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Keegan-Michael Key breaks down how he sets up a joke

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Keegan-Michael Key, loves sketch comedy - watching it, performing it and now writing about it. With Jordan Peele, he was half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, which was also the name of their show on Comedy Central. When the series ended, Key and Peele split up as a duo. Peele went on to direct the films "Get Out," "Us" and "Nope." Key went on to act in films, including a comedy about improv and sketch comedy called "Don't Think Twice." He co-stars in the TV series "Schmigadoon!" a great show that lovingly satirizes Broadway musicals. He made his Broadway debut in a show written by Steve Martin called "Meteor Shower" and played Horatio in the New York Public Theater production of "Hamlet," which starred Oscar Isaac as Hamlet. Now Key has returned to sketch comedy by writing about it. He hosted the podcast "The History Of Sketch Comedy," which he wrote with his wife, Elle Key. And they've adapted that into the new book "The History Of Sketch Comedy."

Keegan-Michael Key, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I think the last time we spoke was when "Key And Peele" ended the series on Comedy Central.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: That's right. So that would have been 2015 or so.

GROSS: Yeah.

KEY: So that was a while ago.

GROSS: It was a while ago.

KEY: It's good to be back.

GROSS: It's great to have you back. You were doing the MAD show during the previous actor's strike, right?

KEY: Yes, I was on MADtv at that point in time. That would have been, gosh, 2007, I think. And, yeah, so - but this is the first time in a very long time that the writers and the actors struck at the same time. And so it's been - it's just - it's a new landscape that we're dealing with. So...

GROSS: And let me explain your presence on the show. You're not here to talk about a movie or TV series. You're here because you have a new book. So that's why you can be on the show without breaking the guidelines.

KEY: That's right. That's right.

GROSS: So let me start with kind of where we left off. When we spoke, "Key And Peele" the TV series was ending. I think we spoke right before the last episode.

KEY: Oh.

GROSS: So what happened? Like, did you and Jordan Peele decide to end the series, or was it ended by Comedy Central?

KEY: No, we decided to end the series. We wanted to get really British about the whole thing, if you know what I mean, you know?

GROSS: I don't know what you mean.

KEY: Yeah. In the U.K., very often when they do series or - of television shows, what they do is they only do them for three years or four years or five years, and then they stop the series. They just - there's always a kind of - with me and Jordan, there was a natural ending. It just felt like we wanted to move on to other things. And we were like, yeah, we could probably continue to do this for six years or seven years or maybe even eight years. But we both felt very strongly that there were other things that we wanted to do, and so we decided to move on.

GROSS: But you were still on good terms with each other?

KEY: Oh, yes. We were on great terms with each other. It was a mutual decision for us. And we knew that we would work together again sometime soon. We just didn't know what the project would be. And Jordan was immersed in "Get Out" at the time. He was really...

GROSS: Oh, so he was already working on that.

KEY: Yeah, he had been working on it for about eight years. He had had different amalgamations of the script in his mind, and he kept on rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it. And he had been doing all of that - actually starting during the MADtv times, all the way into "Key And Peele." And so he was raring to go when we had finished the show.

GROSS: I don't remember you having a small part in that.

KEY: I didn't have a small part. Isn't that funny? I see that sometimes in the credits. It says - you know, it'll say uncredited or cameo by Keegan-Michael Key. And I'm like, I guess that means my spirit was in the movie. I - 'cause...

GROSS: Why weren't you in it?

KEY: I don't - you know, I don't know why I wasn't in it. I - it's funny. I think that he had a vision. And in this - with this particular project, his vision did not necessarily include my physical presence in the film. It might have been also that he wanted - and I'm speaking - this is all supposition - that he might have wanted a clean break from "Key And Peele" at that particular moment in time and really put his stamp on that project. That's a theory. That's a theory. I have no idea if that's the case. But that's how I kind of feel about it.

GROSS: I think this is something that everybody who's in a sketch comedy group goes through, when the group disbands. What's it like to be on your own after that?

