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Few comedians have taken quite the long and winding road to their current careers as Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The two stars first came to public attention when they were hired as cast members on the Fox sketch series "MADtv" before bringing their comedic strengths and equally strong social commentary to Comedy Central. There, they took over the mainstream comedy world with "Key & Peele," a sketch series mostly centered on satirizing race relations and popular culture.
The show became one of Comedy Central's biggest hits during the first half of the 2010s, with some of their most popular characters, like Key's inner-city substitute teacherand Peele's whiny girlfriend Meegan, becoming instant classics. However, despite the show's obvious and lasting success, Key and Peele individually had many close calls on their journey to become comedy legends. Since the show's ending in 2015, the two have continued to go on paths that surprise longtime fans of the show.
While many fans of "Key & Peele" may be content with watching and rewatching sketches on Comedy Central's YouTube channel, there are many aspects of the show, as well as Key and Peele's individual careers, that may remain unknown for many hardcore fans of the series. Whether it pertains to their history, origins of sketches, or future projects, these 13 facts may surprise both hardcore "Key & Peele" fanatics as well as newcomers to the groundbreaking comedy the two collaborated on over a decade ago.
1. Keegan-Michael Key is a master of improv
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It's no secret that Keegan-Michael Key is a one-of-a-kind performer, but that kind of commitment and energy takes work. Fortunately, Key had his fair share of education prior to any mainstream success. The future comedian graduated from Penn State with a master's degree in theater in 1996 before returning to his hometown of Detroit to start taking classes and performing at The Second City comedy theatre. There, Key brushed shoulders with future comedians like Marc Evan Jackson (of "Brooklyn-99" fame) and Maribeth Monroe.
Soon enough, Key moved to Chicago in 2001 to begin performing at Second City there, becoming a skilled improviser and sketch performer. Second City Chicago was the breeding ground for many iconic comics of the pre-2000s, including Chris Farley, Tina Fey, and Stephen Colbert. In an interview with Backstage Magazine, Key compared his love for improv with his initial love for theater and playwriting, saying, "A playwright or screenwriter is simply a person who's improvising with themselves."
Fortunately, Key's experience at The Second City in both Detroit and Chicago would come in handy during his transition to sketch comedy icon. Following "Key & Peele," Keegan-Michael Key also starred alongside Gillian Jacobs and Chris Gethard in Mike Birbiglia's 2016 film "Don't Think Twice," centered on a group of best friends in an improv troupe who reach a breaking point with each other when one of them (played by Key) is cast on a "Saturday Night Live"-type show.
2. Jordan Peele's first comedy partner wasn't Key
For Jordan Peele, the road to comedy was perhaps a little windier than it was for born-performer Keegan-Michael Key. After growing up in New York City, Peele briefly attended Sarah Lawrence College before dropping out to pursue comedy. At the time, his first comedy partner was his former classmate, Rebecca Drysdale, who would eventually become a writer for "Key & Peele." They traveled together to Chicago, where they began performing as the character duo "Two White Guys" (via Chicago Reader).
Peele then somehow made his way to Amsterdam, where he began performing in the sketch company Boom Chicago alongside pre-fame Seth Meyers, Liz Cackowski, and Jason Sudeikis, among others. The experience, as Peele attests, "was a grind that taught [him] a lot about showmanship" (via Vulture). One of Peele's most popular bits at Boom Chicago saw him paired with future "MADtv" co-star Nicole Parker, another opportunity for Peele to test out his comedy partnership capabilities.
It was through Boom Chicago that Jordan Peele ended up spending a week residency at Second City Chicago, which is where he first met the man who would change his life: Keegan-Michael Key. Although it wouldn't be Peele's first comedy partnership, as they put it in an interview with Jimmy Kimmelon his late-night talk show, after watching each other perform on consecutive nights, they "fell in comedy love."
3. Key & Peele's MADtv auditions pitted them against each other
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In 2004, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele were both given quite a backhanded opportunity. This opportunity came from the sketch series "MADtv," which started in 1995 and jump-started the careers of comedy legends like Alex Borstein, Will Sasso, and Bobby Lee. However, when "MADtv" came knocking at the doors of Key and Peele, they were looking to cast one African-American comedian to join their ninth-season roster. The two Chicago-based comedians ended up auditioning against each other for the coveted part (via The New Yorker).
