Comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele push stereotypes to new — and sometimes uncomfortable — levels. On stage, on MadTV and now in their Comedy Central show, Key & Peele, they find the humor in their biracial upbringings and the many roles of black men in America. The duo credits the existence of their show to the most powerful man in the U.S., President Obama.
"Certainly for Keegan and I," Peele tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden, "being actors and going out for roles, it becomes very clear what people think the African-American character has to be. You know, there's only a couple."
But Obama, he says, made black nerds cool. "The fact that you have this biracial, this hyphenate human in front of your face all the time," adds Key, "its very difficult to ignore," and it's an opportunity for biracial comedians.
On how race factors in modern American life
Key: "What I really noticed is an influx of interracial children more than in anything else. But ... I still have had experiences within the last decade of my life where I've gone ... 'That was ... some good, old-fashioned racism right there' ... But they're few and far between. ...
"Sometimes it's skewed a little bit when you're in the entertainment industry because people sometimes will see you differently. ... I'll say it, I have racist relatives who don't see ... Michael Jordan [as] a black person. It's that strange thing. It's like his worth is measured in a monetary fashion. ...
"And they don't like black people. ... [But] you don't find anybody who doesn't like Sidney Poitier. Everybody likes Sidney Poitier. It doesn't matter if you're racist or not racist. There's an interesting dynamic there."
On how black audiences respond to their comedy
Peele: "There's this narrative that [black people] are victims. And ... I think Keegan and I are ready to sort of reject the idea that now, African-Americans are still victims. I don't feel like that is true, and I think that some people have a hard time laughing at themselves, [and] some people have a hard time laughing at people they feel like are victims.
"Keegan and I have, you know, done some scenes about black culture, which we love, and they're not too far off from something that we might've loved on In Living Color. But we have gotten some criticism here and there, and ... all we can attribute it to is that we're [biracial]."
Key: "A black criticism has been, well, this, you know, this is disrespectful. This isn't funny. And I'm like, God, this scene is very similar to a couple of scenes I saw on In Living Color that it appeared as if nobody complained about. So what's the difference other than the fact that we have white parents?"
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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
Growing up biracial has provided a lot of laugh lines for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. As cast members on "MADtv," they played provocative characters satirizing stereotypes about what it means to be both black and white in America. In a new sketch comedy show for Comedy Central, the pair channels their experiences into bits about ordering soul food, when to code switch, and what President Obama must really be thinking behind that calm demeanor. Key plays the president's anger translator.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY AND PEELE")
JORDAN PEELE: (as President Barack Obama ) What has changed in the last four years?
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (as Luther) Who killed Osama bin Laden?
PEELE: (as President Barack Obama ) What has my administration accomplished?
KEY: (as Luther) Did we accomplish killing America's biggest enemy? Check. Did that. Boom.
PEELE: (as President Barack Obama) In 2011 alone, we created more jobs than George W. Bush did in all eight years of his office.
KEY: (as Luther) Except for Osama bin Laden hunter because that job don't exist anymore because I went over there and I killed him in his face.
LUDDEN: OK. We'll talk with Key and Peele in just a moment. But we want to hear from the comedians in our audience. Has it become easier to joke about race? Call us at 800-989-8255, or email us at email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele joins us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. They are the stars and executive producers of "Key and Peele." Welcome to you.
PEELE: Thank you.
KEY: Hello, Jennifer. Nice to meet you.
LUDDEN: Same here. Meet you over the ISDN line here. And congrats on being renewed for a second season as well.
KEY: Thank you so much. Yeah, we're excited.
PEELE: Thank you.
LUDDEN: So can I ask, where did that idea for the calm Obama and his angry Luther side, alter ego, come up? How did you get that?
PEELE: Well, this was - I think we wrote the very first Luther-Obama sketch with our pilot, so it's about a year and a half ago.
KEY: Yeah, yeah. Going on two years now, yeah.
PEELE: It was right in the height of the second birther, you know, renaissance.
KEY: Yeah, yeah. The second birther surge.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PEELE: And it was just - yeah. It sort of - it kind of rode itself a little bit, you know? Part of it was getting across just something that we think is in a lot of our minds but is not really addressed.