KEY: It was - in a way, it's bittersweet because you miss the camaraderie and you miss the day-to-day. But then there's also this liberating feeling of, I'm on my own to do whatever I want and express myself however I want. And that's fun and also freeing. But there was something that made me miss the writers and the producers and the - that particular creative process, which was "Key And Peele," was something that I had grown accustomed to. And I really liked spending time with those people. But it was time to move on, and it was time to move into other directions and other avenues. And it just felt right for us to be finished at that time.

GROSS: One of the other avenues that you moved on to was playing Horatio in "Hamlet." Is that something that you'd always been yearning to do?

KEY: It's funny that you ask that because it is. It's something - I have wanted to play Horatio for over 20 years.

GROSS: Wait. Wait. I'm going to stop you. Most people want to play Hamlet, not Horatio.

KEY: Yes, I know. That's funny. It's interesting that I wanted to play Horatio. Ever since I saw - there was an actor by the name of Nicholas Farrell who played Horatio in the Kenneth Branagh film "Hamlet," that very expansive, exhaustive film where - I don't know if Kenneth Branagh cut a single line from that version of "Hamlet," because that was, like, a four-hour movie that I enjoyed every moment of. And I remember seeing his performance as Horatio, and I really, really, really wanted to be in that role. I love that part. I love playing the best friend or having an opportunity to play the best friend, and I couldn't have asked for a better partner than Oscar Isaac when we did it at the Public. It was magnificent.

GROSS: So one of the reasons to play Horatio is, like, he's the guy who survives at the end...

KEY: Yeah, he gets - he lives.

GROSS: ...After, like, everybody's dead.

KEY: Yeah, right. It's pretty much Fortinbras and Horatio, and then everybody else is gone. So...

GROSS: Spoiler.

KEY: Spoiler alert. I get to make it to the end. The Black guy makes it to the end, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEY: The Black guy makes it to the end.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Setting a new precedent.

KEY: Setting a brand-new precedent, both theatrically and cinematically. Yes.

GROSS: So one of the things you have to do playing Horatio is to kind of figure out what to do while Hamlet's doing soliloquies. So, like, you're on stage, people are seeing you, but no one's really paying attention to you. But someone's going to be look - like, you're still in the visual frame on stage.

KEY: Especially in the theater that we did it in, too. We did it in a small theater that had about 300 seats. And it was really - I mean, you're on top of the audience. In fact, sometimes I was on top of the audience. There is a moment in the play where I actually sit on somebody's lap and converse with them for a couple of seconds before I go on stage. So, yeah, you're right. You have to stay - well, for me, it was easy because Oscar Isaac was such a fantastic Hamlet, a role that Oscar had been preparing for for about 12 years. He and Sam Gold, our director - they both went to Juilliard together. And they were working - they had been working on this for such a long time, thinking about, one day we're going to do a production of "Hamlet" somewhere.

And every night, I got - like, it felt like I had a front row seat to watch these wonderful - you know, some of the most famous soliloquies in the history of English-speaking language. And so for me, it was really a challenge, a fun challenge, to be able to sit there and concentrate on those words and the way that Shakespeare constructed the words. And it was - oh, yeah, it was a lot of fun.

GROSS: But what about when you had to be onstage during a soliloquy? Like what did you do with your body and your face?

KEY: Well, what I would typically do was I would focus all of my attention - especially if I was sitting in the audience, I would focus my attention as much as possible on Oscar and actually lean my body forward so that if the audience member sitting next to me got weird or starstruck or anything, and they're turning and looking at me, they see that I'm looking at the stage. They see that I'm also being an audience member and trying to be a good audience member, so that I have the opportunity to kind of coach them in a way - is that, OK, make sure that you're paying attention to what I'm paying attention to as opposed to them, you know, looking at their wife and just going, look. Look. The actor - he's right here.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KEY: He's right here. Look at this guy.

GROSS: You're modeling behavior for them (laughter).

KEY: I'm modeling behavior. Well said, well said.

GROSS: When you were young, when you were 14 or 15, you used to listen to cassettes in the car of "Saturday Night Live." And I assume you memorized some of the sketches and kind of studied them. Did you dream of being on that show? Like, once you knew that you were going to be part of sketch comedy and improv comedy, was that ever your ambition?

