It’s easy for Detroit-bred comedian Keegan-Michael Key to see what works with his Key & Peele audience. After all, the black-centric sketch comedy gig on Comedy Central is on YouTube, the premier global barometer for popularity. Turns out, some of Key & Peele’s YouTube clicks come from presidential staffers on Air Force One, who pass them along to the commander-in-chief on their iPads.
The show resonates with the president and his staff because one of its recurring setups has co-star Jordan Peele as Barack Obama and Key as Luther, crazed interpreter of the professorial president’s hidden, angry side. The skits even got the duo a shout-out from no less than the prez himself in April when Obama told Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s Late Night that his staff showed him recordings of “these guys Key and Peele.” When the pair met Obama in person the next month, the president told them he needed Luther in his second term.
“It was surreal,” says Key, who’s tall enough to stand eye to eye with the president.
Of course, YouTube isn’t a totally accurate gauge. That’s because people like PJ Jacokes, producer at Go Comedy! Improv Theater in Ferndale, pump up the comedians’ numbers by repeatedly clicking “play” for his favorite bits. Jacokes definitely has favorites: He estimates he’s accountable for at least 20 of one skit’s 4 million YouTube hits. It features a roster of college football players with goofy names like Hingle McCringleberry, J’Dinkalage Morgoone, and Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar.
“The humor on the show is a balance of highbrow and lowbrow that’s done very well,” Jacokes says. “It’s edgy and pushes the envelope, but with cause and social relevance.”
Jacokes met Key, 41, when he took improvisation classes at Second City Detroit, where the comedian was a cast member from 2001 to 2003. Since then, Go Comedy! has featured Key as part of a group called The 313, a Los Angeles improv troupe that includes other Second City Detroit alums, at the theater’s annual improv festival.
One of Jacokes’ other favorites has plenty of edge and relevance: a sketch in which Key and Peele play slaves on an auction block and become increasingly incensed when other men — including one scrawny, elderly man — are sold and they aren’t.
While Jacokes gets the joke, Key says some people don’t and are offended by it. He says it’s not about slavery at all. It’s about vanity — male vanity in a world where machismo is esteemed above all else.
“Jordan and I try not to make mean comedy,” Key says.
In fact, friends of the warm, friendly actor say he’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet.
Those who aren’t hip to Key & Peele and who never saw Key at Second City may still know who he is: He was on MADtv, co-founded and played at Planet Ant Theatre, and acted at the University of Detroit Mercy Theatre Company.
His gig on MADtv, a late-night show full of MAD magazine humor, lasted from 2004 until 2009. On that show, he portrayed Obama; nerdy, high-strung Coach Sandoval “Sandy” Hines; and other characters. Peele was in the cast, too.
In 2011, the man who managed both entertainers asked if they were interested in doing a pilot for Comedy Central. The cable network liked what they saw and Key & Peele debuted in 2012.
Key came to TV well prepared. He earned an undergraduate degree in acting in 1993 at U-D Mercy, where he appeared in such productions as Talk Radio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich.
“Keegan was trained for the stage and could have done well,” says U-D Mercy Professor David Regal. “He could still do well. He’s equipped to do anything, and he was a talented kid when he came here.”
After earning a master of fine arts in performance at Pennsylvania State University, Key was headed to a life on the stage in Seattle, but his ties to the Detroit acting community called him home. That was when a local producer-friend cast him in her movie Get the Hell out of Hamtown. The movie was made in remembrance of Geraldine “Chi-Chi” Regal, Key’s friend and Regal’s daughter, who was killed by a drunken driver at age 25.
The film crew started producing live theater at Planet Ant coffeehouse in Hamtramck to pay their project’s bills, recalls Ant founder Hal Soper. That seemed to ring a bell for Key, who soon started talking to Soper over drinks at the 7 Brothers Bar, a Hamtramck showbiz hangout, about transforming the coffeehouse into a permanent theater.
“I thought it was just bar talk,” Soper says. “Two months later, Keegan called back, and said he was ready to go.”
Key focused on Planet Ant until 2001, when he left for Second City Detroit, followed by Second City in Chicago.
Always My City
Today, Key lives in Los Angeles and has quite a few TV credits, including ER, I’m With Her, The Planet’s Funniest Animals, Love Bites, and Gary Unmarried. He’s been in movies, too: Mr. 3000, Role Model, Just Go With It, Due Date, and two unreleased films shot earlier this year.
His wife, Cynthia Blaise, was formerly a voice and speech teacher at Wayne State University and part of the Detroit acting community. The pair met at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, and worked together on Hamtown. They married four years ago.
Although he lives 3,000 miles away, Key comes to visit and in October took his mother, Patricia Walsh, a retired social worker, to a World Series game.
“It will always be my city,” the fidgety, gregarious Key says of Motown. Key tells Blaise that if he dies before her, she should send his body to Detroit for burial. He makes it a point to wear a Detroit-centric item whenever he’s on a television interview program, maybe a T-shirt from Slows Bar B Q, and mentions the Motor City on his show or works Detroit landmarks, such as Jefferson Avenue or WSU, into a sketch.
