, and their bodies, were clever and entertaining. So much of the material from that era still makes me belly-laugh out loud.
Paramount Pictures/You Tube
THE COMEDY I REVISIT TIME AND AGAIN
There is so much good stuff out there that I am inspired by and revisit often. The character work of Eddie Murphy and Peter Sellers are things that I look at over and over. The specificity of their work is astounding. It’s as if every character they play has a backstory and has needs and wants and desires. For example, you could make an entire film about each character Eddie plays in The Nutty Professor or Coming To America or even in Dolemite is My Name.
In the Pink Panther films Peter Sellers “is” Inspector Jacques Closeau. He immerses himself in that persona with a profound commitment, and the comedy of his films emerges from the characters.
DRAMATIC WORK THAT INFLUENCED ME
I’m very lucky that I have been able to perform in both comedic and dramatic roles. I’m a classically trained actor, and even though I have spent a lot of time in comedic roles, I’ve never been a comedian per se, and have never done any stand up.
My appreciation for comedy certainly comes from Eddie and the others I have mentioned, but as far as acting to me—there are few that can hold a candle to Robert DeNiro. I love pretty much every one of his films. Although the work that Robert DeNiro did in the film Midnight Run , directed by Martin Brest, is perfect and nuanced. And even though none of it is played for comedy; it’s extremely funny. The scenes between DeNiro and Charles Grodin are as hilarious as the scenes DeNiro does with his ex-wife and daughter are heartwarming.
5 COMEDY SKETCHES FOR THE UNINITIATED
The Dead Parrot Sketch – Monty Python
I wanted to pick something from arguably the most influential sketch group of the last 50 plus years; And “The Dead Parrot Sketch” is one of their classics. It’s a very simple premise, but what makes the scene sing is John Cleese’s amazing performance.
Your Name? – A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie
This is a high concept sketch from one of the cleverest sketch duos ever, Fry and Laurie. The way they weave absurdism and silliness into their work is magical. The way this sketch escalates is both silly and genius and has some fun one-liners in the midst of it. I feel like anyone who wants to get into sketch will benefit by being exposed to these guys.
The Audition – Mr. Show
This scene is one of the best conceived sketches I’ve ever seen. I love having the opportunity to share it with people. The way that the premise reveals itself and evolves is pure brilliance. It checks every box of what makes a sketch great.
Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks – SNL
Game show parodies are a staple of sketch comedy. And there are a slew of great ones. And this is one of my favorites. It has turns, social commentary, and Tom Hanks as a Hillbilly—what more could you ask for?!
Meet Your Second Wife – SNL
Another SNL game show sketch that is fantastic. Some of the best escalation I’ve ever seen in comedy is in this sketch.
THE HISTORY OF SKETCH COMEDY BY KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY
Who’s On First?
CHECK OUT KEEGAN
As Principal Tom Hawkins in Netflix’s The Prom
As Gustafson in Netflix’s Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey
Schmigadoon, a new Apple TV+ series produced by Lorne Michaels
As himself & various characters in the Peabody and Emmy-winning sketch comedy series Key & Peele, which he also wrote, produced, and co-created
As himself & various characters on the sketch comedy series Mad TV
As Jerry in director Craig Brewer’s Golden Globe nominated Dolemite Is My Name, alongside his comedy hero Eddie Murphy
As Horatio in The Public’s staging of Hamlet
As Clarence Goobril/Smoke Dresden in the comedy Keanu
As Voice Actor in The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Hotel Transylvania 3 and 4