KEY: It was definitely my ambition. In fact, before I knew I was going to be part of sketch comedy, before I - because when I was in high school, there were no avenues for sketch comedy in Detroit. We didn't - it wasn't like - if you were 14 years old and you were growing up in Chicago, there were places that you could go. You could go to the training center at the Second City and take classes. And there is a culture there that is already established. Whereas in Detroit, we didn't have that. All I had was the cassettes that I had of, you know, "The Best Of Saturday Night Live" or watching "Saturday Night Live" late night with my father when he would let me stay up before church on Sunday (laughter), which was sometimes nice of him to do.

And so I thought, once I saw Eddie Murphy, I just was done. I was like, that's it. I want in. I don't know what this is or how you do it. And my parents, being social workers, they really didn't have any knowledge to share with me about the industry. But I knew that there was some way I had to get in. I wanted to do what Eddie Murphy was doing at the time more than anything. I enjoyed listening to his standup, which, you know, his standup was replete with profanity. So my parents were not, you know, terribly thrilled about it. But when we watched him on "SNL," he was a dynamo. I just wanted - I would just look at him and just go, whatever that guy is doing, I want in. I want to be able to figure out how to be part of that world.

GROSS: Did you ever apply to audition on "Saturday Night Live" or dream that one night, when you were onstage at Detroit Second City - because Detroit Second City came after your childhood. So when you were first deciding, like, I want to do sketch comedy, you didn't have the option of Detroit Second City. It didn't exist yet.

KEY: That's right. It didn't exist yet. It didn't exist until the early '90s.

GROSS: So the Detroit Second City, did you dream of being discovered there by one of the "Saturday Night Live" scouts? Or did you send them, you know, tape hoping that they would bring you onto the show?

KEY: It's funny. When I was in Detroit, I did send a tape to "MADtv." I remember auditioning for "MADtv" on tape. But I thought - when we were in Detroit, I thought, you know, the scouts are never going to come here. The only way that you'd be able to do that is if you were at the Mainstage Theater in Chicago or at the e.t.c. Theater in Chicago, because the scouts always went to Chicago. And I was going to audition for "SNL." I was going to go to Studio 8H. And before that happened, I ended up having the opportunity to audition for "MADtv," so I went that direction.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Keegan-Michael Key. And now he's co-written a book called "The History Of Sketch Comedy." And his co-writer is also his wife and writing partner, Elle Key. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISHA MENGELBERG TRIO'S "ROLLO III")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with sketch actor, stage and screen actor and writer Keegan-Michael Key. He was half of the sketch duo Key and Peele, as in Jordan Peele. And he's appeared in TV series like "Schmigadoon!" onstage in a play written by Steve Martin called "Meteor Shower" and as Horatio in "Hamlet." And he's been in movies and has done voice work for animated films. Now he's written a new book about the history of sketch comedy called "The History Of Sketch Comedy." And it's co-written by his wife and writing partner, Elle Key.

What are some of the characters you created back when you were in Second City onstage? And I feel like we can talk about this because it's theater and it's not movies or TV.

KEY: That's right.

GROSS: So it's not represented by SAG, the Screen Actors Guild.

KEY: That's right. I played - I created a character named Coach Hines at the Second City. And he was a guy who definitely needed anger management classes. He was...

GROSS: Kind of like Obama's anger management...

KEY: Like Obama's anger translator.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

KEY: It seems like the characters - my most successful characters are these really angry characters that sometimes espouse violence (laughter), but it's kind of contrary to who I am in real life. But it seems to be the characters that resonate a lot with people. But Coach Hines was a character that I created at the Second City, and he's an amalgam of a bunch of coaches from my childhood. So, you know, he's, like, 20% this guy from grade school and 20% this guy from high school and 20% the dean of students from high school. So he's a football coach and a PE teacher and the basketball coach. And even the look of the mustache that he had and his hair were based or inspired by these coaches from my childhood.

GROSS: And how did he sound?