Luckily enough for Keegan and Jordan, the executives at "MADtv" were impressed by their comedic chemistry together, and decided to hire them both rather than one over the other. They joined the show's ninth season alongside Peele's former comedy partner Nicole Parker, as well as Daniele Gaither, Melissa Paull, and Gillian Vigman. Quickly, the two became some of the show's biggest breakout stars, particularly Keegan-Michael Key's outlandish Coach Hines, while Jordan Peele gained notoriety for impressions of Morgan Freeman and Forest Whitaker.
Audiences at home could tell that Key & Peele were something special with "MADtv" sketches such as "Deal or No Deal." Peele also found attention in a duo with Nicole Parker as interracial couple Pat-Beth and Dontel LaMontrose, which would foreshadow the type of racial humor and social commentary that "Key & Peele," but especially Jordan Peele's filmmaking, would become known for (via Spin Magazine).
4. A sketch comedy job offer destroyed Peele's relationship with MADtv
"MADtv" launched Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele to a new level of success; they even appeared in Weird Al Yankovic's music video for "White & Nerdy." However, troubled times were ahead for the duo, particularly during the 2007-2008 Writers Strike, in which over 10,000 film and television workers protested studio funding for writing departments. During this time, "Saturday Night Live" was casting a comedian to play the role of prospective presidential candidate Barack Obama, prior to their casting of impressionist Jay Pharoah.
Jordan Peele ended up auditioning for SNL with the impression of Obama he would later reprise on "Key & Peele." Thankfully, despite the strike, Peele was chosen by NBC. Unfortunately, Fox wasn't keen on letting one of their biggest stars out of his contract. Because of this, Peele was forced to turn down joining "Saturday Night Live," which led to Peele forming a grudge against "MADtv" and its producers, or, as he described during a Q&A at Upright Citizens Brigade, he began plotting his revenge "like a comic book supervillain" (via The Hollywood Reporter).
Jordan Peele ended up leaving "MADtv" at the end of its 13th season, while Keegan-Michael Key remained on for the 14th and final season. Although Peele would find his comedy career in a rut following "MADtv," he would later reunite with his former co-star to create a show that would blow both "Saturday Night Live" and "MADtv" out of the water.
5. Key & Peele commentated their own show as Van & Mike
"Key & Peele" officially premiered on Comedy Central in January 2012, and received quite a large amount of promotional support from Comedy Central, who tag-lined the show: "If You Don't Watch, You're Racist!" The tagline seemed to have worked, given that the series' first episode raked in over 2 million viewers in the United States, becoming one of the most-watched Comedy Central premieres of the 2010s (via TV by the Numbers).
Part of what made the show such a huge success was how tapped-in "Key & Peele" were to the Internet. Part of their Internet campaign included an aftershow starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as superfans and TSA workers Vandaveon and Mike, who would analyze each episode of the first and second season and critique their sketches, often suggesting that the writers add profane humor and nonsequiturs to make them funnier. Vandaveon and Mike's attempts at promoting themselves as potential writers for "Key & Peele" eventually paid off, despite the two being fictional.
To promote the series' third season, Vandaveon and Mike offered fans a sneak peek of the new season, revealing they had finally been hired as writers on "Key & Peele" (or, as people were calling them, "production assistants"). While initially being a subtle and humorous way for the show's creators to promote Comedy Central's latest sketch series, it ended up being a great showcase for Keegan-Michael Key's energetic showmanship, as well as Jordan Peele's subtle acting.
6. One Season 2 sketch takes a page out of Jordan Peele's life story
Part of the appeal of "Key & Peele" came from the show's ability to depict realistic, grounded scenarios with as much comedic absurdism and wit as any other out-of-this-world sketch. One example of this came in the show's second season, in a sketch where Jordan Peele (as himself) knocks on the trailer park door of his biological father, Earl, played by Key. Earl, despite similar mannerisms to Jordan, brushes off their relation until Jordan mentions that he has a TV show, prompting Earl to suddenly point out all their genetic similarities to a frustrated Jordan.
Even though this sketch has enough going for it comedically, it also has some real-world inspiration. Jordan Peele was actually raised by a single mother after his father left when he was 7 years old. In an interview with Rolling Stone prior to the release of his 2019 film "Us," Peele told the publication, "I try to dive into my worst fears headfirst in these movies," which ended up inspiring a pivotal character moment in his 2017 directorial debut "Get Out."
