12:01am

Fri January 27, 2012
Television

For 'Black Nerds Everywhere,' Two Comedy Heroes

Originally published on Fri January 27, 2012 12:28 pm

Comics Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have known each other for years. They were both in the cast of MadTV. Now they're starting their own sketch-comedy series, due to launch on Comedy Central on Tuesday.

You can learn a lot about what makes them tick in a sketch that features Peele impersonating President Obama, while Key plays "Luther," the president's "anger translator." Key paces back and forth, flails his arms and sometimes puts his face right into the camera like he's about to punch it. As President Obama, Jordan Peele is cool, calm and unflappable. Peele's mannerisms and tone are strikingly similar to the president's.

Key and Peele say the idea came from a few different sources. But mostly, says Key, they wanted to "find a way to finagle Obama's nature and use that as a nugget. How could we ... get someone to interpret what we know he really wants to say?"

The two friends and partners were even more inspired to write the "anger translator" sketch when, during one of Obama's speeches, a congressman shouted 'You lie.' Key and Peele say they were bothered by the fact that Obama barely reacted.

"For him to have that much composure ... it's like, you don't have to — not after that. It was really a burr in Jordan's saddle," says Key. "He's like, 'C'mon, brother. If there was ever a time to get down to business, do it. How are you going to just put up a finger and keep talking regular?' "

"But that's what we love about him, too," says Peele. "He's so even-measured. He's so together. He's almost like Spock."

Obama, Peele goes on to say, was the best thing to happen to black nerds everywhere.

"Up until Obama, it was basically Urkel and the black guy from Revenge of the Nerds -- Lamar," says Peele. "Other than that, we had no role models. So he made us cool."

Peele and Key say Obama also made it easier to be biracial. Peele grew up in New York, the child of a single white mother. Key was raised in Detroit. His mother is also white.

When they were younger, their biracial heritage was sometimes confusing, says Peele.

"You go to school as a kid, and when your mom comes, and the kids go, 'That ain't your mama. Why you lyin'?' — as a kid, that is a deep insult," says Peele. "Our lifeline is our mom when we're little. So somehow that expectation, at a very young age, that we were supposed to live up to something because of what we looked like — I think that probably invaded our souls and gave us the need to do this kind of comedy on some level."

Key says kids made fun of him for not sounding "black" enough — "every single day of grade school."

Memories like that fuel another sketch, this one beginning with Key on a city sidewalk, talking on his cellphone. When a stranger, played by Peele, walks up, Key changes his voice to sound "more black." As they part, you realize that the second guy had been doing the same.

Mekeisha Madden Toby, a TV critic for The Detroit News, says she loves "the posturing of it. I love that it taps into something no one's talking about."

Because plenty of people are thinking about it, she says.

"How do people perceive you versus who you really are, how you let people perceive you, all of those things — I think they just brilliantly tap into those things," she says.

Madden Toby says Key and Peele have an opportunity to fill the void that was left on Comedy Central when comedian Dave Chappelle quit his show in 2005.

Key and Peele are huge Chappelle fans. But for now, they're not sure their new show will reach as many African-Americans as Chappelle's did. It's a tough crowd, they say.

"It really concerns us, to be terribly frank," says Key. "It concerns us that African-Americans enjoy this show."

Key and Peele's debut show on Comedy Central includes parodies of a reality cooking show, being related to Thomas Jefferson, and the little lies husbands tell each other about their wives.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are a team, a comedy team. Both of are biracial: half-black, half-white.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: And so we actually think that we're particularly adept at lying, because on a daily basis, we constantly have to adjust our blackness.

JORDAN PEELE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Like, I mean, to terrify white people.

KEY: Yup, to terrify white people...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEY: That's one of the main reasons. And then...

PEELE: 'Cause I mean with our voices now, we sound very white. We are not intimidating anybody by the way we talk.

KEY: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEY: We sound whiter than the black dude in the college a capella group. That's how white we sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on their new sketch comedy series, which premiers on Comedy Central next week.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: You can learn about Key and Peele in a sketch they do in which Jordan Peele impersonates President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

PEELE: (as President Obama) I just want to say that I know a lot of people out there seem to think that I don't get angry. That's just not true.

BLAIR: And Keegan-Michael Key plays Luther, Mr. Obama's anger translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

PEELE: (as President Obama) Luther?

KEY: (as Luther) Hi.

PEELE: (as President Obama) First off, concerning the recent developments in the Middle Eastern region, I just want to reiterate our unflinching support for all people and their right to a democratic process.

KEY: (as Luther) Hey, all y'all dictators out there, keep messing around and see what happens. Just see what happens. Watch.

BLAIR: Keegan-Michael Key paces back and forth, flails his arms. Sometimes he puts his face right into the camera like he's about to punch it. As President Obama, Jordan Peele is unflappable.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

PEELE: (as President Obama) I just want to say to my critics, I hear your voices and I'm aware of your concerns.

