Key & Peele wraps up its third season next week, and the dynamic sketch show continues to work like a well-oiled machine, delivering an impressive and idiosyncratic mix of sketches with strong performances from creator-stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and pitch-perfect cinematic aesthetics from director Peter Atencio. Comedy Central has renewed the show for a fourth season, and credit must also go to executive producers Jay Martel and Ian Roberts. As showrunners, Martel — a television, film, and theater writer known for Strangers with Candy — and Roberts — writer, producer, UCB founder who executive produced Players on Spike TV with Martel — unite the disparate players around a common vision, oversee the writing staff, and represent the show to Comedy Central.
I recently talked with Roberts and Martel about their roles as showrunners, the writing process, and how Key & Peele has changed in its three seasons.
Did you know Jordan and Keegan before getting involved in the show?
Jay Martel: We knew vaguely of their work on MADtv and stuff, but we didn't really know them at all. They both knew Ian from the Upright Citizens Brigade, though, so there was a connection there.
Ian Roberts: I had worked with Jordan on Reno 911!, but it’s not like we really knew them. We just knew of them.
What was the process like constructing something around their sensibility and finding the tone of what became the show?
Martel: You always hope that when you’re working with writer-creators that they’re good, and we were relieved when we got the first drafts of the sketches and they were fantastic. It meant that it was going to be a really good show. We worked together to figure out the sensibility of the show and figure out what kinds of things we wanted to do and what kinds of things we didn’t want to do. A lot of the pilot was just feeling out where we wanted to go with the show. Jordan and Keegan initially had a more high-concept idea of an alternate universe. That idea gradually gave way to a looser — when you look at some of the sketches, you do realize that they do all take place in the same universe and that characters are starting to recur and you start seeing names of certain things in other places. The longer the show goes, the more it is becoming the original version of a Jordan and Keegan universe.
What’s exciting about having a group of established characters in reserve?
Martel: It’s a staple of sketch shows. It’s what most sketch shows lean on — recurring characters. We initially went out of our way not to have them recur because we wanted to be different. And both Jordan and Keegan are from MADtv, and they were interested in doing everything they could to distance themselves from that sort of show. But once we felt like we firmly established the show’s identity, then it was just too tempting not to bring certain characters back.
I wanted to ask about the cinematic aesthetic of the show. For every sketch — whatever genre you’re in — it looks and feels like that genre, and everyone seems to be on the same page tonally. How did you build that consistency?
Roberts: I think it’s something we established at the beginning of working that, philosophically, we think that comedy comes across best when everything that is not the joke, when what’s funny about the show is played realistically. That includes the way it’s filmed, the way the guys act. There’s no broadness to the film, to their acting; there’s no garishness to the way it’s filmed. The real, dramatic version — or whatever it would be normally — and then the tweak is in the comic concept that you play in that world.
Martel: We’ve also been lucky to have the same director, Peter Atencio, basically the same crew, and basically the same writing staff for going on four seasons now. Everyone kind of understands what the idea is of the show and what we’re trying to do. No one tries to goose the joke. No one tries to be ludicrous or silly outside of the world of the sketch that we’re trying to establish. It’s very important to us.
Something I noticed this season is that there seem to be more epilogues to sketches or scenes where the joke is heightened even further. I’m thinking of the Of Mice and Men end to the hype man sketch or the scene in the hallway of the “Slap-Ass!” sketch. Is that an intentional move you’ve been exploring?
Martel: No, I think it’s totally accidental but it’s part of the constant hunt for a satisfying ending. Anyone who has made a living writing sketches knows it’s the hardest part about writing sketches. We all know the escalation: we want to build this, we’ve got this great joke, we want to keep going with it. A lot of times when you get down to the fifteenth draft of a sketch, it’s like, “How the fuck do you end this in a satisfying way that people won’t be expecting?” Because the last thing you want is for people to be ahead of you. So I think as we get more ambitious, as we’ve written more sketches as a team, one of the things I think what you’re seeing is a more ambitious way of ending sketches, sometimes almost creating a second sketch in order to end the first sketch.
