Television
2:19 pm
Wed November 20, 2013

For Key And Peele, Biracial Roots Bestow Special Comedic 'Power'

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are the duo behind the Comedy Central sketch comedy show Key & Peele. Each has a white mother and black father, and a lot of their comedy is about race: Perhaps because they're biracial, they're perfectly comfortable satirizing white people and African-Americans — as well as everybody else. The New Yorker's TV critic Emily Nussbaum describes their biracialism as a "Golden Ticket to themes rarely explored on television."

Peele tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "I think the reason both of us became actors is because we did a fair amount of code switching growing up, and still do."

Key and Peele met in Chicago, where they were part of the improv scene, and later worked together on the sketch comedy series MADtv. Their current show on Comedy Central wraps up its third season on Dec. 18, and has been renewed for a fourth.

Key and Peele tell Gross the stories behind some of their sketches, and their feelings about Saturday Night Live's lack of female African-American cast members.


Interview Highlights

On their Obama anger translator sketches (Editor's note: This link contains language some might find offensive.)

Key: We actually felt like Obama was kind of responsible for us even getting a show in the first place, because there's this biracial person who might have to ride the divide between two different races. ...

We know we're frustrated when a person like [Rep.] Joe Wilson had screamed during that State of the Union address, when he was like, "You lie!" to the president. And we were like, "The president can't react the way millions of Americans right now are going, 'Ugh!' He can't say anything. He can't rail at this man, he can't get upset. What if we had a surrogate who could get upset for him?" And that was the embryonic state of creating Luther [the anger translator].

Peele: The way we've described it before is that he couldn't come off like an angry black man, especially early on, so what Luther says are things that ring true to us, and we felt like we were giving the truth a voice in a lot of ways.

On Comedy Central censoring curse words on their show

Peele: Sometimes it feels like silly guidelines, that [there are] certain words you can't say. It's just a strange thing when you look at what the boundary of acceptable and not acceptable is on television. We shoot people in the head in just about every episode. We can't get away with saying certain words. There definitely seems to be an interesting double standard.

On names in the African-American culture

Key: There is this kind of an urban legend, everybody knows this legend in African-American lore: There's always somebody in your neighborhood named Orangejello or Lemonjello.

Peele: If we really dig deep into it, especially when talking about African-American culture, names have such a deep history, just from having our names taken away in the first place and being renamed. Now it feels like 80 percent of the African-American population has the name Washington or Jefferson, some president or slave owner's name. I almost wonder: Is this part of a way of taking back the principle of naming your kid something of your choice?

On being biracial

Key: I think the reason why I went into theater, ultimately, was because that was one of those multicultural groups. Because you identify with other people that share similar passions to you, so it didn't matter how much melanin was in their skin. It's just: You have a passion for theater, and ... I have a passion for theater. So that clan is born out of love and passion as opposed to some sense of obligation to belong to a certain group. So for me, that's what salvaged my life in high school.

Peele: I really do feel like, growing up, I was lucky enough to be in a great town and great schools that had a certain amount of diversity. All of this goes into our work.

On Peele feeling insecure about how he speaks

Peele: The world has wanted me to speak differently than I speak. I speak like my mom; I speak like the whitest white dude; I speak like a Def Comedy Jam comedian doing an impression of a white guy. ...

I even remember when I was a kid that every now and then you'd come up on somebody who would question how I spoke and whether or not I was trying to be something I wasn't. It cannot be a coincidence that I decided to go into a career where my whole purpose is altering the way I speak and experiencing these different characters and maybe proving in my soul that the way someone speaks has nothing to do with who they are.

On the controversy over Saturday Night Live's lack of African-American women, and cast member Kenan Thompson's comment that "in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready"

Peele: For Keegan and I, we know so many hilarious African-American women. We mostly [came] up through the sketch comedy and improv scene. Sketch and improv is a world that is dominated by white performers, that is true. But to say that there's not African-American women who are "ready" is just wrong.

Key: That question might've snuck up on Kenan [Thompson], and I think Kenan does a job on a show that has a very specific skill set. And so I think if that's the answer coming out of his mouth, I can understand that answer. ... But right now, I can think of three women who would murder on Saturday Night Live, either as writers or performers.

Peele: Keegan and my race has really played to our advantage in the improv/sketch world. It's also a bit of a special power. We can do characters that other people would feel uncomfortable doing. We can play black characters and explore the comedy of black characters. There's a whole world of characters and impressions that black women can do that other people — just on the social level, disregarding the practice and skill that goes into perfecting these things, but just on the social level — people would feel uncomfortable doing. They should hire some black women. Not a black woman — black women.

On the slave auction block sketch

Peele: [We had] the desire to use that powerful visual as a jumping off point, as something that is provocative and something that only Keegan and I could do. There was nobody else out there that could tackle this and create a sketch about an auction block. Now, I'm the kind of guy who, if somebody says, "There's no way to make this funny," I want to prove that wrong. I believe that with the right nuance, with the right touch, you can emphasize the funniness in anything. That's just my comedy ideal. ...