As this second season "Key & Peele" sketch proves, however, this would be Jordan Peele's main approach to whatever he created. Even though Keegan-Michael Key completely steals the show as Jordan's desperate father (at least, he is until he hears the show is on Comedy Central), it must've been quite a therapeutic sketch for his straight-faced comedy partner.
7. The duo join a popular YouTube series as prominent historical figures
Despite their increasing mainstream success throughout the early seasons of "Key & Peele," the two former "MADtv" stars never lost touch with their Internet presence. However, probably no one expected them to make an appearance on one of the most popular YouTube channels of the early 2010s: "Epic Rap Battles of History." The comedy web series, created by Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist in 2010, pits two figures from history or pop culture against each other in a duel of lyrical wit.
In the series' second season, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele fit neatly into the lineup of battles, starring in "Gandhi vs. Martin Luther King Jr.," with Key as the Indian revolutionary and Peele as the Black civil rights leader. While the two were not the web series' first celebrity guest (hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg cameoed as well during Season 2), they would become the first to recur in the series. Returning for the show's third season, Key and Peele starred in a rap battle between controversial athletes: "Michael Jordan vs. Muhammad Ali."
During this time, Key & Peele also collaborated with YouTubers Rhett & Link in a sketch for their hit series "Good Mythical Morning," but they also didn't lose touch with the folks over at "Epic Rap Battles of History." In the second season of "Key & Peele," Lloyd Ahlquist made a cameo in a rap battle-centric sketch where Peele played the overly energetic hype-man of Key's battle rapper.
8. A breakout character makes an appearance alongside the real President
The very first episode of "Key & Peele" introduced one of the Comedy Central show's most popular characters. Although Jordan Peele never got to take his Barack Obama impression to "Saturday Night Live," on "Key & Peele" they went further with it than SNL likely would've let them. In order to address rumors of his lack of passion, Peele's Obama hires an anger translator named Luther, played by Key, to accompany him during his various statements regarding political events.
The Luther and Obama sketches were a highlight of "Key & Peele" during its five-season run, often showcasing Key's incredible physical comedy chops, while Peele clearly relished playing a spot-on and nuanced impression of the then-president. The recurring sketch obviously caught the attention of Obama, who expressed his love for the character of Luther during an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." This came as quite a surprise to Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key.
However, their surprise was likely even greater when Barack Obama invited Keegan-Michael Key to the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner to join him at the podium as Luther, his anger translator. It was a moment for the history books, as Luther ranted to the attendees about the impending 2016 election, as well as media coverage of his tenure as president. Keegan-Michael Key was rightfully awed, however, calling it the "second greatest day of [his] life" (via Entertainment Weekly).
9. Their John Wick-esque flick is an accidental homage
Warner Bros. Pictures
Although "Key & Peele" had plenty of success on both network TV and YouTube, it wouldn't be long before they'd bring their unique comedic chemistry and style to the big screen. In 2016, the duo starred in "Keanu," an action comedy written by Peele and Alex Rubens and directed by Peter Atencio, a frequent director of "Key & Peele" sketches. The film centers around the two comedians as kind-hearted friends who, after Peele's pet kitten is captured, face down a Mexican cartel in order to rescue it.
If the plot sounds familiar to you, you're not alone. Upon the release of the film's trailer, many publications mistook it as a parody of the 2016 action film "John Wick," which starred Keanu Reeves as a hitman on a revenge spree after gangsters murder his dog. However, this was as coincidental as it could get; the two films were developed simultaneously and independently from each other, with the creators initially believing their idea to be stolen when the first trailer for "John Wick" was released while they were on set for "Keanu."
However, Key & Peele did the right thing and chose to embrace the comparisons rather than shy away from them. Furthermore, they even recruited Keanu Reeves himself to voice the titular kitten in a dream sequence (via The Hollywood Reporter). Fans enjoyed the comedy, which holds a respectable78% on Rotten Tomatoes, though it would be far from Jordan Peele's biggest success in the medium.
10. Key & Peele ended in 2015, albeit on their own terms
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Sadly, all good things must come to an end, even "Key & Peele." In 2015, the sketch comedians announced their Comedy Central show would be ending. They were very clear that this was their own decision to move on. In a press release for TheWrap prior to their final season airing, Key mentioned that it felt right for him and Jordan to pursue other projects, likening them to Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
However, the comedy duo wasn't parting ways for good, with several other projects on the horizon (at least, at the time the show ended). One such project was a reboot of the "Police Academy" franchise, while another was a planned movie starring Keegan-Michael Key's substitute teacher character, Mr. Garvey, from "Key & Peele" (via Entertainment Weekly). As of 2023, neither of those projects has seemed to pan out, and don't seem to be on the docket for the comedians anytime soon. That being said, Key did reprise the role of Mr. Garvey in a commercial for Paramount+ in 2022.