Roberts: I’d say it’s a basic trick of ending a sketch is to take a left turn. And sometimes you change locations to take the left turn and sometimes you don't. But that’s a good way to end a sketch, take a left turn at the 11th hour.
Martel: I can speak specifically to the bad hype man sketch which you referred to. We basically backed into the Steinbeck ending. Originally there were lots of endings proposed, but what would you do really do if you had this guy? You would have to get rid of him somehow. And then somebody brought up the Of Mice and Men thing, and we were like, “Oh, let’s just really do it, have him be Lenny.”
Roberts: I don’t know if you remember this, but that ending was actually first on a sketch that we didn’t do with the zombie who had no arms and legs who kept following the other zombie everywhere. And in the end he took him out to the forest and shot him.
Martel: Oh really? I thought that was written afterwards. It’s always a battle of survival to end those sketches sometimes. It gets pretty ruthless.
Roberts: You have the same game: another guy who’s kind of dogging you and won’t stop messing up your deal. Whether it was the zombie or the rap guy, he’s got this guy who’s bringing him down. In both cases it works pretty well to kill him like Lenny in Of Mice and Men.
How many sketches do you end up writing in a season, and how many make it into the show?
Martel: We had 13 episodes this season. We ended up producing 83 sketches. To fill those 83 slots we wrote over 300 sketches. Of those sketches we submitted about 175 to Comedy Central. And then out of those 175, I think we got about 125 approved. And out of that 125 we had to decide which 83 we were actually going to produce. As the process went on, it got harder and harder until at the end it was almost excruciating because sometimes sketches that were one person’s favorite had to be put away for another season. And we always come back to sketches and look at them again, but it’s sometimes hard to go back to sketches that you’ve already passed over. There’s a lot of blood on the floor.
What’s your relationship with Comedy Central like?
Roberts: It’s amazingly good. We have really smart executives we deal with, and there’s great respect which grows with each successful season on both our sides. If anything, part of the difficulty this season was that a lot more scenes got approved, because they’ve seen in the past the scenes that they thought might have issues turn out to be fantastic scenes. So you’re more and more hesitant to really kill anything. It’s been a great relationship: very supportive, smart, and usually if they have an objection it makes sense.
How conscious are you of balancing tone in an episode and in individual sketches? Of balancing sketches with some kind of social comment versus purely goofy sketches?
Martel: We try to mix it up, obviously. We don’t want to hit anyone over the head with a lot of political sketches in one episode or really silly sketches. We want to get a mix in every episode. Also, when we put all the cards on the wall of our office to try to figure out the show orders, we have elaborate codes written onto each card that say like, "This is a parody," "This is a genre parody," "This is a gang-related sketch," "This is a sketch that involves people dying," "This sketch has music in it." So when we start looking, going through these cards and trying to figure out our perfect show orders, we try to get the right mix. It doesn’t always work. There are so many things to take into consideration. Every now and then, I see a show that I don’t think is balanced enough, but generally I think we get it right.
Roberts: Sometimes you think you’ve got a great one, then someone’s like, “Oh, Jesus, we had four sex scenes. We never have that.”
Martel: Yeah, I know. There are so many variables that you’re dealing with. And the reason you’ll take a sketch out of a show — that same sketch will have something that makes it invaluable to the show. By taking it out, you’ve screwed up the show. It’s a real house of cards.
You’ve been vocal in the past about bringing the audience that’s found the show online to watching it on Comedy Central. Has that been a challenge?
Roberts: Yeah, a successful one. The ratings have gone up substantially this season, and every video we post, we try to let people know that a lot of other scenes are available only on TV. Yeah, the ratings have gone up this season.
