The Smothers brother. Abbott, singular. Laurel, sans Hardy. And, for the more modern-minded, Tim, forever searching for Eric. In the comedy world, it can be difficult for audiences to separate the artist from the artistic duo, and even more challenging for the performers themselves. But Keegan-Michael Key seems to have solved the secret to his postpairing success. Although the performer is best known for his collaboration with Jordan Peele on Comedy Central's incendiary sketch series Key & Peele, he is hard at work creating his own singular career in film, television and the stage since the show ended its run in 2015. Part of this new path includes the Netflix series Friends from College, which premieres July 14 and offers a slightly darker side to Key. On the eve of the series' premiere, Key, 46, spoke with The Globe and Mail about fulfilment, comedy and how not to write a sketch about Donald Trump.
Friends from College is an interesting choice for you, in that it's an ensemble piece – are you seeking to immerse yourself in a cast, rather than stand out in your own project?
Not necessarily. It just happened to be that this ensemble was the one I wanted to work with. I do what I can to surround myself with people who are better than me or better than me at certain skill sets, so I'm always in a learning environment. Here, we have Cobie Smulders, who was on one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. Here's Fred Savage, a child actor who's now directing and acting. Here's Nat Faxon, who started out in sketch comedy and now has an Oscar! To be in the midst of these people is lovely.
It's interesting that you mention the learning aspect, because looking at your projects so far post-Key & Peele, they're of such a varied range that you must have picked up quite a bit of knowledge on every type and size of project.
I do look for a challenge in everything. I want every project to scare me a little bit. I'm in what I would consider right now this lovely, exciting transition period in my career. When I was in grad school, I was 90:10 drama to comedy. And then, all of a sudden, my professional life had an amazing detour into sketch comedy, and the ratio was flipped, 90:10 comedy to drama. So the past few years of my life, I started nudging back a bit, to 88:12. With the film Don't Think Twice, it was like 85:15. I'd love to get to this 50:50 place. I look at people such as Bill Murray as a model, or early De Niro, actors who were really trying to inhabit a character whose hearts beat at a different speed than yours, who never think about things that you think about. That's what I crave as a performer.
Playing Horatio in Hamlet [off-Broadway] can only further balance that ratio.
Absolutely, but the funny thing about Hamlet is it also brings me back to my roots. I mean, some of the greatest days of my life were, I'm in Detroit, driving up to Ontario to go the Stratford Festival to see Shakespeare. It was always what I thought my life would be; it was something I'd craved for so long. So with Hamlet at the Public Theater, I'm coming home and evening out that ratio. I'm getting a two-for-one on this.
You mentioned Nat starting off in sketch and ending up with an Oscar [for his Descendants screenplay] – is that something you're trying to actively emulate?
I'm not as interested in the writing of it, to be quite honest with you. I'm very interested in, and have always been, an interpretive artist. I do have a mild interest in being a generative artist, but it's much more in taking others' work and bringing it to fruition, or enriching it in some way. Every now and then, an idea comes into my mind and I want to bring it to life, but those moments are few and far between. Would I like to win an Oscar? If an Oscar was a byproduct of me being on the healthiest artistic journey that I can, then I would certainly welcome an Oscar. I'd also love, say, to be in a movie that Nat wrote. With Nat co-starring. And I'll produce it! That's more the framework that excites me.
In terms of working with great writers, what was your experience with Shane Black on his upcoming reboot of The Predator?
The great thing about that was Shane would turn to me sometimes and say, "I want this to be this, but how are we going to do it? Throw a line at me." I think of him as a singular voice, but there was always a collaborative sense of wanting us, the cast, to bring ourselves to these roles in the framework he set up. He's exactly the kind of person who I just want to spend time with – people who are better than me.
It seems there are increasing opportunities to do that these days, with the explosion of productions thanks to companies such as, well, Netflix here.
The opportunities abound. But what's most attractive, artistically, is that we don't get these homogenized stories. Netflix has been so niche-y, showing us what's going on in our world. There is this strange cultural polarization taking place in our country, and I think that Netflix, you can explore it and one of its shows will make you go, what the heck is this? But then you watch a person's story that has nothing to do with anything in your life, and suddenly the human connection is built. It's a wonderful, varied landscape.
Speaking of a culturally polarized country, though: Do you wish that Key & Peele was still around to scrutinize what's going on in the culture right now?
I do, I do. I think if Jordan and I did that, though, it would manifest itself in a way that you're not expecting, necessarily. I know that we would sit down with our writers and say, "How do we talk about the state of our country and never ever make a sketch about Donald Trump specifically?" I'll share this sketch idea with you. We never made it, but I might put it in something else. What if you had a guy who was spying on his neighbours across the street? He's got binoculars, and he's looking at these people who are brown and clearly Muslim. They're living their lives, playing with their kids. His next-door neighbour, meanwhile is Chechen. He's also a Muslim, but with blonde hair and blue eyes. So while this guy is watching his neighbours across the street, his other neighbour is building a bomb. But he doesn't look at him because he's white and and has blue eyes, so he can't be bad. The way to get the story across most effectively is to get granular. Get the minutiae of how we're really being affected. Trump is a whole other discussion, but he's not the problem. There's something going on systemically in our country, and that's how we elected him. We're not connecting, and that's what I would want to reflect on. I do wish we had that opportunity.
This interview has been condensed and edited.