So how do you make this universally funny? How do you prove people wrong that this is not about laughing at slavery, this is not about laughing at the victims of slavery and what our ancestors had to go through? The answer to me was to make it about humanity, to make it about people, to make it about something universal, and also to point out the fact that Keegan and I, with this cushy life that we've grown up with in the late 20th century, we are not equipped for the physical and emotional fortitude to do what our ancestors did. For me, there's a certain amount of respect that I felt like we were observing by putting ourselves in that situation, by not "slaving it up" with our dialect but just using the way we talk. Really, that was the project: If we were in this situation, our vanity would come into play.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are the duo behind the Comedy Central sketch comedy series "Key & Peele," Michael Keegan Key and Jordan Peele. A lot of their comedy is about race. Perhaps because they're biracial, they're perfectly comfortable satirizing white people and African-Americans, as well as everybody else. Key and Peele each have a white mother and black father.

The New Yorker's TV critic Emily Nussbaum described their biracialism as a golden ticket to themes rarely explored on television. Key and Peele met in Chicago when they were part of the improv scene. They worked together on the sketch comedy series "Mad TV." The current season of "Key and Peele" concludes on December 18. It's been renewed for a fourth season.

Let's start with what is probably Key and Peele's most famous sketch, which went viral on the Internet. It introduced the character of Luther, President Obama's anger translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY & PEELE")

JORDAN PEELE: (As President Barack Obama) Good evening, my fellow Americans. Now, before I begin, 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. I get angry a lot. It's just the way I express passion is different from most. So just so there's no more confusion, we've hired Luther here to be my anger translator. Luther?

KEEGEN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Luther) Hi.

PEELE: (As 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.

PEELE: (As Obama) Also, to the governments of Iran and North Korea, we once again urge you to discontinue your uranium enrichment program.

KEY: (As Luther) Hey, Mahmoud, Kim Jong, I think I done told both y'all 86 your (bleep), or I'm going to come over there and do it for y'all. Please test me and see what happens.

PEELE: (As Obama) On the domestic front, I just want to say to my critics, I hear your voices, and I'm aware of your concerns.

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

PEELE: (As Obama) That goes for everybody, including members of the Tea Party.

KEY: (As Luther) Oh, don't even get me started on these (bleep) right here.

PEELE: (As Obama) I want to assure you that we will be looking for new compromises with the GOP in the months ahead.

KEY: (As Luther) And you know these (bleep) gonna say no before I even suggest (bleep).

PEELE: (As Obama) Now, I know a lot of folks say that I haven't done a good job at communicating my accomplishments to the public.

KEY: (As Luther) Because y'all (bleep) don't listen.

PEELE: (As Obama) Since being in office, we've created three million new jobs.

KEY: (As Luther) Three million new jobs.

PEELE: (As Obama) We ended the war in Iraq.

KEY: (As Luther) Ended the war, y'all. We ended a war, remember that?

PEELE: (As Obama) These achievements should serve as a reminder that I am on your side.

KEY: (As Luther) I am not a Muslim.

PEELE: (As Obama) And that my intentions as your president are coming from the right place.

KEY: (As Luther) They're coming from Hawaii, which is where I'm from, which is in the United States of America, y'all, OK? This is ridiculous. I have a birth certificate. I have a birth certificate. I have a hot diggity, daggity, (unintelligible) birth certificate you dumb-ass crackers, so...

PEELE: (As Obama) OK, Luther, rope it in.

KEY: (As Luther) Yeah, dial it back, Luther, damn.

GROSS: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. So let's start with the sketch that we just heard. How did you come up with the idea for the Obama anger translator?

KEY: Well, we were sitting around writing the pilot for the show, actually, in Jordan's apartment, and we were trying to figure out - we knew we wanted to do something with Obama because we actually felt that Obama was kind of responsible for us even getting a show in the first place because there is this biracial person who might, you know, have to ride the divide between two different races.

And we weren't sure exactly how we wanted to do it, but we kind of went through a bunch of ideas, and then we decided - Jordan has a really amazing Obama impersonation.

PEELE: Oh, thank you for saying that.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: And we - and so something that kind of inspired us a little bit was, if you remember Garrett Morris used to say on "Saturday Night Live" when they'd do the Weekend Update...

GROSS: Oh, the hearing impaired thing.

KEY: Yeah, the hearing impaired thing, when he'd scream, you know. You know, President Francisco Franco is still dead, you know, that whole thing.

GROSS: Right, he'd shout it real loud for the hearing impaired, yeah.

KEY: Exactly, right, and I remember Jordan was saying, you know what, something that - what if - here's the thing. We know we're frustrated when a person like Joe Wilson had screamed during that State of the Union address, and he was like - you lie - to the president. And we were like, the president can't react the way millions of Americans right now are going - oh God, he can't say anything, he can't rail at this man, he can't get upset.

What if we had a surrogate who could get upset for him? And that was what - that's how we kind of - that was the embryonic stage of creating Luther, so that he'd have somebody who could translate him when he's having like an internal fit of pique, but could do it externally for him.