The end of "Key & Peele" marked a bittersweet moment for sketch comedy fans. "Key & Peele" was certainly one of the most topical and consistently funny shows on television since "Chappelle's Show," another Comedy Central classic that was abruptly ended by its star. Nevertheless, it's at least a good thing that "Key & Peele" was only just the stepping stone for two great careers.
11. Keegan-Michael Key fulfilled a lifelong theater dream in 2017
With "Key & Peele" in the rearview mirror, Keegan-Michael Key had little to prove on the comedy front aside from guest appearances on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" He did, however, have an itch to return to his very first love: theater. In 2017, Keegan-Michael Key did something he had always wanted to do: perform in a Shakespeare reproduction. The former sketch comedian starred as Horatio in "Hamlet" at the Public Theater, opposite Oscar Isaac as the titular Danish prince.
The production was no easy feat for Keegan-Michael Key, but he nonetheless impressed audiences with how well he fit in the play. The Hollywood Reporter commended Key for his portrayal of Horatio's "aching tenderness and quiet nobility," but didn't refrain from also praising the actor for bringing his comedic charm to the four-hour performance.
The actor has continued to flex his affinity for live theater in recent years. After his Off-Broadway stint as Horatio, Keegan-Michael Key made his Broadway debut in 2017 in "Meteor Shower," a stage play written by Steve Martin and co-starring Amy Schumer. Key also made prominent appearances in Ryan Murphy's Netflix adaptation of "The Prom," as well as an Apple TV+ series "Schmigadoon!" alongside Cecily Strong. The series, which spoofs the Golden Age of musicals, finds the two comics playing a struggling couple trapped in a magical town that requires them to find true love before they can leave (via The New York Times).
12. Jordan Peele's directorial debut plays with tropes from Key & Peele
While Keegan-Michael Key was flexing his talents on stage, Jordan Peele was on a much different but incredibly fruitful journey behind the camera. In 2017, Peele made his directorial debut with "Get Out," a horror film starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams. The film centers on a Black man meeting his white girlfriend's parents while discovering that there may be more to their interest in him than meets the eye. It was an incredibly successful film, netting Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay while also cementing him as a modern-day auteur.
"Get Out" also had a massive influence on horror movies, which Peele believed to have been a dying genre prior to his film. Clearly, Peele's comedy background was a helpful tool for crafting perfect horror moments, while other filmmakers have cited the film as a major reason why the horror genre has trended towards psychological and social horrors rather than typical ghosts and monsters (via Video Librarian).
Jordan Peele's subsequent movies have only further proven that the former comedian is on his way to auteur status. His 2019 film "Us" impressed those who doubted the director's ability to avoid a sophomore slump. However, his 2022 film "Nope" reunited him with Kaluuya and proved Peele's talents aren't limited to horror, seeing him dabble in science fiction and big-budget Hollywood spectacle. It's safe to say all cinema fans are eager to see what he does next.
13. Key & Peele have reunited through voice acting
It's no secret that, since the end of "Key & Peele," the two titular creators have built quite successful careers outside of their sketch show. It's an impressive feat, given that many Hollywood artists would kill to just have the success that was "Key & Peele." Nevertheless, Keegan-Michael Key is an unparalleled comedic performer, while Jordan Peele is essentially a household name among fans of film, and especially horror. Though they have every reason to leave their collaborations with each other in the past, it's heartwarming for "Key & Peele" fans to know that they still work together from time to time.
Shortly after the end of "Key & Peele," the two reunited for one last Obama-Luther sketch to mark the end of Obama's presidency following the 2016 election. However, most of their reunions since have been behind the microphone with voiceover work. In 2019, the two starred in "Toy Story 4" as the scene-stealing carnival prizes Ducky and Bunny.
Their biggest collaboration post-"Key & Peele" came with the 2022 film "Wendell & Wild." Directed by Henry Sellick and written by Sellick and Peele, "Wendell & Wild" reunites the two comics as demons who promise to resurrect a teenage girl's parents if she is able to summon them to the human world. Coming from the director behind films like "Coraline," "Wendell & Wild" is delightfully creepy and a great vehicle for Key & Peele's voicework to shine.