The plot of your new movie, Keanu, involves two guys trying to find a stolen cat. Forgive us for saying so, but that doesn’t exactly sound like the smart social satire you and Jordan Peele are known for. Are you slumming it?
It started out as a sort of exercise. Our platform has mostly been exploring African American masculinity and what it means to be a person of color in America. That’s a recurring theme in Key & Peele. So how do you do that as a movie? Jordan tried putting it into a feature-length script, and we realized there was something missing. These guys, the two main characters, weren’t pursuing anything. I thought the cat was Jordan’s way of being sly. I thought it was a reference to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, which is a screenwriting book. But he told me, “No, I just think cats are cute. Everybody likes cats, right? Especially women.” That was seriously his justification for the cat. “We can get women to see the movie.” It’s really quite brilliant.
Do you have any misgivings about ending Key & Peele?
Not in the least. The show was a chapter, and the chapter’s over, and it was a really rip-roaring chapter of this book. Honestly, doing Key & Peele was just so exhausting. From the first day of writing to the last day of shooting, one season usually took about 10 and a half months. It’s a very long haul. One day Jordan and I just looked at each other, and it wasn’t like a big declaration. We were kind of sheepish about it. “Should we just be done? Yeah, let’s be done.” So that’s what we did. Let’s get out before we start repeating ourselves.
It’s hard to imagine you guys running out of ideas. Couldn’t Key & Peele run for another 20 years and still be the most original show on TV?
I don’t think so. I’m a structure nerd. I like Aristotle and Empedocles and Sophocles and Euripides and all that stuff. Since the beginning of theater, there’s pretty much been seven plots. So when people ask, “Why’s your show done?” I tell them it’s because I don’t want anybody to watch season seven and go, “I feel like they did this sketch already.” Oh, we totally did, but this time the characters are in space suits. You know what I mean? Same sketch, but now they’re old-timey prospectors.
You’ve said that you and Peele “fell in comedy love.” How is that different from actual love?
It’s not different at all. I get the same butterflies in my stomach. I saw him the other day when we were doing voice-overs for a movie. We haven’t seen each other a lot recently, and I was like, Wow, he’s amazing. We both have our own intrinsic goofiness. I’m going to use some fancy words so I sound super-smart: Jordan has a very phlegmatic demeanor, and I have a very sanguine demeanor. [laughs] So we fit together kind of perfectly.
Comedy Central promoted the first season of Key & Peele with the tagline “If you don’t watch, you’re racist.” Do you think the show changed any minds about race in America?
The unsatisfying answer is that I have no idea if we’ve changed or modulated anybody’s thinking at all. Sometimes I’ll be approached by somebody—and let me say, I’m well aware that what I’m about to say is racist. I’ll be approached by a 62-year-old white man from Wichita who goes, “Are you that substitute teacher guy from TV?” When someone of that demographic says that to me, first of all, I can pretty much guarantee they haven’t seen the show. Their nephew showed them a YouTube video over Thanksgiving. And then my fear is, what if this man is thinking [in a redneck drawl], Niggers, that’s what they do: They give each other fucking stupid names. I would love to think that’s not what’s going on, but that’s what my suspicions are.
Maybe something good comes from it. What if the racist 62-year-old white guy goes looking for more Key & Peele videos and a more positive message starts to sink in?
That’s the warm, unicorn, rainbow side of that coin. Maybe that racist guy goes, “Those two black guys are clever. I didn’t know niggers could be that clever.” Now, that’s still racist, but it’s at least cracking the nut open a little bit.
When you and Peele accepted your Peabody Award in 2013, you thanked Comedy Central for letting you “show the African American experience as not a monolith, because it’s not.” Isn’t that an awful lot of responsibility for a comedy show—fairly representing an entire race of people?
It’s pretty easy, actually. You just remember that black people are human beings who happen to have melanin in our skin, and then you write about the human experience. The racial point of view comes second. If you write comedy with huge human themes, then you appeal to everybody. You’ll hit on something that even a Taliban member has felt. That’s the ultimate goal for me: not to make African Americans feel understood, but to make everyone feel understood. Then you slap some cultural stuff on the back end, and they give you a bunch of awards for being black. That’s our formula.
What are the ground rules for racial humor in 2016? What’s acceptable? Is it about the skin color of the performer or the content of the joke?
The thing is, we’re not dealing with the real problem. Race is the symptom. We’ll eventually get to a point where race becomes secondary, or not even an issue. It’ll become a strange phenomenon that everybody barely remembers. Like, “Remember when everybody got all worked up about skin color?” It’ll be like when we talk about the world before penicillin. “Seriously, people died from a staph infection?” In another 75 years, everyone will look like me. And then it will only be about class. But until we get to that point, you can’t make jokes about a race that isn’t your own. You can make jokes about people with a certain amount of melanin in their skin only if you have the same amount in your skin. And yes, I’m aware that this is the second time I’ve used the word melanin in this interview.
You originally wanted to be a dramatic actor. Your dream was to do Shakespeare, but you ended up in comedy. What happened?