PEELE: This was also in the peak of the birther movement and things like that. So there were all these little issues that we felt were going unaddressed by Obama because I think, you know, the way we've described it before is that he couldn't come off like an angry black man, especially early on. So you know, what Luther says kind of is - are things that ring true to us, and we feel like, we felt like it was giving the truth a voice in a lot of ways.

KEY: Right, yeah.

GROSS: So you use some obscenities in your sketches, and you're on Comedy Central, as is "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show." And they bleep those words on their shows. So how come you can say them and they can't?

KEY: Gosh, I feel like we are bleeped.

GROSS: Oh, you know what? I've heard some of it on the Internet, so maybe you're not bleeped on the Internet.

KEY: That's what it is, Terry, yeah, yeah. Yeah, we definitely get bleeped on the air.

GROSS: Oh, because I've heard some of it on TV and then catch up on the Internet. So I bet that's it.

PEELE: There have been a couple of episodes, I know at least one in the first season, where we got a TV-MA rating. So we could get away with saying some things that, you know, we felt like were essential to get the joke.

KEY: Yeah, like sometimes we talked to the network, we're like guys, in this particular episode, can we get a penis dispensation so that we can say this word?

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: So we can say that word or this word - it's like - so yeah, they would let us. Every now and again they'd say, well, that's going to be a TV-MA rating on that one. We're like we really feel because of the rhythm of this particular sketch, we need to say that word, or the word's not being used in a prurient context.

You know, you have - it's fun because you have to kind of argue those things, and everybody kind of stands on their own ground and principles as to when you can say it or when you can't say it.

GROSS: So what's the harm if you get a TV-MA rating? I mean, do you expect, like, 11-year-olds to be watching the show anyway?

PEELE: Yeah, I mean, exactly, especially, I mean, because we're, you know, at 10:30. So it's really no harm to us. I think if we had our druthers, we would be unbleeped every episode.

KEY: Yeah, every episode, every sketch, yeah.

PEELE: But, you know, we do find it very interesting. I mean, the network enjoys the edginess of their programming and of our show, but then there's these kind of sometimes feel - you know, what feels like silly guidelines that - of certain words that you can't say. It's such a strange, strange thing when you look at what the boundary of acceptable and not acceptable is on television.

You know, we shoot people in the head in just about every episode, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: You know, we can't get away with saying certain words. So there definitely seems to be some double standards...

KEY: Yeah, an interesting social double standard in a way, yeah.

GROSS: Jordan, when you met President Obama, which I know you did, did you get some insights into how to perform him?

PEELE: I would say so, yeah. I think I walked out of there a little bit more confident with my impression, and I actually did it for him at one point. He says, you know, I do a pretty good me myself, he said something like that.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: But, you know, the - he's - he is a close talker. He's a touchy guy. Like he will...

KEY: He is a very tactile individual.

PEELE: He will touch you on the shoulder and, you know, kind of, you know, so that big brother or father figure kind of way. And you really do feel sort of shepherded by him. And he's very funny. So I think I - I think after meeting him I was inclined to turn up the - just the humor of him, that he has a sense of humor. And again, I think that is also something that he, in the beginning of his presidency, he couldn't really explore and couldn't show.

You know, he had to be almost a one-dimensional, stoic leader during that first election.

GROSS: Are you going to bring out the anger translator to talk about Obama's anger at the Obamacare website?

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: Well yeah, I think we - that may happen, and we may - we're planning - we're kind of cooking something up right now that's - I don't even know if it's confidential, but we're cooking something up right now to do about the ACA. But otherwise, I think Luther is - I mean, I think Luther is raring to go. He's like who the - I mean, come on. (As Luther) Who doesn't want health care? Go ahead, break your leg then. You know what? Even better. I'm gonna come over there and break your leg for you.

PEELE: (As Obama) All right, Luther.

KEY: (As Luther) And then we'll see - OK, sorry, sir, I apologize sir.

PEELE: (As Obama) Keep it together.

KEY: (As Luther) People is crazy. People is stupid.

PEELE: (As Obama) People is crazy.

KEY: (As Luther) And I'm gonna say it right now, mostly white people, stupid. Young white men, 26, get your act together.

PEELE: (As Obama) All right, well, let's rope it in. Let's not make it racial. Let's not make anything racial, ever.

GROSS: That's fabulous.

KEY: (As Luther) I apologize, sir. I apologize.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and together they're Key and Peele. They have their own sketch comedy show on Comedy Central. A character you do, Keegan, that I really love is the substitute teacher. And this is a teacher who's taught in an inner-city school for, like, 20 years, and now he's teaching in like a middle-class school that it's like somewhere at approximately 100 percent white.

And I want to play the first of these sketches that you did with the substitute teacher, and then we'll talk about the character some more. But first, just like physically describe how you look in this sketch so we can get an image in our minds.