KEY: Voiced, yeah. I mean, it's pretty much garden-variety frustration.
LUDDEN: Sitting there yelling at the TV.
KEY: Exactly, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KEY: It's like, I mean, he can't do it. So why don't we get him a surrogate and have someone do it for him. And so it was just one of those ideas where you kind of look at each other and go, no, somebody must have done that already. Nobody's done that yet?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PEELE: And yeah. We definitely, you know, we knew we wanted to get the Obama impression in there and, you know, Keegan's bread and butter is, you know, high energy physical stuff. And so it ended up being one of our more straightforward scenes.
KEY: Yeah. It - I would say, thankfully, it lacks nuance.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PEELE: There will be, I believe, more of Luther and Obama sessions.
LUDDEN: Well, you got the whole election season coming up here.
KEY: Oh, you got that right.
LUDDEN: You - Jordan, you told our colleague, Elizabeth Blair, that Mr. Obama was the best thing to happen to black nerds everywhere.
PEELE: Yes. Yes. Well, he was - yeah. I mean, I've said this line in other places, but yeah., before him all we had was like Urkel and...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PEELE: ...Lamar from "Revenge of the Nerds." So it wasn't a good field. We didn't have anybody cool to sort of say that, you know, you could be a black intellectual and, you know...
KEY: And get points for it.
PEELE: And get points for it. And certainly for Keegan and I, you know, being actors and going out for roles, it becomes very clear what people think, you know, the African-American character has to be. You know, there's only a couple. So, you know, Obama's - Obama getting elected in a lot of ways is the reason we have a show.
KEY: Yeah, that's true.
KEY: Oh, yeah. We definitely believe that. Mm-hmm.
LUDDEN: Because, what, people would not have been interested? It would not have been funny. What changed?
KEY: Well, he's so, I mean, the president, I mean, I can't think of a person in our society who's more ubiquitous than the president. So the fact that you have this biracial - this hyphenate human in front of your face all the time, it's very difficult to ignore. I think it's become such a part of our zeitgeist that somebody said, hey, this might be the time. Maybe we can move forward. Maybe the thing to do is hire biracial comedians and see what - how, you know, what's the prism through which they see the world comedically.
LUDDEN: And can we just play - correct me if I'm wrong. Both of you are biracial and have white mothers like President Obama? Is that correct?
KEY: Correct. Just like - yes, just like the president.
LUDDEN: And, you know, has - have things changed since you were young? Have you felt that experience changing or...
KEY: You know, it's funny. I'm a little older than Jordan and - but when I look at children now, I don't - I see a changing for me a little bit. But what I notice more often or not - but what I really noticed is an influx of interracial children more than in anything else. But I would say that there are still - I still have had experiences within the last decade of my life where I've gone, oh, that's - well, that's good. That was some just - some good, old fashion racism right there. Yeah. You know, so I've still had those experiences, but they're few and far between.
I would say this, Jordan, I think you and I have had long - a long discussion about this once. Sometimes it's skewed a little bit when you're in the entertainment industry because people sometimes will see you differently. You know, the way that - I have relatives - I have - and I'll say it. I have racist relatives who don't see - like Michael Jordan isn't a black person. It's that strange thing. It's like his worth is in - is measured in a monetary fashion.
PEELE: And they don't like black people.
KEY: And they don't like black people. So it's like - but Michael Jordan, you know, it's that kind of thing or, you know, like you don't anybody who doesn't like Sidney Poitier. Everybody likes Sidney Poitier. It doesn't matter if you're racist, you're not racist. There's an interesting dynamic there.
PEELE: You know, another - one of the things that, you know, Obama did, I think, is he made an old - he made the - a style of racial comedy that some of our very favorite shows like, you know, "Chappelle" to "In Living Color."
LUDDEN: Dave Chappelle?
PEELE: Yeah. Just a really amazing influences for us. But, you know, after - I believe it was just a couple years after Chappelle was off, that's when Obama hit. And I felt that there was a change with how racial humor had to be dealt with. Now, Obama getting elected, I think, by no means, does not make - mean we're in a post-racial world. But it also - but I do think it does mean that we have to look at things differently.