I fell in with a bunch of guys at the Second City theater in Detroit. It was 1997, I think, and it was just something to do while I waited for other opportunities. I think I was secretly harboring desires to do comedy. I was getting a paycheck, which is a very rare thing if you’re doing theater, especially Shakespeare. I joined Second City in Chicago three or four years after that. And then in 2004 MADtv came calling, and I did that for a while, and that led to Key & Peele, and…let’s just say I’ve been on a 19-year detour.
If you went back to theater, what’s the big Shakespeare role you’ve always wanted to play?
I have a standing invitation to play Hamlet at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. That’s something that scares the bejesus out of me. Because, you know, when I’m ready, I can do it. But then, well, then I have to do it. [laughs]
Especially when there will be people in the audience who think, Is Hamlet going to have an anger translator?
Now there’s an idea! Can you imagine? Hamlet’s anger translator would be like, “Why don’t you just kill this motherfucker!” I might just find a way to make that happen.
Luther, the anger translator for President Obama, was one of the most popular characters on Key & Peele. When you played him with the actual President Obama at last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, did you feel he enjoyed the character because you nailed exactly what he was feeling?
Without a doubt. He said as much to us. The very first time Jordan and I met him, that was one of the first things out of his mouth. [does perfect Obama impression] “I need Luther; I definitely need him.” Before the Correspondents’ Dinner, he was reading some of the jokes, and one of them—I think it was about how everything he does is blocked on the Hill—he just stopped and went, “Well, this isn’t even a joke. This is real.” And then he said, “This shit is ridiculous.” I can’t tell you how awesome it was to hear him swear.
How funny is Obama?
He gets a 10 as a straight man. His timing is just…you can’t teach that. It’s scary how good his timing is.
Can you really not teach a sense of humor? Did your parents play a role in cultivating yours?
If your parents teach you “Don’t you fucking act a fool in front of these white people,” it’s very hard for that person to become a comedian. You need to feel you have a certain amount of freedom to even think you could be funny. Growing up, I never felt like being funny was wrong. I loved watching my father laugh at the television. My father was kind of a somber guy. He didn’t talk a lot. But when he watched sitcoms on TV, he’d just roar. He had the loudest, shriekiest laugh in a movie theater. And that didn’t just give me permission to be funny; it was like a challenge. I wanted to hear that sound coming from my dad, and I wanted to be the one who caused it.
Was comedy your defense mechanism? Were you ever funny because “It’s getting uncomfortable in here and I don’t like that”?
It was always a defense mechanism. If you’re raised by a sweet little farm girl from northern Illinois and a black guy from Salt Lake City, and you grow up in Detroit, you better figure something out.
In a Second City show that opened in November 2001, you played an Afghan cabdriver desperately trying to prove his patriotism. Did you ever think, Too soon?
Every. Single. Night. I remember thinking, There’s a very good chance a chair or beer bottle is going to come flying at us. But the first time we did it in front of an audience, I have never—and this is not hyperbole—I’ve never heard laughter like that in my life. I’ve never heard laughter that cathartic in my entire life. The place went bananas. It’s probably the character I’m most proud of. I mean from anything.
Can you believe how much has changed since then? Thank goodness we live in a time when Muslims aren’t all assumed to be terrorists anymore.
Finally! All we needed to do was bring democracy to the Fertile Crescent, and now everything’s perfect.
You’re a Christian, but your comedy isn’t always friendly to religion. There’s a scene in the second season of Key & Peele where you play Mary Magdalene’s pimp. How do you balance satire with your personal spiritual beliefs?
I think they complement each other. To truly satirize something, you have to understand it inside and out. You can’t be coming from a place of fear. Look at somebody like Bill Maher. If Maher set foot in a church once in a while, I think he’d have a little more basis to understand what he’s making jokes about. I’m more qualified to make fun and test the veracity of spiritual stuff because I have been a Catholic, I have been a Buddhist, I have been an evangelical Christian. I realize I’m being incendiary here, but Maher is just.… I don’t know what priest molested him or what spiritual figure hurt him, but you don’t have that much anger toward religion because you disagree with it intellectually, you know what I mean?
Do you think he has a personal ax to grind?
I don’t know. I like Bill a lot, but it does feel like his entire comedic point of view about religion is coming from a place of fear. It’s always a polemic, and it’s always invective. That’s why I don’t feel conflicted when I do comedy about religion. It never comes from fear. And it’s not coming from blind reverence either. You need to be constantly questioning your faith.
You’ve questioned your belief in God?
All the time! Every damn day. And it’s not easy. I know what it’s like to have firmly held beliefs. You cling to them. You fight for them. They’re sacred and precious to you. You don’t want to hear that something you’ve put a good deal of your life into believing and holding dear might be false. But you need to constantly ask yourself, Is this working for me, or am I doing it because my parents did it, and they did it because their parents did it? Those are terrifying questions, but true faith needs to be challenged. Otherwise, what is it worth?