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Did you see the 2013 comedy-horror movie Hell Baby? No? Well, film critic Devin Faraci did, and what stood out for him about the otherwise “silly” film was a supporting actor who “walks into Hell Baby, picks it up and walks directly out of the theater with it.” That was Keegan-Michael Key. In his write up, Faraci said, “I’m not sure why this guy isn’t one of the biggest comedy stars in the universe, but we still have time to correct this oversight, and Hell Baby will help.”
Maybe, maybe not, but Key & Peele did. The history-making comic duo (Key and partner Jordan Peele) met at MADtv, where they were originally cast against each other so parent network FOX could pick one black actor for the permanent ensemble. Obvious questions about that strategy aside, the network recognized chemistry when they saw it and hired them both. Even “black actor” seems a slightly ridiculous term for two bi-racial comics who refused to see black culture as a monolith and any culture, topic, or character as off-limits for comic cannon fodder.
Their two-man parade of seemingly endless impersonations (and wigs) broadened and became even funnier when Key & Peele became its own sketch show on Comedy Central in 2012, sparing neither gay nor straight, young nor old, Asian nor Latino, black nor white, nor icons modern or historic. Not even vampires couldn’t escape ridicule. In its eulogy for the best TV comedy shows ending runs in 2015 (including The Colbert Report, David Letterman on The Late Show, and Parks and Recreation), The Atlantic said, “The departure of Key & Peele deserves to be remembered as the biggest loss of them all, because it was the only example of a show ending when it still had so much originality and energy left…The originality, charm, intensity, and fearlessness of Key & Peele will be impossible to replace.”
Key’s own abilities as a dauntless comic surrogate for almost any faction of society brought him to the attention of President Obama, who was in need of an Official Anger Translator for the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It’s probably the first time the event has racked up over 7.3 million YouTube views—no mean feat in a town that regularly offers up a bottomless smorgasbord of things to laugh at.
Key’s rejection of any single racial or comedic stereotype appears to have started early and to have influenced his career path. Adopted as a child by a bi-racial couple in Michigan, he discovered a passion for theater in high school, largely because of the multi-cultural kids it attracted. He saw that unlike so many of us in high school, these kids joined drama not out of the desire to belong to a certain group, but out of love for their craft. He pursued his MFA in Theater at Penn State with the intention of becoming a “poor, happy, artistically fulfilled” dramatic actor, doing regional theater and Shakespeare festivals. But for a guy whose knee-jerk reaction to anyone who says, “There’s no way to make this funny” is an immediate and compulsive need to prove otherwise, a comedy detour was probably inevitable. That, and he’s just a damn funny guy.
Though Devin Faraci has been proven right about Key’s talent several times over by now, we wouldn’t be surprised if his review of the upcoming Don’t Think Twice is only four words: “I told you so.” And then there’s the tantalizing rumor of a script-in-the-works with Peele and Judd Apatow, who’s said he thinks the duo are “capable of making a movie America desperately needs right now.” All we know is that a film from a triumvirate like that is one we desperately need to see right now. Key and Co. aren’t sharing details, so if Luther is still available, we’d like to hire him to send a little message to our friend Keegan: GET OUT OF OUR DAMN STUDIO AND GO MAKE IT, ALREADY.