KEY: (As Coach Hines) He sounds - he's got this kind of - you know, there's, like, a break in his voice. And his voice is always about ready to break. I'm sorry, Casey (ph), if I'm getting loud, but the guy is loud, OK? He was always loud. And he's - and what he would do is he would threaten the students in the school because during an assembly, if people weren't behaving, he would make sure to whip them into shape, Terry, because I've had it, OK? Yamanashi (ph), Johnson (ph), Tompkins (ph), if the three of you don't knock it off right now - triple murder. I'm not even playing, OK? If everybody in this auditorium doesn't take the opportunity to shut their traps, I am going to set this building on fire, OK?

GROSS: So if you were attracted especially to people who were angry, why do you think that was?

KEY: I - you know, I don't know. I don't know exactly why. I - maybe there's some anger inside of me that I - that was my therapeutic way of getting it out was through character. Because I try to be, in my regular life, kind of like this, you know, hail fellow well met jolly guy. And then there's something about these characters that - I don't know. They're freeing in a way. It's interesting. I don't really know how to answer that question.

GROSS: Did you ever sit back and think, this is a fun show, watching this guy kind of lose his cool?

KEY: Yeah, it is fun. I think it's fun because he was so misdirected, too. That was part of what was so funny about him is that he would - he was being more disruptive than the students were. So then he would tell the students to be quiet or shut their traps and everything like that, and the funny thing is, he's the one that's interrupting the assembly. He's the one that's - that keeps on interrupting the principal as the principal is trying to speak to the student body about, you know, behaving, about not bullying. And then my character would be bullying the kids.

GROSS: I'm wondering how the new awareness in Hollywood of inclusion and diversity is affecting you as a light-skinned, biracial actor who can maybe, like, fit in either role. But, you know, I don't know how that's affecting you.

KEY: So far, it hasn't - I haven't really bumped into anything that's been untoward or has been really a challenge. I do look back at sketches from "Key And Peele," and I think to myself, oh, would I be allowed to play that role anymore?

GROSS: What kind of role?

KEY: Well, there was a sketch - the one that comes to mind right now is there was a sketch where I played an Indian doctor. And...

GROSS: As in from the country India?

KEY: As in from the country India, right. And so I wonder now if they would say, if you were going to be in that - if you're going to do that sketch, you would hire an Indian actor to play the role. And then I just wouldn't have been in the sketch. It just would have been me and - or just would have been Jordan and this Indian actor. Or any time Jordan and I would play cholo characters - Hispanic, you know, Los Angeles characters - we wouldn't - it seems that we wouldn't be in our own sketches because we would just be - we would be hiring - which I guess you could still call the show "Key And Peele." We would just be known more as writers than performers. But performing was so much fun. Being able to perform those characters was so much fun.

GROSS: So what's your take on that?

KEY: I think that the inclusion is important. I'm literally here trying to actually fix the show. In my mind, I'm going, how would we do our show now? And would we just simply not be in as much - in as many sketches? I want people to have the opportunity to play those roles. I mean, it's been such a long time that everybody else has co-opted those roles that it would be nice now that we'd have an opportunity for people to play their own race. I really am in support of it.

GROSS: You might not have had the money to hire them.

KEY: That's true. We might not have had...

GROSS: I mean, it's a sketch comedy show built around two actors who do characters. So I think, you know, it's kind of tricky 'cause you're - I mean, you're satirizing everybody that you see.

KEY: Right. Right. And that is actually kind of one of the traditions of sketches, that - is that you have a small troupe or, in this particular case, a couple, and they do everything. That's part of the razzmatazz of the show, is that you can - is that they're capable of doing everything. There's a kind of a virtuosity to it.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Keegan-Michael Key, and he has a new book he wrote with his wife, Elle Key, which is called "The History Of Sketch Comedy." And, of course, he is a sketch comic as well as an actor. And he was half of the duo Key and Peele. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Keegan-Michael Key. He first became famous as half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele along with Jordan Peele, who went on to be a filmmaker. Key went on to be an actor and now a writer as well. He's performed in drama and in comedy, things like in "Hamlet" at the New York Public Theater and in the streaming TV series "Schmigadoon!," which is a loving parody of Broadway musicals. He's done voice work for animated movies, and now he's written a book with his wife, Elle Key, about the history of sketch comedy. It is therefore called "The History Of Sketch Comedy."