Back in L.A., he performs with The 313 once a month at the Second City Training Center to keep his improv skills sharp.
He and a few fellow Detroit ex-patriates in The 313 have helped provide improv classes for Detroit high- and middle-school students via the Detroit Creativity Project. About 200 have benefited so far (see “Improvising Life Skills,” below).
So Much Sparkle
Perhaps Keys tries to help students with improv because he received encouragement at crucial times in school, too.
Until his junior year in high school, Key would most likely have checked off “undecided” on college applications asking what field he wanted to pursue, says his former teacher Mary Rashid.
But then Rashid, his choir director at Shrine High School in Royal Oak, urged Key to audition for a role in Godspell at the school. He was cast in the role of Jesus, and his onstage experience was an epiphany.
“It was Godspell,” he replies when asked what led him to acting. It would not have happened without Rashid recognizing Key’s gifts when he was a teen.
“He just had so much sparkle,” she says, recalling the wit and creativity that made him a comedic standout among the 72 students in the choir. “There were times when all you could do was laugh.”
The power to make people laugh showed itself even earlier. A chum from Gesu Grade School recalled Key acting out entire Marvel comic stories with his own humorous embellishments.
“Not very long into our talks about comics, I’d realize, ‘We’re no longer a bunch of kids talking about comics here, we are being entertained’!” one wrote online in response to a Detroit Free Press profile of Key. “None of us ever doubted that he had major talent for making people laugh.”
Key recalls thinking to himself at age 12: “I want to be modest, but they’re laughing.”
Even though Eddie Murphy was a popular stand-up comedian and actor by that time, the thought of following in his footsteps never occurred to the young Detroiter.
Instead, while growing up, he aspired to be a veterinarian, a movie star, or an athlete like his hero, Lynn Swan, Football Hall of Famer and former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But when childhood epilepsy ruled out rough sports, Key gave up that dream and ran track and played soccer.
He’s thoughtful when he talks about why the life of an actor is so right for him. Key confesses that he wants everyone to like him, which stems at least in part from the fact that he was adopted. He’s the child of an affair between an unmarried white woman and a married black co-worker, and his mother couldn’t clear the hurdles of raising a biracial child as a single mother in 1971. So she gave him up.
Although Key’s adoptive parents gave him a good life, and he’s enjoyed a loving relationship with his biological mother since reconnecting with her when he was 25, Key says the acting world provides connections with others that he needs.
“I need people like I need air,” he says.
Improvising Life Skills
Ron Lyons, a graduate of Detroit’s Western International High School, says the improvisation acting classes he took there were unlike anything else he’d ever experienced in a classroom.
“It was good chaos,” says Lyons, 18, of the classes provided by the Detroit Creativity Project (DCP), which are supported by, among others, Keegan-Michael Key of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele. “We actively got up and we actually got involved.”
Lyons may not have known it at the time, but he was one of the first beneficiaries of the DCP, a project of Y-Arts Detroit, the arts and humanities branch of the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit. It provides improv classes to middle- and high-school students in Detroit at no charge to the district. DCP started in January 2012 with about 80 students, and expanded in the fall semester to include 120 more.
Claudia Logan, a junior who plans to study drama in college, took her improv classes at Cass Technical High School. Logan, 16, was already an experienced actor, but she was used to memorizing lines and following her directors’ cues.
“I realized that I can think off the top of my head more than I thought I could,” she says. “I just came out of my shell more.”
While Lyons has gone on to classes at Specs Howard and acting in community theater, he wishes he could join Logan in her improv classes, for more reasons than one. “It shows that Detroit high schoolers are not just at-risk kids doing drugs,” he says.
Margaret Edwartowski, a Second City Detroit alum and playwright, is director of arts for Y-Arts. She explains that DCP not only benefits students, it’s also provided employment for seven actors who teach the classes.
Edwartowski’s ties with DCP founder Marc Evan Jackson, also formerly of Second City Detroit, led to the local program.
Jackson, who now lives in Los Angeles, was inspired to start the project by Mayor Dave Bing, who said the future of his city lies in manufacturing and creativity. Jackson says he, his veterinarian wife Beth Hagenlocker don’t know much about manufacturing, but they know a lot about creativity. Through a series of cookouts at the couple’s home with ex-Detroit actors, writers, and directors, DCP was formed.
“When Beth and I had the first meeting and we said one way we could help is by helping provide improv in the Detroit Public Schools, everyone said, ‘Yes, of course, how could we not be doing this already?” Jackson says.
In addition to providing money for improv classes, DCP set up a website (detroitcreativityproject.org) to accept donations. It includes a promotional video featuring Key, Jackson, teachers and students.
Edwartowski and Jackson extol the benefits of improvisation. She says it teaches teamwork and other lasting skills. He says it teaches participants respect, how to listen, and even how to act silly at times.
“Improv makes you a better person,” he says. “It’s all about having a good heart and practicing the golden rule of making others with you onstage look better.”
Inspired by the improv talents of Detroit’s Keegan-Michael Key? Check out classes or performances at: