Thank goodness improvisation emphasizes the importance of listening. It’s a skill that Jordan Peele employed with aplomb after meeting Keegan-Michael Key at the Second City back in the early aughties. Peele was performing with sketch comedy troupe Boom Chicago in Amsterdam while Key was at the e.t.c. During a cast swap with the Mainstage, Peele found himself onstage in Chicago. He improvised a story Key had shared while the two were hanging out just one day prior. “In a 24-hour period I had completely forgotten I’d told him that story,” Key says. “I thought it was magic. I was like, ‘This man’s destined to become my best friend.’ ” Ten years later the duo unveils its new sketch comedy series Key & Peele Tuesday 31 on Comedy Central.
Each man has roots in Chicago. Peele discovered sketch and improv while an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence and moved here in 1999 to pursue comedy. “It was really the only place to go as far as I was concerned,” Peele says. En route to Second City, he auditioned for Boom Chicago and ended up in Amsterdam for a few years before landing an ensemble role on MADtv. Meanwhile, Key came to Chicago via the Second City Detroit and ended up at the e.t.c., where he was a driving forced behind the dazzling post-9/11 revue, The Yellow Cab of Courage. In December 2003, he too was cast on MADtv.
On that show, the duo spent four years discovering their shared voice as comedians. “On MADtv you get to partner up with different people,” Peele explains. “We would do a scene where we would rehearse all night a huge choreographed dance [number] just so we could present it at a table read. We had this huge drive and this natural chemistry.”
After the show was canceled in 2009, Key was cast on the short-lived sitcom Gary Unmarried while Peele worked on a pilot called The Station for Fox. When neither show went anywhere, their shared manager suggested they create something together. “We were like, ‘yeah, absolutely,’ ” says Key. “Why would we not do that?”
In Key & Peele, the duo goofs around in front of a live audience to create back-and-forth banter that functions as a lead-in to the sketches. “For lack of better words, we’re doing two-man stand-up,” Key says. Meanwhile, the scripted scenes showcase a worldview unique to the genre; Key and Peele both identify as black comedians, although each has a white mother. Being biracial plays out in surprising and hilarious ways, including a scene in which they play two strangers on their cell phones who feel the need to act blacker in front of one another. “Things will get weirder in future episodes where you’ll go, ‘Only a biracial person could write this,’ ” says Key. “We always have the ability to stand outside of each culture and look at the foibles of it because we’re caught in this fissure in the middle and that works to our advantage.”
In another recurring sketch, Peele embodies a stoic Obama while Key shadows him, channeling the angrier and supposedly more authentic version of the President we never see. It’s a perfect showcase for their different personalities. “I’m sort of the chill dude who likes to smoke weed and play video games,” Peele says. “Keegan is more of a married historian who has more energy than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”
In terms of who might tune in, the duo is hoping its unique point of view will grab all comedy fans. “I really don’t care how much melanin you have in your skin,” Key says. “If you find it funny, welcome aboard.”
Key & Peele debuts Tuesday 31 on Comedy Central.