So in talking about the history of sketch comedy, the subject of your new book, I'm thinking of the fact that your wife, Elle, co-wrote it with you. A through line through the history of comedy that I think is over is wife jokes, as in, take my wife, please. But so many jokes about, you know, wives and mother-in-laws that were always, like, really offensive - and not everybody thought of it that way at the time because that's what comedy was. But now it's just like you hear those jokes and just cringe. So how did you want to deal with wife jokes in the book? And I'm also wondering if you and your wife had long talks about wife jokes.

KEY: It's interesting. We've not talked about wife jokes that much. It's interesting. It's also interesting that Elle - she comes from a tradition - she comes from a Jewish family where they would tell what we like to call hard jokes, which - you know, a hard joke, Terry, is where you have a real definitive setup and a real definitive punchline - just a real - you know, set-them-up, knock-them-down kind of jokes. And Elle is very good at that. She has an encyclopedic memory for these kinds of jokes. And we never really explored wife jokes a lot. I feel like - it's interesting. You're right. They are cringeworthy now. It's so interesting that, generationally speaking, we seem to find things that are - I don't know why we thought wife jokes were funny in the first place. I wonder if it's just that men were trying as hard as they could to keep women under their thumb. And so we would make jokes about women nagging. And - but they're not funny. They're not really funny. We didn't have long discussions about it.

The thing that we spent more time talking about was Elle was kind of cracking open my head and looking inside and saying, oh, I can take this piece out, and I can take this anecdote and this story and use them as the thread through the book. So what she did is she took kind of the memoir part of the book, which is - which are stories about my life. And she wove them together with the history of comedy in general and also comedy - sketch comedy in specific.

GROSS: And I think I just found out that Elle is actually your partner and not your wife, so I can't really ask you about partner jokes.

KEY: Yeah. Right, right.

GROSS: Those partner jokes are so condescending.

KEY: (Laughter) Elle is my wife. But it's funny. She is my wife. She is my wife. But we actually...

GROSS: But you're partners on the book.

KEY: We're partners on the book. Yes.

GROSS: OK.

KEY: We're partners on the book.

GROSS: OK. Thank you for the clarification.

KEY: Yes, you're absolutely welcome. Our relationship started as partners, as working partners. We started...

GROSS: Oh, I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.

KEY: Yeah, yeah. We started - our relationship started wanting to figure out how to work together. And one of our first meetings that we ever had was we had a dinner, and we were trying to figure out how we would work together. And Elle was telling me all of these jokes, and I had never heard these jokes before. And at one point in time, she was like, are you kidding me? You're telling me you've never heard any of these jokes. I said, listen. I'm just a little Catholic Black boy from Detroit. I do not know these Borscht Belt jokes. And so bring them on. Come on. Tell me as many as you can. And she did. And I was howling. But we also found out that we both like to analyze jokes, which - some people will say there's a danger in that.

GROSS: Right. A lot of people will say that.

KEY: Yeah. But I find it very fascinating.

GROSS: So can you tell a joke and then analyze it for us?

KEY: Yeah. So I can tell you my favorite joke, a joke that Elle told me that evening that, today, to this day, is my favorite joke. And the joke is there's an old lady who calls downstairs to her husband, and she says, Morty, why don't you come upstairs and make love to me? And he says back to her, fine, but I can't do both.

GROSS: OK, so break it down for us.

KEY: OK, so the setup is, as soon as you hear the phrase, she calls downstairs - so you need to hear the word downstairs. So you need to know that the man is downstairs and that she wants him to come up the stairs. It's real basic, but you need to hear the phrase calls downstairs to her husband, Morty, and says to him, why don't you come upstairs and make love to me? Make love to me makes you feel - there's two things that could be happening. One is that you're going, OK, she's an older woman. So is it possible that he doesn't want to make love to her? That might enter your mind. But the other thing is, but making love is a desirable thing and a pleasurable thing. So wouldn't he want to make love to her? Of course he wants to make love to her. It's his wife. He loves her. So that - your brain is starting to bring up all of these answers of what you think the answer to the joke would be. Does that make sense?