LUDDEN: The topic - a little more out there.
KEY: Yeah, there's new explorations. I mean, something that we mention often, Jennifer, is that no one should ever make the mistake that black culture is a monolith. It is not a monolith because, you know, a young man who's going to Temple University in Philadelphia is different than a young man who grows up and works a job...
PEELE: I'm sorry. I have to announce this. I just waved to Ziggy Marley...
KEY: Ziggy Marley?
PEELE: ...leaving one of your offices.
KEY: Is he leaving? Hold on, Jennifer. We have to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PEELE: It was awesome.
KEY: Yes. But, you know, so there's a difference between his experience as a Black American, this other kids' experience as a Black American, our experience as a Black American, though we're biracial still, you know, a lot of us subscribe to something known as the one-drop theory. You know, if you have one drop of black blood, it makes you black. So there's so - there's such a pastiche, there's such a mosaic and we're trying to explore different parts of that mosaic.
LUDDEN: Let me share an email here from Ashley in Michigan. She writes: As a comedienne, I've always found it easier to talk about race in mixed audiences. It's always been talked about in black communities. However, the implications of these discussions are often misunderstood. It's still a conversation in which members of different racial groups have very different motives and understandings. And let's bring a caller in. Fred is in San Francisco, California. Hey there, Fred.
PEELE: Hi, Fred.
FRED: You hear me OK?
LUDDEN: Yup. Go ahead.
KEY: Yeah. Perfectly.
FRED: OK. I am - I'm a white writer, and I don't think that we have license yet as white writers to make jokes about people of color. And I don't know why that is. It's something I've always thought about, which is that Chris Rock can get up on stage and make a lot of jokes about black people and certainly a lot of jokes about white people that a white comedian could not make without getting busted big time by the PC police. And just another observation I have is that I think one of the great pieces of racial comedy ever done is now probably 35 years old, "Blazing Saddles," that Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor...
FRED: ...collaborated on. I don't know that you could produce that movie in (unintelligible).
KEY: Oh, no. You wouldn't get it passed the pitching stage today. You get pushed out of the office pitching it. I think - yeah, and I think you're right it's interesting - I don't know, I mean, I don't know - I think, part of it is some people are going to say, so how long, I mean, maybe this is part of the elephant in the room. It's almost like, so how long do we feel bad about slavery if you're white? You know what I mean? And then, so - and you know what, I don't know the answer to that question.
PEELE: Well, there's, you know, the narrative in this country is that because of, you know, the history of, you know, African-Americans being victims, being slave, being - I mean, there is this history that or there's this narrative that we are victims. And I think in modern - today, I think Keegan and I are ready to sort of reject the idea that now African-Americans are still victims. I don't feel like that is true, and I think that some people have a hard time laughing at themselves.
Some people have a hard time laughing at people they feel like are victims. Keegan and I have, you know, done some scenes about black culture, which we love, and they're not too far off from something that we might've loved on "In Living Color." But we have gotten some criticism here and there, and we have, you know, we have - all we can attribute it to is that we're halfway, is why we're (unintelligible).
KEY: Right. It seems really interesting that there's a double standard there. Yeah, we've noticed that.
LUDDEN: You're like the white person's funny black comedians.
KEY: Exactly. So a black person - a black criticism has been, well, this, you know, this is disrespectful. This isn't funny, and I'm like, God, this scene is very similar to a couple of scenes I saw "In Living Color" that it appeared as if nobody complained about. So what's the difference other than the fact that we have white parents?
PEELE: Ultimately, I mean, I don't want to speak for Keegan, but, you know, I believe everybody, every faction has some level of what we're talking about. Call it racism. Call it prejudice. Call it, you know, whatever. I feel like it's much more universal. And as soon as we start pointing fingers at one another, I think we missed, you know, what's going on within ourselves a lot.
LUDDEN: Let me just say thanks, Fred, for the phone call. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Well, the "Blazing Saddles" story there from Fred raises the question, do you all think that, you know, at some point in the, I don't know, very distant future or not so distant, that some of the stuff you're doing now isn't going to be funny anymore because things are going to change?