Martel: It’s hard to know how effective our campaign has been and how much it’s just people finally discovering the show on TV. But yeah, that’s always been a priority for us. The interesting thing about the second season is that while the show suffered ratings-wise, we started having these crazy viral video hits on the Internet. And so the challenge was, people seem to be watching the show more than ever — they’re just not watching it on TV. The show, in many ways, is at the nexus of this new paradigm of media. On one hand, TV is the old media, computers are the new, and yet we all get paid from TV. So we’re still trying to figure out how to keep people interested in the old-fashioned box in their living room. My feeling is most people under the age of 40 still watch the show on their computer.
Roberts: And the problem’s a little worse for a sketch show because it’s very easy to watch in bits, because it’s self-contained. Whereas if you show three minutes of a narrative show, it’s frustrating and sort of necessary that people learn how those three minutes drives into the show to see what it was part of. You don’t have that same need with sketch. The sketch is satisfying in and of itself. Three minutes of content can stand alone.
How has the show changed internally or in a more noticeable way for viewers since the first season?
Martel: One thing that’s changed a lot is just the way we handle the live segments that introduce the show. I think that’s where the show has improved the most markedly. The live segments have become much better and free-flowing, and part of that is Comedy Central’s willingness to let Keegan and Jordan be very loose with it. And I think they do a great job. We take a moment before we go into the rehearsal and figure out what they’re going to talk about, but it’s basically improvised. If you look at the live segments from the first season, to me, they’re so much more stilted and less funny than the ones that exist now.
Roberts: One of the big changes this year was the Metta World Peace pieces because there had never been anything that wasn’t all about Keegan and Jordan. And that was a crazy departure. Comedy Central, again, credit to them, because it was crazy, like, “What? Really? We’re going to have just 30 seconds where they’re not there? It’s just Metta World Peace?” So that was a thing that definitely from the outside was a big departure.
Martel: We spoke before about recurring characters. Those have become much more prevalent in the last season. And in general, I think that the sketches have gotten better and better. Initially, we clung to a certain degree to commenting on race. That will always be an important part of our work, but as [Jordan and Keegan] have gotten more established as comedy stars they have more freedom to do lots of different kinds of people in different walks of life. Like the mafia sketch we did this season, I don’t think that could have ever happened in the first season. People are on board now to see Jordan and Keegan doing every kind of race and ethnicity, whereas in the first season that might not have been the case.
Roberts: The show was even advertised and sold the first season as very race-heavy. All the promos were dealing with race. But yeah, definitely, we got to take the emphasis off of that, just let them be hilarious.
How did Metta World Peace get involved? What kind of feedback have you heard from viewers about those segments?
Martel: One of our writers wrote a speech called “Metta World News” at some point which was just a bunch of crazy African American entertainers like Cee-Lo Green, Kat Williams — they were all basically played by Keegan and Jordan. And we didn’t end up doing the sketch, but then at some point, it came out that Meta World Peace was a big fan of the show. And then something clicked, and it was like, well, why not just get him to do it? Originally, Jordan and Keegan were going to be in the sketch with him, but at some point they felt like it would be cooler and even weirder if it was just him. So it was really exciting that he showed up. He said he was going to do it, but we weren’t really going to believe it until it happened. And then suddenly he was there on the set, and not only was he was great and up for anything — I mean, we were throwing the most bizarre lines and actions in the world at him, and he was up for it — but he also stayed for two or three hours. We shot like 14 different segments with him. He was such a cool guy. It was a fun afternoon.
As far as reactions go, mostly it’s just been incredulousness from people I know. But I hope it’s brought a new kind of fan to the show. That was our hope.
Roberts: They always delight me. It’s just crazy. I love them thinking, “How’d they get that on?”
Martel: Just to give my partner a plug, a lot of the scripts that Metta began with were just things that Ian has been preoccupied with for a long time. Like, waking up and finding a six-inch man on your chest, what would you do? And the thing about punching yourself in the face really hard, could you knock yourself out? Those were all from the textbook rants of Ian Roberts.
Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.