Key (Sans Peele)

Jonathan Zeller

These are heady times for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, whose Comedy Central series—titled, appropriately enough, Key & Peele—recently returned for a second season. In the midst of the presidential campaign, the duo have received much attention for their sketches featuring Luther, President Obama's fictional “anger translator.” No less of an authority than Obama himself has expressed approval for the bit. (Your move, Jay Pharoah.)

Ahead of Key & Peele's November 7 Comedy Week show, at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Key (who plays Luther to Peele's Obama) was kind enough to chat with about such topics as Apple CEO Tim Cook, weaponized bagels and friends in high places.

For a chance to win free tickets to Key & Peele's Comedy Week show, visit

Do you have a post-election Luther bit planned? Keegan-Michael Key: We do. There will definitely be an Obama-Luther piece that will air the next night [on the TV show]. The thing is, it hasn't been taped yet. We're waiting to see how everything unfolds.

How do you feel about the president's reaction to those sketches? KMK: It's pretty rarefied air to actually be able to hear from a subject that you are parodying, or whose behavior you're trying to study. So, to answer your question in the most basic way, I feel fantastic. [Laughs] He literally looked me in the eyes and said, “I need a Luther.” He goes, “Second term. Second term.” How do you even explain that kind of satisfaction, when not only do they see what you're doing but they understand what you're getting at with your comedy? He understands that he lives a political life and there are things he can't express or say or feel. That's what we were trying to exploit, for lack of a better word.

What was the story behind your meeting him? KMK: He mentioned us on Fallon, and then—I don't know exactly what the correlation is, but—somebody knew somebody who knew one of the members of his staff, one of the traveling aides. The traveling aide said, “[Obama's] going to be in town for this George Clooney fundraiser, and we have some free time the next day.” We were like, “Why would we get to meet the busiest man in the world?” But he's a fan of the show, and he and his aides, when they travel, they pass around an iPad and watch scenes. It was amazing.

Do you ever need your own Luther? KMK: Oh, me? I kind of need an anti-Luther. [Laughs] I'm not a mercurial person, but I would say I am sometimes an impulsive person, and so Jordan has often been an anti-Luther for me. He's been like, “Yeah, I wouldn't say that, Keegan.” [Laughs] He goes, “I wouldn't hit 'send' on that Facebook message”—you know, that kind of stuff.

Do you have any favorite comedy venues you want to visit while you're in the City? KMK: I've never seen a comedy show in New York City.

Have you played one yet? KMK: Not in New York, we haven't. The first show that we'll do in New York actually will be the New York Comedy Festival weekend.

That's insane. KMK: We've been working nonstop for 26 months. We went right from the first season, it premiered, and then we started writing the second season and filmed the second season. We never stopped, so we haven't had a ton of time to travel. New York is one of the places we'd want to go first—the fans are fantastic there. The funny thing is, Ian Roberts, one of our executive producers, is one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade. So when I go to New York, that will probably be the first place I'll go—because I'll want to see the New York space.

Your Tim Cook Apple keynote address sketch was impressively vulgar. What was the thought process behind that one? KMK: The biggest exploration-slash-theme we were dealing with when that scene came up—one of our writers came up with it—was just, oh, my God, what a pair of shoes to fill. Speaking historically, if people know anything about Jesus of Nazareth, he had brothers and sisters. Could you imagine being Jesus' brother? [Laughs] What are you supposed to do? It's a tough time. We were all sitting around going, “Gosh, Tim Cook has just taken over for the 21st-century equivalent of Thomas Edison.” That's who Steve Jobs is. So how do you deal with that situation? And, of course, it's kind of a lampooning—because, obviously, Tim Cook is a pretty low-key guy. It goes back, almost, to the Obama-Luther thing. It's like, what is his inner anger translator saying, and how would it express itself?

Since Peele couldn't make it, would you be able to channel him and answer a question in character? KMK: I might be able to. Let's see if I can do that.

OK. Peele, how did growing up in New York City influence you as a comedian? KMK: [In Peele's voice] Well, it was great. I'll say that much. I grew up on the very dangerous streets of the Upper West Side, with people flinging bagels at me every day. So that was rough. But I think growing up in New York City informs my comedy because I saw so many different types of people in my life growing up. I think it's a big part of my education and my point of view about the world comedically.

Thank you. I loved the part about the bagels. KMK: That is literally a quote from him. [Laughs] So I figure you got a little bit of Peele in there.