KEY: Well, I think what you're dealing with is a guy who has a real kind of military persona about him. He's very rigid and a little haggard yet still aggressive. He's got a really - his hairline is really far back. He's been balding probably since his 20s. And he has a very kind of tight - like a - this isn't the - the best way to describe is like a high and tight kind of moustache. So he looks like he might have been in the Army or something or an MP.

And he wears a short-sleeved, drab shirt and like a twill tie and just looks - he just looks all business, like he's ready to rumble.

GROSS: OK, so this is the substitute teacher, performed by my guest Keegan-Michael Key.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey(ph)) All right, listen up, y'all. I'm y'all's substitute teacher, Mr. Garvey. I taught school for 20 years in the inner city, so don't even think about messing with me. Y'all feel me? OK, let's take roll here. Jayquellen(ph)? Where's Jayquellen at? No Jayquellen here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) Do you mean Jacqueline?

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK, so that's how it's gonna be. Y'all wanna play. OK, then. I've got my eye on you, Jayquellen. Bellakay(ph)? Where is Bellakay at? There's no Bellakay here today? Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Blake) My name is Blake.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Are you out of your damn mind? Blake? What? Do you want to go to war, Bellakay? Because we could go to war.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) No, no.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) I'm for real. I'm for real. So you better check yourself.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's really great. And...

KEY: I love it's Bellakey(ph), Bellakay, he's got two different pronunciations.

GROSS: Jordan, do you want to describe how you end the sketch?

PEELE: And then yes, at - I believe Garvey says Jo-Nathan(ph), and then...

KEY: Is it Timothee(ph)?

PEELE: It's Timothee, yes, yes, yes. Maybe at one point it was Jo-Nathan, but...

KEY: It was Jo-Nathan at one point.

PEELE: But yes, he says Timothee, and then, you know, me the first black student we've seen, sort of emerges from behind a white student - Pre-sent. And then it's over.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: It's a pretty absurd little piece of heightening...

KEY: We went back and forth on pre-sent, too. We're like should he say - is that too silly? Is pre-sent too silly?

PEELE: Nobody says pre-sent.

KEY: Everybody knows - but we just decided to go with it anyway. We had here, heray(ph), heree, pre-sent and just good old-fashioned present.

PEELE: But somehow it works.

KEY: Somehow it works, yeah.

GROSS: So when you were in school, did you have - were there a lot of students in your classes that had names that their parents had obviously creatively made up from scratch?

PEELE: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Keegan's from Detroit, and I'm from New York, and...

KEY: So the answer to that question is yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What were some of your real favorites, like of the real names?

KEY: There were literally in my neighborhood, there were two kids - now this is kind of an urban legend. Jordan and I both know this legend. Everybody knows this legend in kind of African-American lore. There's always somebody in your neighborhood named Orangejello or Lemonjello. And that's spelled - O-R-A-N-G-E-J-E-L-L-O.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: So, you know, that's - and then...

PEELE: Right, which - I mean, if you really, you know, dig deep into it, you know, especially when talking about African-American culture, it's got, you know, names have such a deep history, you know, just from being - having our names taken away in the first place.

Right, exactly, right.

KEY: Since we were renamed, and, you know, now it feels like, you know, it feels like 80 percent of African-American population have, you know, has - named Washington or Jefferson or some, you know, some president or slave owner's name. And, you know, I almost wonder is this, like, is this part of a way of taking back the principle of naming your - I might be going too far into this, but naming your kids something of your choice.

GROSS: How did you feel about your names, Keegan and Jordan?

PEELE: Oh boy.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: No, I like my name. It's very unique. You know, when I meet other kids in the world named Keegan, and they're usually younger than I am, I'll say hey mom, I met a Keegan today. But you didn't meet a Keegan-Michael. You're the only one in the whole world.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: So my - my little white farmer mom from Northern Illinois, she did the same thing, you know, did the same thing.

PEELE: Yeah, no, I love my name. I mean, I know my mother wanted to name me something possibly biblical, something water-related for some reason. So she went with Jordan.

KEY: Tell Terry your middle name.

PEELE: My middle name is Haworth, H-A-W-O-R-T-H.

KEY: I love it.

PEELE: Which is, yeah, kind of like a comedian butler.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: Rochester, Haworth.

PEELE: But then the other interesting true story about my name is my name was almost going to be Noah, you know, another water-related biblical name. But of course my realized I would have been Noah Peele.

GROSS: Oh gosh. That would have been so funny.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Yeah, I mean, that would have been maybe even more amazing stage name.

KEY: It's like a great - that name is like having - that's like Rip Torn.

GROSS: Absolutely, absolutely.

PEELE: Or Red Buttons.

GROSS: Yes.

PEELE: You know, that would be an amazing name.

GROSS: My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Their sketch comedy show "Key & Peele" is on Comedy Central. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and together they're Key and Peele, and they have a sketch comedy show on Comedy Central, which is called "Key & Peele." We were talking about your substitute teacher character, Keegan, and I want to play another sketch with that substitute teacher, the guy who taught in an inner-city school for 20 years and now is in a middle-class, predominately white school teaching as a substitute.

And this sketch is really funny. It's the same group of students as we heard in the one where he's taking attendance, and everybody has an - and he's mispronouncing everybody's names because he's used to unusual names. So this sketch starts with one of the students asking a question to the teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Mr. Garvy?

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) What is it, A-aron?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Some of us need to leave a few minutes early today.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Oh, oh is that so? And what, pray tell, is the reason for this premature exodus?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Yearbook photos. We have to leave 15 minutes early to meet up with our clubs.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) All right, you know what? That might work with other substitute teachers, but I taught in the inner city for over 20 years. Now y'all want to leave my class early so y'all can go meet up at the club. Ain't none of y'all old enough to go to the damn club, ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Mr. Garvey?

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Son of a bitch. Did I stut-t-t-t-ter?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Just then? Yes.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) I'm gonna throw you out that damn window. What, Jayquellen?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) Mr. Garvey, we're telling the truth. We have clubs at this school. We have clubs for special interests.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK, what the hell club are you in, Jayquellen?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) Future Leaders of America.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK, OK. How would you know if you gonna be a leader in the future? Is there a stargate in your bedroom? Can you travel through time, Jayquellen?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) No.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Then sit the flip down.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Keegan-Michael Key as a substitute teacher, and Jordan Peele, do you want to explain how you end the sketch?

PEELE: I believe Timothee raises his name, and Mr. Garvey says, you know, he calls on Timothee, you know, what club do you have to go. And Timothee says, you know, I've got to go pick up my daughter.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) You're excused.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I'm wondering, Keegan, did you model that on a teacher that you had?

KEY: Actually, he is modeled on a guidance counselor that I had in grade school. And I went to a predominately black grade school, Catholic grade school in Detroit, and so that kind of aggression came from this particular guidance counselor because, you know, we had really fantastic kids at my school and super-smart kids at my school and a lot of kind of roughhouse kids at my school.

And he was - it's that same energy, and Jordan really honed in on this energy when the sketch was being written, which was the one thing that never leaves him is he's always ever-vigilant. He's hyper-vigilant about the misbehaving. And, you know, there's lots of perhaps social underpinnings as to why he believes every student behaves that way, blah, blah, blah.

But yeah, he was based on this one guy who the attitude of him, the tone of him is based on this one guy.

GROSS: Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele will be back in the second half of the show. Season three of their Comedy Central series "Key & Peele" concludes December 18. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Their sketch comedy show, "Key & Peele," is on Comedy Central Wednesday nights. The show is in its third season. Key and Peele are both biracial and often deal with race in their comedy. They each started out doing improv and they worked together as cast members on "Madtv."

You both have white mothers, African-American fathers. Was it ever an issue of like which group you were going to fit into - if you're going to identify with the white students or the black students? Or were there groups within the schools you went to that were multicultural enough that you didn't have to worry about like choosing a team?

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Yeah, for me the, I think the reason I went into theater, ultimately, was because that was one of those multicultural groups. Because you identify with other people that share similar passions to you, so it didn't matter how much melanin was in their skin. It's just: You have a passion for theater, you have a passion for theater and I have a passion for theater. And so you find yourself, that clan is born out of love and passion as opposed to born out of some sense of obligation to belong to a certain group. So for me, that's was - that's kind of - that's what salvaged my life, I think, in high school for the most part.

PEELE: Yeah. It's such a loaded question I think for both of us. But I really do feel like, growing up, you know, I was lucky enough to be in, you know, a great town and great schools that had a certain amount of diversity. And so, you know, this is all, all of this goes into our work. And I think both, you know, like Keegan was saying, I think the reason both of us became actors is because we did, you know, a little, a fair amount of code switching growing up, and still do. You know, we will, if Keegan and I are just hanging out with each other, it's funny, we'll, all of a sudden we will go into a more casual black dialect.

KEY: Yeah. A more urban space, in a way. Yeah.

PEELE: You know, that's kind of our comfort zone with each other when we're making each other laugh. It's, and yeah, I mean it's fascinating. It's fascinating.

GROSS: Keegan, you're adopted.

KEY: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You were adopted by a white mother and an African-American father who grew up in Salt Lake City?

KEY: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: One of the few African-Americans there when he was growing up. What do you know about the racial background of your birth parents? I don't know if you know them at all or know who they are.

KEY: Oh. Oh, yeah, I do. I know my biological mother quite well and we have a wonderful, wonderful relationship. And I, it's the exact same demographic. So my father has passed away. He was African-American, my mother is white. And so I was adopted by a couple that was of a similar dynamic as my biological parents.

GROSS: Interesting. And is that part of the reason why they adopted you, because they were an interracial couple?

KEY: Yeah. It's interesting. At that time, you know, right at the turn of the '70s - the '60s and '70s, was when I was born. So right at that time they were OK with giving this biracial child to a mixed couple, when typically I think 10 years after that it's more typical to have a biracial child - a biracial child of my makeup - go to an African-American couple. But they were a mixed couple, I was a mixed baby, and everybody thought it might be a good match, so that's how that went.

GROSS: So just curious, this is kind of off-topic from your comedy, but what's it like to have a close relationship with the biological mother who put you up for adoption?

KEY: I'd say it's been like, it's been like 16 years of some kind of constant healing, is how I feel about it. Because I, you - like every human, you, you know, Jordan said earlier, we have to categorize ourselves, so you kind of start to build a mythos because I had no information about her. So you have to build a mythos around yourself, and so my mythos included me not being wanted or me being a wretched person, which is just great fertilizer for comedy.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: It's just - it could turn you into an exquisite comedian. Ask Richard Pryor's ghost. So but I didn't have any idea of what my life was and then so I had this kind of sense about who I was. And, of course, my adoptive mother tirelessly worked most of her life to build up my self-esteem. So what happened was finding her started to shed light and destroy my mythos. So for the first year of knowing her, my mom kind of actually literally visited me in Detroit and kind of gave me a tour of my life - where I was conceived, where I was born, where she found out she was pregnant. It was amazing, Terry, and very emotional. But what it did is, you hold precious what you create for yourself in your life that makes you comfortable and everything she was saying was shattering all of that. So, oh my gosh, there is this worthwhile human in the world who somebody did want to keep. And it's a long, very personal story, but, you know, it was - it's been, it's been a really wonderful, revelatory story.

GROSS: Jordan, do you know your father?

PEELE: Good question. I - my father passed away in 1999. I knew him up until about six years old, and that would've been, you know, my going to his place of work once a month, once every couple of months, until he was sort of out of the picture without any real concrete explanation as to why he was out of the picture. Now, you know, I've since learned that, you know, he's got many kids across the country and other countries.

You know, he was definitely a rolling stone, and had kids before me and kids after me. So it was definitely part of his MO to procreate and move on. But yeah, I mean to answer your question, no. Not really.

GROSS: So you hardly knew your father and he was like totally out of your life by the time he was six.

But since you have dark skin, a lot of people just automatically identify you as African-American. But the person who was African-American in your family, your father, was gone and your mother is white. And the part of your extended family that you've been most in touch with is your mother's side, which again is white. So I can imagine a sense of disconnect, of being, you know, externally identified as African-American because of your skin color but at the same time feeling like everybody in, you know, all of your like blood family that you know that's still is in your life is white.

PEELE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Not sure what the question is.

PEELE: Yeah.

GROSS: But it just seems like it must be a very disconnected feeling in some ways.

PEELE: Yeah. It's, I mean you really summed it up very well, and that's exactly how I would phrase it. There is these identity questions and, you know, all I can say is I, my mother was very good in that she helped me feel like I was a special person, like I, you know, I didn't need to go any farther than, you know, who I was and what I liked in order to find my identity. But yeah, clearly there has been, you know, a huge imprint that it's made on my personality and my art and my craft.

And I think the most trying part it is, involves how I speak. I think that's always been the part that I felt most insecure about. Is that the...

GROSS: What do you mean?

PEELE: Is that the world has wanted me to speak differently than I speak. You know, I speak like my mom; I speak like, you know, like the whitest white dude; I speak like a Def Comedy Jam comedian doing an impression of a white guy.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: That's how I've, you know, sort of grown up. And I even remember, you know, when I was a kid that, you know, there was a, you know, every now and then you'd come upon somebody who would sort of question how I spoke, whether or not, you know, I was trying to be something I wasn't. It cannot be a coincidence that I decided to go into this career where my whole purpose is sort of altering the way I speak and experiencing these different characters, and I think maybe sort of proving in my soul that the way someone speaks has, you know, nothing to do with who they are. People have, you know, everybody has different accents, everyone has different affectations, everyone is still human. So yeah, it's - I've always I've been very lucky to have a family who, you know, has welcomed me and not been hung up on anything racial, almost, you know, overlooking the fact that there was a racial difference. But I can honestly say I do feel like I missed out on some lessons from, you know, of what the African-American experience is like growing up. I mean I could've used some advice from my dad of, you know, how to deal with somebody who is accusing you of being shady in a store.

I would have liked to hear those things.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and together they're "Key & Peele." Their sketch comedy show is on Comedy Central. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are the stars of the Comedy Central sketch comedy show "Key & Peele." My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

I think before joining the cast of "Madtv," or maybe it was after that, that Jordan, you had auditioned for "Saturday Night Live"?

PEELE: That was, that was actually after. During my last year on "Mad," the year of the writers' strike, and there was an instance where we had a few episodes left of "Madtv," but there was this big question whether we're going to - the show was going to come back at all after the writers' strike, because that strike was, you know, really just, you know, just totally displaced...

KEY: Decimated. Yeah.

PEELE: Yeah. Everything in Hollywood was just turned on its head, and within that timeframe, yeah. I mean Seth Myers is a good buddy of mine and he, this was also during the election - the Obama election. So he called me and he asked me if I had been an Obama impression. I didn't at the time. But, you know, "SNL" had always been a dream of mine. And so, yeah, I worked on the impression for a week and then went out and flew out and I was actually offered a job on the show but I couldn't end up taking it because "Madtv" ended up coming back after the strike. So, you know, there was, you know, basically I had four more episodes in my contract that overlapped and I didn't get to fly home and continue on that show.

GROSS: Was that a great disappointment that you had to turn down "SNL"?

PEELE: Oh yeah, that was a huge disappointment. The big, the most disappointing part, besides the fact that, you know, like I said, that had always been a dream, to be on that show for obvious reasons, but, you know, after spending eight years away from New York, nine years, or whatever it was, I desperately wanted to go back and live with my, you know, friends and my mother and, you know, where my grandmother was, and so I wanted that homecoming very bad. And not being able to was, I think, ultimately served as a huge motivation, you know, to end of doing what I'm doing now - which is, you know, we have our own show, it all kind of worked out for the best, of course. But, yeah, that was the biggest blow in my career.

GROSS: Did both of you do a lot of, you know, characters or impressions when you first auditioned for "Madtv?"

KEY: I did more characters. I mean I had a lot of characters kind of in my bag from Second City.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KEY: And so there were some characters that had been incubating at the Second City in Chicago. And so, you know, when you're at Second City, Chicago, kind of the unspoken thing is, is everybody is kind of - you're doing you work and your making your art and you're having a good time and it's really a kind of fertile time in your life. But there's that thing in the back of your head that saying, boy, you know, "SNL" might come calling, or "Madtv" might come calling. And so you're kind of like, I would just catalog characters that I liked performing and that also that audiences seem to enjoy.

GROSS: Jordan, what's some of the characters you developed early on that you could tell us about?

PEELE: I was much more impression-driven in my audition. And one of my impressions was, I did Ja Rule. I did an impression of Ja Rule showing off his crib in "Cribs."

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: And then on the other, you know, I went all the way to the other side. I did an impression of John Malkovich ordering a pizza, which - in which he does not want any of the extra bells and whistles. I just want a pepperoni pizza, please.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: Hit her with some Morgan.

PEELE: I did Morgan Freeman, of course. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Yeah. Yeah. I'm Morgan Freeman. I don't remember what the context was, you know, but as sure as the black dots all over my face, I did this impression. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: I was part of this group called Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, where - and that's where I met Seth Meyers, Ike Barinholtz, Jason Sudeikis, some really amazing comedy performers. And we did sketch and improv there, in just a slightly different format than Keegan would've been doing at the Second City. But we had one short - what's called short-form improv game where the audience would shout out impressions, and then they would shout out locations.

And we would literally, just on the spot, whatever impression - celebrity they gave us and location, we would have to become that celebrity in that location. And so I think, in that process, you know, I demystified the art of the impression for myself. And, you know, I think it's something that a lot of people think is magic, but is, you know, just like anything else. You can learn to do it and get better at it.

GROSS: Jordan, since you auditioned for "Saturday Night Live" and actually got hired, but had to turn it down because you were still under contract to "MADtv," I was wondering if you've been following the controversy, the recent controversy about the limited number of African-American comics - specifically, women African-American comics - that have been on the show through the history, there having been only three.

And this came up after Kenan Thompson was interviewed, and he said that he and Jay Pharoah didn't want to do characters in drag anymore. And Kenan Thompson said that it was hard to find African-American women who were ready for "Saturday Night Live." So that's led to a lot of discussion. And I'm wondering if either of you have anything you'd like to say about that.

PEELE: Yeah. I mean, on one hand, I do feel a little bit, you know, bad for Kenan, just knowing how, you know, an interview can go and if, you know, maybe he could've been more prepared for that question. But, you know, I think, you know, for Keegan and I, it - we know so many hilarious African-American women.

And, you know, we're mostly, you know, come up through the sketch and improv scene. Now, there is a - sketch and improv is a world that is dominated by white performers. That is true. But to say that there's not African-American women who are ready is just wrong.

KEY: Yeah. No, yeah.

PEELE: It's just not - it's incorrect. I mean, Nyima Funk.

KEY: Oh, Nyima Funk. Yeah.

PEELE: Amber Ruffin.

KEY: Amber Ruffin, yeah.

PEELE: Claudia Wallace. You know, we really could go on.

KEY: Yeah. I mean, I think I completely agree with what Jordan said. I think you're right. That question might've snuck up on Kenan.

PEELE: Yeah.

KEY: And, also, I think Kenan is in the midst of a - he does a job on a show that has a very specific skill set. I mean, it's a very specific skill set.

PEELE: Mm-hmm.

KEY: And so I think if that's the answer that came out of his mouth, I can understand that answer coming out of his mouth. But, right now, I can think of three women who would murder on "Saturday Night Live," either as writers or performers. And, you know, the...

PEELE: Holly Walker, Liza Dye.

KEY: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, there's just - there - I would have to say, you know, with all deference to Kenan, I would have to say I definitely know that they are there.

PEELE: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Since we're talking...

PEELE: And of course the...

GROSS: Go ahead.

PEELE: Oh, yeah. And also there's, you know, there is a world - Keegan and my race has really played to our advantage in the improv-sketch world.

