Public Media Arts Hub

Elle and Keegan-Michael Key chronicle 'The History of Sketch Comedy' in new book


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: From "Mad TV," to "Key & Peele," to "Schmigadoon!" Keegan-Michael Key is a modern master of sketch comedy.

Now he and his wife, film and TV producer Elle Key, have taken a long look into the history of the art form. They talked recently with Jeffrey Brown for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

George Burns, Actor: Would you like to have me take you home in my car?

Gracie Allen, Actress: Oh no thank. I'm too tired, I'd rather walk.

Jeffrey Brown: A scene from the legendary comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen.

George Burns: I will tell you what you do. You go home, get your coat, come back and I will give you a ride in my boat. I have got a boat too.

Gracie Allen: Oh, wait a minute. My sister's got my coat.

George Burns: That's all right. My brother's got my boat.

Gracie Allen: Oh, George, you're silly.

Keegan-Michael Key, Author, "The History of Sketch Comedy": You want to do it.

Elle Key, Author, "The History of Sketch Comedy": So we have established, he's going to be George.

Keegan-Michael Key: I will do George.


Jeffrey Brown: Nearly 100 years later, Keegan-Michael and Elle Key do their Burns and Allen.

Keegan-Michael Key: Do you like to love?

Elle Key: No.

Keegan-Michael Key: Like to kiss?

Elle Key: No.

Keegan-Michael Key: Well, what do you like?

Elle Key: Oh, lamb chops.

Keegan-Michael Key: Lamb chops? Could you eat two big lamb chops alone?

Elle Key: Alone? Oh, no, not alone. But with potatoes, I could.


Keegan-Michael Key: Say good night, Gracie.

Elle Key: And scene. Good night, Gracie. That's right.


Jeffrey Brown: It still works.

Keegan-Michael Key: It still works. It works 100 years later.

Elle Key: You don't expect it.

Keegan-Michael Key: Yes, misdirection is misdirection, no matter whether it's 2023 or 1923.

Jeffrey Brown: The Keys love to make these comedic connections.

Keegan-Michael Key: It's always nice to know where you're coming from or where you came from. Even jokes have a history. Even jokes have an origin, and not just necessarily and specifically where the joke came from, but also just humor.

Elle Key: That same thing that we're laughing at now, our parents laughed at, our grandparents, laughed at.

Keegan-Michael Key: Our great-grandparents laughed at.

Elle Key: And then you go, well, wait a second. How far back does this go?

Jeffrey Brown: They first explored all this in a podcast series titled "The History of Sketch Comedy."

Keegan-Michael Key: Ahead of us is a colorful and enlightening journey through the world of sketch comedy. I'm not wearing any pants, film at 11:00.


Jeffrey Brown: And now in a new book by the same name, with a cover that has Keegan as some of the key characters along the way, from medieval jester to Blues Brother. Elle came up with the idea.

Elle Key: So, from a how book publishing works, they're like, well, we want a picture of Keegan. And I was like, well, I think the book covers so much history, I think just a picture of Keegan isn't enough. Would you be OK with seven Keegans?


Jeffrey Brown: Keegan gained renown for his routines with longtime partner Jordan Peele on their Comedy Central show, and in numerous other shows and movies.

Jordan Peele, Actor: Now, this November I want every one of you to ask yourselves, what has changed in the last four years?

Keegan-Michael Key: Who killed Osama bin Laden?

Jordan Peele: What has my administration accomplished?

Keegan-Michael Key: Did we accomplish killing America's biggest enemy? Check. Did that. Boom!

Jeffrey Brown: The book is a tour from the ancient world to modern classics, with a focus on sketch comedy, the skits and short playlets that are acted out.

Abbott, Comedian: Who is on first.

Costello, Comedian: Well, what are you asking me for?

Abbott: I am not asking you. I am telling you. Who is on first.

Costello: I'm asking you who's on first.

Abbott: That's the man's name.

Costello: That's whose name?

Abbott: Yes.

John Cleese, Actor: It's dead. That's what wrong with it.

Michael Palin, Actor: No, no, it's resting. Look.

John Cleese: Look, my lad, I know a dead parrot when I see one. And I'm looking at one right now.

Man: I would like to rent a car.

Woman: Gertz Rent-a-Car at your service, sir. We are number one, you know.

Woman: Mavis Rent-a-Car. We try harder.


Jeffrey Brown: Keegan describes in his youth seeing his normally stoic father dissolve into belly laughs while watching Eddie Murphy on "Saturday Night Live." It would change his life.

Keegan-Michael Key: Watching others, it affected me and watching the power. There's a power to comedy, the same way there's a power to drama, that you can touch other people and uplift other people with these art forms. And I wanted to be a part of that, desperately.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you think of yourself as a comedian or actor first, or both?

Keegan-Michael Key: I think of myself as an actor who does comedy.

Jeffrey Brown: But the acting part is the important part to you.

Keegan-Michael Key: Yes, to me, the acting part is the important part, because a character in a sketch, much like a character in a drama, they have no idea that they're in the play. They are living their lives and the actor gives over to the given circumstances of the play or the given circumstances of the sketch.

Jeffrey Brown: And the greats, the Keys write, are all great students of the art form.

Elle Key: Keegan and I together call it comedy math, is where the turn is, how long of a setup do you have before you heighten to make the joke go even to a crazier place or a wackier place, and how do you get the audience to go along with you so that you don't go too far?

Jeffrey Brown: But their favorite sketches are when things do go too far, what they call the, hey, you can't do that moment.

Keegan-Michael Key: A, hey, you can't do that moment is kind of one of those, I can't believe they went there moments.

Elle Key: Something wacky, ridiculous happens that you're like, no, that's just not right. You can't just do that. That's silly.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you know when you are going to do that? Do you know when you have hit that moment?

Keegan-Michael Key: Do I know when I have hit that moment?


Jeffrey Brown: Like, I can't do that, can I?

Keegan-Michael Key: Yes. Yes, but I'm going to. But I'm going to. There are moments when it comes up organically and spontaneously. And then there are moments when you absolutely know you're about to do it. You know that you're about to do a zinger.

Jeffrey Brown: But what about now, when the news is very, very serious? Is there still a place for comedy? The Keys think so.

Keegan-Michael Key: That involuntary reaction that happens within us when a joke is told, I think it's very therapeutic for us to guffaw, to belly-laugh.

It is not to take away from the seriousness of the times. We can still seek out ways of helping the world and being philanthropic or trying to find a way to be helpful in navigating this darkness that we're kind of encountering right now. But I do believe that we need a reprieve now and again. And comedy can offer that.

Elle Key: I grew up here in New York City and my family's Jewish. And I grew up in a family that told jokes. And I was always told or led to believe that it came out of — it didn't matter how difficult things were. We use humor to get through tough situations.

And a lot of the humor that we talk about in the book comes from the culture where they used humor to kind of lighten really dark, challenging times.

Jeffrey Brown: And that abides.

Keegan-Michael Key: That does abide.

Elle Key: Yes, it does.

Keegan-Michael Key: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: The book is "The History of Sketch Comedy."

Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key, thank you very much.

Keegan-Michael Key: Thank you.

Elle Key: Thank you.

Amna Nawaz: The power of comedy, and a laugh we all need these days.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.