GROSS: Yes.

KEY: Yes. So that's how a joke - that's how a setup of a joke works - is the setup always makes you start to assume what direction you think the joke is going in. And then when he says, fine, you go, OK, he's going to go upstairs. He's going to go upstairs. And he says, but I can't do both. The thing is that you then remember that, at the beginning of the joke, you said that she was an old lady, which makes you assume that Morty is also an old man. And you go, oh, I get it. He's old. So he - so once he gets upstairs, he's going to be so winded, he won't be able to make love. I get it. But I can't do both. Aristotle said that the ideal end of a dramatic situation is that it ends and that it's both unexpected and inevitable. So when you hear the end of a joke, a really good joke, usually it's unexpected and inevitable. So you don't - you go, oh, he's an old man. That's inevitable that once he gets up the steps, he's not going to be able to make love. So that is how I would break down that joke - hilarious - right? - absolutely hilarious.

GROSS: But it helps if you're writing a joke to think about that, right?

KEY: Yeah. That's what you have to think about. When you're writing a joke, you have to think about, how am I going to turn this at the end? How am I going to zag? And that's the most important part of the anatomy of a joke - is all the things that you're supposing and all the things that you're assuming when you set up the joke. And then how are you going to turn it on the back end?

GROSS: So it's time for another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Keegan-Michael Key, and he's written a new book with his wife and writing partner called "The History Of Sketch Comedy." He is a sketch actor who was half of the duo Key and Peele along with Jordan Peele. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Keegan-Michael Key. He's written a new book called "The History Of Sketch Comedy." His co-author is his wife and writing partner, Elle Key. He is a sketch actor who was half of the duo Key and Peele with Jordan Peele. He's since acted on Broadway, in movies, TV, and he sings and dances. So...

KEY: Some people would say I sing and move well.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I want to ask you a little bit about your early life. You were adopted at the age of 3 months. Your biological parents and your adoptive parents were interracial couples. When you were growing up, my understanding is you lived on the border of a Black part of Detroit and a suburb that was largely white. So what were the schools like that you went to? You went to Catholic school, right?

KEY: I did. I went to Catholic school. I went to a Catholic school in the city. And when I started going to school, I believe that the demographic of the school was kind of 50% white, 50% Black. But by the time I had graduated, it was in the 90th percentile of African Americans. So I spent a lot of time kind of traversing this social bridge, if you will, between my home life and my school life. Because at home, I spent most of my time with my white mother. And then at school, I spent most of my time with other African American students and teachers. And so I think part of why I do what I do for a living actually comes from the fact that I could jump between these cultural flag posts, if you will.

GROSS: So what did your parents teach you about race, and how did they model race for you as an interracial couple?

KEY: You know, my father, who was African American - it's interesting because he was actually a very quiet man. And I think what I learned from him in regard to race wasn't really about being - it wasn't really about being a proud Black man. I didn't really learn that from my dad. I almost kind of had to do that on my own. My dad was - it - sometimes I feel like he almost identified more as a Catholic than he did as an African American, which I know may sound strange. But he went to college in the '60s - in the early '60s. He went to college in Utah, which is where he grew up. My father grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the other 12 Black people. And he really - went to - he went to Utah State University. And there he met a monsignor who took him in.

And so you can imagine that the student body was probably 98% white at the time, if not more. And so my dad felt a little displaced and - but he didn't know what else to do. So he went to school at Utah State University and met this monsignor. And I think what happened for him was that he felt that the Catholics took me in. And so he converted to Catholicism and then converted the rest of his family to Catholicism, my grandparents. So we didn't have, like, this example of Black power or Black pride. That was not kind of what my dad was all about.

GROSS: What was it like seeing him not identify so much as Black?