KEY: That's my great dream. That's my like Keegan MLK dream, is that our show looks horribly, horribly dated. And I would love it if it was 50 years and not 250 years. You know, another thing about Obama - go back to him one more time - is I do believe there's a faction or a great part of our American society that voted for him in 2008 because - the reason we're moving - the reason, I believe that we are moving forward is because there were people who voted for him and said, I think this guy - and I don't care if he's yellow or purple or green - I think this guy might be the guy that helps me put more money in my pocket.
Because when you start - it can really concern - they voted for the person would appear that it seemed like, oh, my gosh, my life - who cares what color I am? I need my life to get better. I need my life to be more comfortable, and I think this person might be the person to do it. And so very often what happens with me and Jordan is - you know, Jennifer, this is because I'm a theater nerd - drama and comedy, it only works when you observe humans behaving badly. If everyone's being kind to each other, there's nothing to laugh at. That's pay it forward.
Go - just go see the movie "Pay it Forward" if you want to see that. But that's not a laugh. Those are - there's no laugh lines there. So humans have to behave badly for us to have some kind of comedic fodder. The problem is that Jordan and I have melanin in our skin. So when we portray humans behaving badly, you see black people portraying humans behaving badly.
KEY: You start to see them and then other black people will go, well, see they just say that all black people, they behave this way all the time.
LUDDEN: We have an email here from Prissy(ph), who asks: Although they consider their comedy biracial, it sounds like pure black comedy to me. What's the distinguishing factor of biracial comedy?
PEELE: Well, you know, and I don't think we've ever said the term biracial comedy. I think that that's a...
LUDDEN: Although let me just play a little something here.
LUDDEN: Because you guys do kind of - you talk about, you know, switching back and forth and code switching and talking white, but being black. And there's a funny sketch where there's - you're on the sidewalk on your cellphones in public and you got a code switch.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY & PEELE")
KEY: (as himself) Because you're my wife and you loved the theater and it's your birthday.
PEELE: (as himself) Great. Unfortunately, the orchestra's already filled up, but they do have seats that are still left in the dress circle. So if you want me to get them theater tickets right now, I'm going to do it right now.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What's up, dog? I'm about five minutes away.
PEELE: (as himself) Yeah. OK, yeah, cool. No, they're all good singers. They're all good singers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, fine. No, man, I'm telling you, man, I'm about to cross the street.
KEY: (as himself) They got that one dude in it that you love. Man, he's going to be in it. Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Come on, man, you know I'm almost there, all right?
KEY: (as himself) Right. I'm going to pick your (bleep) up at 6:30 there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Cool, cool.
KEY: (as himself) All right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, the parking is - the parking's free, so (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #2: Oh, my God, Christian, I almost totally just got mugged right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUDDEN: So there he is talking different because they think there's a black person nearby. They don't want to get mugged.
KEY: Yeah, and we do have a couple of scenes that are in that have aired this season that are about - what's the term that Jordan and I use all the time? Tightrope walking or existing in the midst, like existing - walking on a tightrope that's just above the sea of code switching. And that's the - this culture that we've lived in is going back and forth all the time. I think it's almost - I mean, I don't know how you - other than the fact that we exist on the planet, we don't typically use the term biracial comedy.
PEELE: No. Well, I mean, that scene is, I think, some - a good example of a scene that maybe wouldn't have been explored earlier but, you know, the interesting thing to me is it's kind of universal. I feel like, you know, part of being street smart is, you know, toughen up when the right moment and, you know, I think going about your day in the right moment. And I think that that scene would work regardless of what race we were.
LUDDEN: And you know what...
KEY: I bet that, yeah...
LUDDEN: ...we got to wrap it up. I'm so sorry.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
PEELE: Oh, no problem.
LUDDEN: But this was fun. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the stars of "Key & Peele" on Comedy Central. The show airs Tuesday nights at 10:30 Eastern. The season one finale is March 20th. They joined us from NPR West in Culver City. Thanks, both.
PEELE: Thank you, Jennifer.
KEY: Thank you.
PEELE: What a pleasure.
LUDDEN: Tomorrow, Neal Conan will be back for a conversation about what happened when dozens of exotic animals escaped in Zanesville, Ohio. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.