On Keegan-Michael Key’s Podcast, a Provocative Case for Sketch Comedy
What if the most impressive post-sketch show career belongs to Key, not Peele?
Sure it’s a hot thing, but listen to me. Jordan Peele followed the Comedy Central hit “Key & Peele” and became just one of the greatest film writers of his generation, while his partner Keegan-Michael Key took a more varied route and stole scenes in “Hamlet” in the public theater and improvising on Broadway in Sing a film musical, star in a comedy series, do productive language work in blockbuster films, host a game show, and be an absolutely outstanding talk show guest (his conversations with Conan O’Brien are hilarious). Judging by the variety of work and the abundance of laughs, Key holds up well, especially after his new project, the Audible podcast series “The History of Sketch Comedy,” which will be released on Thursday.
The title doesn’t do it justice. Directed and in collaboration with his wife Elle Key, The History of Sketch Comedy is far more eccentric, fun, and personal than an Intro to Comedy course, although it is. Its roughly 10 half-hour episodes span thousands of years from the ancient Sumerians (who started the comedy with a fart joke) to Tim Robinson’s Netflix show “I Think You Should Go”.
But that comedy nerd story is filtered through memoirs, with Key telling stories about his emerging fandom, education, and rise from improvisational comic to TV sketch artist. He follows up conversation about the Aristophanes comedy by saying he grew up with a chariot from Greektown, Detroit.
On the side, he pauses to offer the practical tips you can find in MasterClass videos. “If you’re an actor in a comedy, try to make the crew laugh,” he explains in the ninth episode. Key explains concepts taught in comedy schools, such as “raising” or “playing a scene,” and also breaks down the four main archetypes of comedy characters that come from the Commedia dell’arte. He demystifies art and provides, if not a formula, then a roadmap.
The most ambitious role he plays, however, isn’t as a comedy mentor or amateur historian, but as a performer. The heart of this series, a strange genre hybrid that reminds me of Al Pacino’s documentary “Looking for Richard”, is in the sketches. Rather than relying on the tape from “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color,” or other popular shows, Key performs them all, sets them up, and plays all of the roles.
It’s an accomplishment to move from analysis to performance, let alone between Abbott and Costello and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. It’s also a risk. Can “Chappelle’s Show” jokes still work if you take Dave Chappelle off? And given the reputation that comedy doesn’t age well, will old sketches still make audiences laugh?
You are definitely excited about Keegan-Michael Key, who combines the bubbling enthusiasm of a fan with the craftsmanship of an experienced professional who knows that laughter can be contagious. Obviously, there is no way a podcast is going to prove that Sid Caesar’s physical comedy is second to none, as Key argues, but it can make a strong case for Bob and Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America” routine. Key’s version of this classic, based on the frustration of having a conversation with a man who takes extremely long pauses, is completely hilarious.
Key is generally a loyal interpreter, but his silly, flattering sensibility inevitably provides a new attitude that warms up the cool absurdism of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, for example. In his last episode, Key advocates what he considers to be the pinnacle of the art form: the foreplay segment in “Mr. Show, ”David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s great, innovative series of sketches that depends on an elegantly simple premise about the misunderstanding of the beginning of a scene. What makes Key such a great interpreter is his attention to the subtle choices, the slight variations that add to the pace and turn a setup into something dizzyingly fun.
Key joys in the hilarious, formally inventive comedy that shows in its very good discussion of British humor in the sixth episode. Along with the obvious examples – Python, “Beyond the Fringe” – he pays attention to an early 1970s television show, lesser known in America, called “The Two Ronnies,” which creates an entire sketch on misunderstandings of names. He then explains how a famous sketch he made on Key and Peele about a substitute teacher shares the same tactic. It is not the only time that he uses his own experiences to shed light on older work.
It is an edge for him to remember the first time he heard his stoic father laugh. When he saw him break up with Eddie Murphy and make a Stevie Wonder impression with Wonder by his side on “Saturday Night Live”, he made such an impression that Key described him as “the beginning of my sketch comedy path” described. His enthusiasm can turn into his father’s humor, but his delight in forgotten artists is contagious.
It’s debatable if Timmie Rogers belongs on this podcast (he’s more of a stand-up fan), but it’s still exciting to hear Key play this trailblazer in the mid-20th century, the first comic book, the Apollo and Star in one surpasses black variety show on network television “Uptown Jubilee”. Rogers rejected vaudeville stereotypes and racist conventions like blackface and switched from a musical double punch to a politically ironic soloist, which made him the founding father of stand-up. Compared to other comic book revolutionaries like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Rogers tends to keep the accounts of this era short. But with his old catchphrase (“Oh, yes!”), Key doesn’t just pay tribute. He offers a reintroduction.
In “The History of Sketch Comedy”, completeness is kept in mind, including the brief history of burlesque and vaudeville and the Broadway revue (“a vaudeville show in a tuxedo”). The podcast does everything it can to review a dizzying number of television shows. It feels grumpy to point out an omission, but the absence of Tim and Eric stands out because their aesthetics are so influential, even in shows that explore “history” like “Portlandia”.
And yet you get away from this series not only entertained and informed, but also convinced. It has an argument even if it is not openly expressed. Sketch is a rich, deceptively intricate art, even if part of its power lies in its simplicity. Farts endure jokes for a reason. By creating a de facto canon, Key proves that the best examples of sketch comedy, like classic theatrical works, can triumphantly be revived. In short, a need for form: if Rodgers and Hammerstein, why not Nichols and May?