KEY: Small pool.

PEELE: It - yeah.

KEY: Small pool.

PEELE: And it's also a bit of a special power. I mean, we can do characters that other people would feel uncomfortable doing. And we can explore the - you know, we can, you know, I mean, just to be quite straightforward: We can play black characters and explore the comedy of black characters.

Now, there's a whole world of characters and impressions that black women can do that other people just, I mean, just on the social level, you know, disregarding the practice and skill that goes into perfecting these things, but just on the social level, people would feel uncomfortable doing. So it's - yeah. They should hire some black women. Not a black woman - some black women.

KEY: Black women. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, since we have been talking about a controversial remark said in the context of an interview, I was wondering if either of you might be willing to say something that would be really controversial that will get us tweeted a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Anything?

KEY: What about white men? You know what? White men aren't funny. White men aren't ready to be on "Saturday Night Live."

PEELE: They are not ready.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Jordan, can you top that, please?

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Let's see. I don't know if I can top that. I do not know if I can top that.

KEY: Can't top my nonsensical comment?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Their sketch comedy show "Key and Peele" is on Comedy Central. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Their sketch comedy series "Key and Peele" is in its third season on Comedy Central. Let me ask you about a sketch that you did that I think actually was kind of controversial on "Key and Peele," and this is, like, a slave auction. And the premise is that you're both on the slave auction block getting sold to the highest bidder.

There's three blocks: block A, block B, block C. And the person on block A keeps getting sold, and at first it's, like, whew. You know, we're glad we're not being sold, because who wants to be owned? Like, we're not property. But then when you keep getting turned down for people who are looking more and more physically unfit...

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Right.

GROSS: ...who get bought over you, then you start to really feel, like, wait a minute. Why are they passing us over? Like, what's wrong with us? And it's such - it's a very funny, but really, like, odd sketch. And I was wondering if you could talk about coming up with that and about the reactions that you got. And maybe you want to explain it a little better than I did. I'd play it on the radio, except I think without the visuals, it doesn't quite work.

You know what I mean?

PEELE: Right.

GROSS: I think it's like you really need to see it, because there's a lot of voices.

PEELE: Well, there's a couple of things that went into coming up with this sketch. One was the desire to be able to use that powerful visual as a jumping off point, as something that is provocative and something that only Keegan and I could do, that there was nobody else out there that could tackle this and create a sketch about an auction block.

I think part of it is rooted around the idea if you can make something that's offensive to somebody funny, then you have to be able to make something that's offense to another person funny. And so, from that standpoint forward, we then, you know, then the project - you know, once I know I want to make a scene on the auction block, the question comes, OK, so how do you make this universally funny?

How do you make this - how do you prove people wrong, that this is not about laughing at slavery? This is not about laughing at the victims of slavery and what, you know, our ancestors had to go through? And the answer to me was to make it about humanity, to make it about people, to make it about something universal.

And also to point out the fact that Keegan and I, we would never - you know, with this cushy life that we've grown up with in the, you know...

KEY: The late 20th century.

PEELE: ...in the late 20th century, we are not equipped with the physical and emotional fortitude to do what our ancestors did. So, for me, there's a certain amount of respect that I felt like we were observing by putting ourselves in that situation, by not, you know, sort of, quote-unquote, "slaving it up" with our dialect, but kind of just using the way we talk.

And really, that was the project, was if we were in this situation, we would - our vanity would come into play, at a certain point.

GROSS: And, finally, Jordan, did you ever fight and say no, it should be called "Peele and Key" and not "Key and Peele"?

PEELE: No. I don't think there was a fight. There was a discussion about which one sounded better, but, no, there was certainly no fight. I think we can all agree that Jerry Lewis is the star of "Martin and Lewis."

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: I just put that in my mind.

KEY: For the record, Terry, if we had used...

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: If we had used our first names...

PEELE: Yeah.

KEY: ...the show would've been called "Jordan and Keegan." If we had used our first names. Yeah.

PEELE: Yeah.

KEY: Yeah.

PEELE: Just for the sound of it.

KEY: Yeah.

PEELE: Yeah. "Peele and Key," eh, I don't...

KEY: I don't even know linguistically what it is, but for some strange reason, I'm partial to "Key and Peele."

PEELE: Now that you're mentioning it, though, I've got to say, you know, this...

KEY: Yeah. Is it starting to ring to your ear a little bit, Jordan?

PEELE: It's starting to sound good.

GROSS: Uh-oh.

PEELE: It's starting to sound good.

KEY: It's interesting. It's not ringing to my ear...

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: ...for some reason.

PEELE: It's our favorite fake argument.

KEY: It's our favorite fake argument. Right. Since we don't really have any arguments.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's been so much fun to talk with both of you. Thank you so much.

KEY: Oh, thank you, Terry.

PEELE: You, too. Thank you.

KEY: What an honor.

GROSS: The third season of "Key and Peele" concludes December 18th on Comedy Central. You can watch the slave auction block sketch we were just talking about on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a link to the first in their series of sketches about Obama's anger translator. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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