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Key & Peele & Kittens: How the Duo Went From Indie Improv to Keanu

Despite growing up miles from each other in Detroit and New York City respectively, the comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have formed an unshakable (and brandable!) comedic bond in the form of both their Peabody-award winning Key & Peele and their collaborations since. But the two comedians, who seem so perfectly matched that it seems possible they were truly destined to be, have backgrounds that make their collaboration seem almost inevitable.

The first, and possibly one of the most defining, is their identification as biracial comics, a feature of their upbringing that The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum called a “Golden Ticket to explore themes rarely on television,” and that Peele himself identifies as a key linchpin in bringing them into a similar comedy space. “I think the reason both of us became actors is because we did a fair amount of code switching growing up, and still do,” he told Terry Gross in 2013.

The two spent much of their post-collegiate life (Key received an MFA from Penn State, Peele went to Sarah Lawrence) grinding in the Chicago improv comedy scene, working with institutions like Second City before both being cast in the sketch-comedy series MadTV. They were both cast in the ninth season of the series, much was made of choosing just one comic to grace the MadTV stage, but after Key and Peele demonstrated their almost preternatural sense of comic chemistry, the two were cast side by side.

They’ve been together nearly ever since, making appearances in everything from Reno 911 to Wanderlust before landing on Comedy Central with their groundbreaking and consistently hilarious sketch show Key & Peele. On the series, which ran from 2012 – 2015, the two used their comic chops to develop some of the most iconic comic works of the past decade.

The first, and possibly one of the most broadly funny works from the two involves both spontaneous combustion and Liam Neeson, in a series known simply as ‘The Valets’. The concept is low, simply depicting Key & Peele in their valet best, singing the praises of some of their favorite movie stars, from “Liam Neesons” to “Racist Ass Melly Gibsons”

On the more understated side is Mr. Garvey, a substitute professor played by Keegan-Michael Key, whose disposition falls somewhere between an over-it inner city schoolteacher and a man with a quietly simmering anger problem whose consistent mispronunciation of his overwhelmingly white suburban students’ names is a constant source of comedy. For Mr. Garvey, Jacqueline becomes “Jay-Quell-in” and Blake becomes “Balakay”, an audio gag that truly needs to be heard to be fully appreciated. In a stroke of lucky fate, Mr. Garvey has been confirmed for a feature film adaptation called Substitute Teacher featuring both Key and Peele in a (hopeful) follow-up to Keanu.

Arguably the most memorable contribution to pop culture the two developed during their time at Comedy Central though, was Jordan Peele’s Barack Obama impression, a spot-on, far above the SNL-standard, rendition of the current U.S. President that also managed to have a unique angle: Keegan-Michael Key’s “Luther,” President Obama’s “anger translator.” As Luther, Key was able to interpret Peele’s calm statements into raging, angry tirades. As if to even farther insist the impressive mark that the duo have left on pop culture, Key briefly appeared in-character as Luther for the very real Barack Obama at last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner.

Above all else, Key & Peele delivered impressive, high-quality and sharply written comic content that crossed racial and gender lines without ever appearing unenlightened or blunt. It’s for this, and for their unwavering commitment to higher-brow, sharp-edged comedy that the two received a Peabody Award for the series, namely “for its stars and their creative team’s inspired satirical riffs on our racially divided and racially conjoined culture.”

It’s safe to say that Keanu, the pair’s latest creative effort that serves as a prickly satire for the animal-vengeance film John Wick (which, of course, starred Keanu Reeves), probably won’t win a Peabody for the same reasons, but that doesn’t make Keanu any less worthy of praise.

Approaching the film with the same finely calibrated sense of satire that they approached the show, and embedding influences from everything from Three Amigos! to True Romance, Keanu is an action-comedy rife with the familiar pop culture signifiers that have made the two so famous. An example of such cinematic flourish? After Rell (Peele) finds his precious kitten Keanu has gone missing during a break-in, the sky erupts in a torrent of rain, soddening Rell and tugging at both our heartstrings and our legs.

Keanu looks poised to do well at the box office this week, thanks to both a large, built-in audience and a cute animal, but the two also are set for some career exploration of their own, with intriguing individual projects in the works. For Jordan Peele, the genre mashing will continue as he turns to (of all things) a horror film, this time titled forebodingly Get Out. “I’m a very dark person in soul,” he told Rotten Tomatoes. “The lead is a black man, which is already atypical in a horror movie,” he revealed, suggesting, perhaps, a starring role for himself? “I’m obsessed with the link between horror and comedy,” he continued. “At its most comedic, Get Out will be like Scream or the original Stepford Wife… it’s a satirical premise.” Get Out will serve as Jordan Peele’s directorial debut.

For Keegan Michael-Key, the comic is turning his focus to the indie side of things, with an announced starring role in Joe Swanberg’s latest film as well as a recent starring role in Mike Birbiglia’s festival hit Don’t Think Twice. It has also been rumored that Key will serve as an executive producer on the upcoming Police Academy reboot.

But will Key & Peele be collaborating again any time soon? “We definitely have a lot of projects we want to collaborate on,” Peele told CraveOnline. “I think if the response is what we think it is, I can see some Keanu in the future.” We’re certainly ready for anything from the finely calibrated comic machine of Key & Peele.  

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