KEY: (as Luther) So maybe you could chill the (bleep) out for like a second, then maybe I can focus on some (bleep), you know.

BLAIR: Key and Peele say the idea came from a few different sources. First, they're fans of early "Saturday Night Live," and one of their favorite sketches was the fake TV news.

PEELE: If you remember Garrett Morris, and they say and now for the Association of the Deaf, Garrett Morris will be doing the announcements. And then Garrett Morris would scream at the top of his lungs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CHEVY CHASE: Our top story tonight...

GARRETT MORRIS: Our top story tonight...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE)

PEELE: And so, that was something we had talked about that we thought wouldn't it be nice, you know, if we could find a way to finagle Obama's nature and use that as a nugget? You know what I mean? How would we get someone to interpret what we know he really wants to say?

BLAIR: They were even more inspired to write the sketch when a congressman shouted: You lie, during one of President Obama's speeches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegal.

REPRESENTATIVE JOE WILSON: You lie.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE REACTION)

BLAIR: Key and Peele say it bothered them that Mr. Obama barely reacted.

PEELE: For him to have that much composure...

KEY: Right.

PEELE: ...it's like you don't have no - not after that.

KEY: It was really a burr in Jordan's saddle.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEY: He's like come on, brother. If there's ever a time to get down to business, do it. How are you going to just put up a finger up and keep talking regular?

PEELE: Right.

KEY: Come on, man.

PEELE: But, you know, that's kind of course what we love about him too. It's that he's so, you know, he's so even-measured. He's so together. He's almost Spock-like...

KEY: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PEELE: ...in his logic and wisdom, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: And that Spock-like nature is something else about the president Key and Peele admire. Peele thinks Mr. Obama was the best thing to happen to black nerds everywhere.

PEELE: Up until Obama, it was basically Urkel and the black guy from "Revenge of the Nerds," Lamar, we had no role models. So he made us cool.

BLAIR: And they say he made it easier to be biracial. Jordan Peele grew up in New York. He was raised by a single white mother. Keegan-Michael Key was raised in Detroit. His mom is also white.

KEY: You go to school as a kid and when your mom comes, and the kids go: That's not your mom...

PEELE: That's ain't your mama. Why you lying?

KEY: ...which, as a kid is like that is a deep insult. You know, that's our lifeline is our mom when we're little. So somehow I think that's that expectation at a very young age that we were supposed to live up to something because of what we looked like, I mean I think that probably invaded our souls, and gave us the need to do this kind of comedy on some level.

PEELE: Yeah. Yeah, I'd say that...

BLAIR: Did anyone make fun of you growing up because you didn't talk black enough?

KEY: Every single day of grade school.

PEELE: I still make fun of him.

BLAIR: In one of their sketches, Key and Peele change the way they speak depending on who's listening. It begins with Key by himself on a city sidewalk talking on his cell-phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

KEY: Because you're my wife and you love the theater and it's your birthday.

BLAIR: A stranger walks up, played by Jordan Peele, who can hear what he's saying. So Key changes his voice to sound more black.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

KEY: ...already filled up, but they do you have seats that are still left in the dress circle. So if you want me to get them theater tickets right now, well do it right now.

PEELE: What's up, dog? We're about five minutes away.

KEY: Yeah.

BLAIR: As they part, you realize that the second guy had been changing his voice too.

PEELE: Oh my, God. Christian, I almost totally just got mugged right now.

MAKEISHA MADDEN-TOBY: I love the posturing of it. I just - I love that it taps into like stuff that no one is talking about.

BLAIR: Mekeisha Madden-Toby is a TV critic for The Detroit News.

MADDEN-TOBY: How do people perceive you versus who you really are, how you let people perceive you - I mean all of those things, I think they just brilliantly tap into those things.

BLAIR: Madden-Toby says "Key & Peele" will fill the void that was left on Comedy Central when comedian Dave Chappelle quit his show in 2005.

MADDEN-TOBY: Comedy Central needed that voice ever since they losing Chappelle. And I think that they are pretty close to it.

BLAIR: Key and Peele are huge Chappelle fans. But, for now, they're not sure their new show will reach as many African-Americans as Chappelle's did. A tough crowd, they say.

KEY: It really concerns us to be terribly frank. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PEELE: That's just one of those things, I guess.

KEY: It concerns us that African-Americans enjoy this show.

BLAIR: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, their new show debuts next week on Comedy Central. Sketches include parodies of a reality cooking show, being related to Thomas Jefferson, and the little lies husbands tell each other about their wives.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: From NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION. You can follow us on Twitter, by the way. We're @morningedition and @nprinskeep, that's I-N-S-K-E-E-P.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Renee is back with us on Monday. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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