KEY: I had to find it - it was confusing, in a way, because he was a large man, and he had very dark skin. So it was almost that he didn't - it was almost like he was choosing not to do that. But the thing is, he didn't have a choice. There was this thing where you kind of said, oh, if we have - my dad said to me when I was young, he said, if you have one drop of Black blood in you, you're Black. But my mother was the person that said that you can - or I don't know if she said should, but you can identify as a biracial person. And - because you're - otherwise you're denying the - one whole half of your culture. So it was always very, very confusing for me.

GROSS: Which approach did you take, or did you switch back and forth, or create your own idea of your own identity?

KEY: I think I had in my own idea of my own identity was that I am a person who is biracial and that I can span different cultures and that there's a few of us out here in the world. Somebody affectionately refers to us as swirls - like, you know, like when you get a chocolate and vanilla swirl soft serve - that they call us swirls and that a lot of us - you know, Jordan included - some like Jordan or Rashida Jones or Maya Rudolph - that there's quite a few of us out here who - it's almost as if we're - some people are bilingual. It's as if we're bicultural. And that's something that I identify with and identify as, is being a person who's bicultural.

GROSS: And how do you think you're seen by other people? That must change depending on who the person is.

KEY: Yeah, I think that I'm seen by African American youth and by African Americans in general - very often seen as one of the standard bearers. People often say that - to me that "Key And Peele" meant so very much to them as helping them identify as African American, but then also blerds (ph), or Black nerds, super-identify with "Key And Peele" because it's almost its own subculture. Jordan and I were writing from this subcultural place, which was being Black nerds, being - you know what I'm saying? Like, an African American who loves "Star Trek," or an African American who loves, you know, being a mathlete in high school and feels no shame about it those - people really identify with us.

But then also, on the other side of the spectrum, we have - I don't know if the term militant is what I'm looking for but people who really identify as Black and identify in regard to Black power, and they also enjoy the show. So - and then, you know, I've had - many white people will say how much they enjoy the show as well. And they're coming from a place of saying, the show is so clever. It's just so funny and clever. And - but I'm not getting cultural dialogue from those people.

GROSS: So you and Elle, your wife and writing partner, did a lot of research into the history of comedy going, like, way back. What's something that you found especially interesting or funny that you didn't know about before?

KEY: One thing I didn't know was that as far as we knew from our research, the first recorded joke ever was in 1900 B.C. So I wouldn't have thought it would have been that far back. It was by the Sumerians.

GROSS: When you say recorded, obviously you don't mean (laughter)...

KEY: Yeah. Yes, I don't mean on tape. Yes, right.

GROSS: ...You don't mean on tape or digital.

KEY: Yeah, I mean recorded on a stone tablet, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, OK. Stone tablet, all right.

KEY: And the joke - if you look in the book, the joke is - you know, we're talking about Sumerians, who were people who, you know, came up with algebra. And I think they invented the wheel (laughter). And this first joke that was recorded from our research is actually a fart joke.

GROSS: What was the joke?

KEY: The joke goes something like, since time immemorial, there has never been a young lady who did not fart in her husband's lap. That's the joke. So that goes right back to the beginning of what we were talking about, right? Wife jokes.

GROSS: Oh, interesting you'd point that out. Yeah. I'm wondering, like, what was the Sumerian word for fart (laughter)?

KEY: Yeah, that's a good word. Somebody should do that research.

GROSS: Who translated it? Yeah, I'm wondering who translated this.

KEY: Yes.

GROSS: So I can't ask you what you're up to next, although I'd really like to know, because you're an actor. You're a member of the Screen Actors Guild and are on strike and shouldn't be talking about that. You have been able to talk about what you've done onstage because stage actors are not part of the Screen Actors Guild. Whatever you're up to next that we can't talk about, I wish you great success with it. And I hope it's fulfilling and fun.

KEY: Thank you very much, Terry. I appreciate that. It's been lovely talking to you.

GROSS: It's been great talking with you. I really enjoyed it. Keegan-Michael Key's new book is called "The History Of Sketch Comedy." After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review a series of four animated adaptations of Roald Dahl stories directed by Wes Anderson. They're streaming on Netflix. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS SONG, "MEMPHIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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