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For Key And Peele, Biracial Roots Bestow Special Comedic 'Power'

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele each have a white mother and black father, and a lot of the jokes on their Comedy Central show are about race. Peele tells Fresh Air that their backgrounds allow them to do characters others would feel uncomfortable doing.

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Other segments from the episode on December 31, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 31, 2013: Interview with Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer; Interview with Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

Transcript

December 31, 2013

Guests: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, & Jorma Taccone - Jordan Peele & Keegan Michael Key

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, filling in for Terry Gross, who is out with a cold. We're ending the year with another of our favorite interviews of 2013. It's from June, when Terry spoke with three alumni of "Saturday Night Live": Andy Samberg, who was a cast member; and writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone.

Collectively they're known as The Lonely Island. Their digital shorts for SNL have included such famous hip-hop video parodies as, well, let's called it "Bleep in a Box" with Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake; and "3-way," with Samberg, Timberlake and Lady Gaga. Samberg currently stars in the Fox sitcom "Brooklyn 99." Schaffer directed the film "The Watch," and Taccone played the pretentious artist Booth Jonathan on the HBO series "Girls."

When Terry spoke with The Lonely Island in June, the group had just released its third album of hip-hop inspired parodies called "The Whack Album." Let's start with a track from "The Whack.". This is "YOLO," and it features guest vocalists Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOLO")

THE LONELY ISLAND: (Rapping) YOLO, you only live once. The battle cry of a generation. This life is a precious gift. So don't get too crazy, it's not worth the risk. You know that we are still young, so don't be dumb. Don't trust anyone 'cause you only live once. Ugh, you only live once, that's the motto. So take a chill pill, ease off the throttle.

(Rapping) Never go to loud clubs 'cause it's bad for your ears. Your friends will all be sorry when they can't hear. And stay the hell away from drugs 'cause they're not legal. Then bury all your money in the backyard like a beagle. 'Cause you should never trust a bank, they've been known to fail. And never travel by car or bus, boat or by rail.

(Rapping) And don't travel by plane. And don't travel at all. Build a bomb shelter basement with titanium walls. And wear titanium suits in case pianos fall on 'ya. And never go in saunas 'cause they're crawlin' with piranhas. And never take the stairs 'cause they're often unsafe. You only live once, don't let it go to waste.

(Rapping) You know that we are still young, so hold off on the fun. Cook your meat 'til it's done, 'cause you only live once. Yeah, and here's another piece of advice: Stay away from kids 'cause their hair is filled with mad lice. There's no such thing as too much Purell. This a cautionary tale, word to George Orwell...

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming. So let's start with "YOLO," which we just heard, which usually means you only live once, but in yours it's you ought to look out. So which one is more of the motto of your life?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Which one were you more brought up with?

ANDY SAMBERG: You know, our version begins as you only live once, and by the end, the conclusion is you ought to look out. So I think it's kind of like telling our story of getting older and using more discretion and more caution. But it's also a cautionary tale. Like you ought to look out, and you only live once. It's somewhere in between I think is what...

AKIVA SCHAFFER: Yeah, you can go far. You can too far with you ought to look out, as well, until you're just basically sitting in a room by yourself rocking back and forth holding your knees and not wanting to go outside.

JORMA TACCONE: Howard Hughsing it, so to speak.

SCHAFFER: Yeah, so that could be bad, too.

GROSS: Well, my favorite line is there's no such thing as too much Purell.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So the hook of this, the song part, is like really catchy. Did you really want to be regular songwriters, as opposed to comic songwriters when you were young or now?

SAMBERG: Not really. I mean, this is Andy. I'm speaking personally. I always wanted to do comedy in one way, shape or form. And I did mess around with comedy music when I was in, like, high school and college.

TACCONE: Yeah, we all did, for sure.

SAMBERG: And then we sort of fell into it on accident when the three of us decided to move to L.A. together, and we were all living together, and our roommate had like a little digital eight-track, and we would have some drinks and come home and make joke songs. And that's sort of how it started. But it was never - any ability music-wise is completely happenstance, sort of stumbled into that part of it.

TACCONE: We grew up in Berkley, California - this is Jorma speaking, hi - listening to hip-hop and R&B, and so when we had our friend's eight-track, we would just loop old funk samples, like sort of the way that, you know, hip-hop came about, and make little beats and just make songs until the wee hours of the morning.

GROSS: Now on your new album and on, you know, some of the digital shorts, you have like real hip-hop stars on there with you. So what are some of the things that you've learned from working with people who do this seriously, for real?

TACCONE: That they're better than us.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBERG: Yeah, it's harder than it seems.

SCHAFFER: We learned a lot about recording from Justin Timberlake, legitimately, because that was so early on when we did the first on, "Blank in a Box." I don't know what you're allowed to say.

GROSS: Yeah, not the thing that's in the box.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAFFER: OK, great.

SAMBERG: Richard.

TACCONE: "Richard in a Box."

SCHAFFER: But that was pretty early on in our comedy music career. So we were still really just doing - like teaching ourselves how to use the stuff and didn't really know how to use, like pro tools or any of that stuff. So when he came and did that song with us, he taught us, like, 10 things, I would say, that we still use to this day about just proper recording and kind of little tricks about using, you know, the left speaker versus the right speaker and stuff like that.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guests are Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, the three members of Lonely Island, the group that did all those great digital shorts, music - like hip-hop digital shorts for "Saturday Night Live." Now they have a new album, and that's called "The Wack Album," and we should hear another track from it.

So I - since we were talking about Justin Timberlake, why don't we hear "3-way," which is really hysterical, and it's in a digital short on "Saturday Night Live," and now it's on the new album. So I'd like you to talk about how you came up with this idea, and the idea is basically it's cool for two guys to be together if it's a three-way with a girl in between. So...

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBERG: How did we come up with it?

SCHAFFER: They're looking for any excuse to get into bed together, these two guys.

TACCONE: Yeah, that's the real...

SAMBERG: Yeah, it was the third in the trilogy of these two guys, these two characters, and, you know, in the first two there were all sorts of allusions to, like, how into each other they are. And we felt like that was sort of the natural next step.

TACCONE: How deeply they were looking into each other's eyes and how close they were.

SAMBERG: Yeah, they're best friends who find each other extremely cool and sexy. But it was also a case of just SNL circumstance, which was Justin was hosting, and Lady Gaga was the musical guest, and we knew that for the third one it would be a real ante-upper to throw Lady Gaga into the mix, and naturally when you add a girl to the two guys, it turns into a three-way.

So then we had to think of a comedy angle for that, and that's what we came up with.

GROSS: Were they both willing, or did you have to convince them?

SAMBERG: Oh, they were willing. When we did the second one, "Mother Lover," me, Akiva and Jorma were the more hesitant ones. We were like I don't know if we want to go back to that well because, you know, "D in a Box" was so - it went over so well. I don't know if we want to mess with something that is generally liked. And, you know, if we don't do it, we're safe. And Justin said that's exactly why we should do it.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBERG: Because who would have the audacity to do it again?

SCHAFFER: That was very similar on "3-way," as well. I mean, we had the idea really early on in the week, and usually, you know, we only come up with the idea on like a Thursday night, record it Thursday night and start filming Friday into Saturday morning and start editing Saturday morning until the show airs. And that's basically the, you know, natural way that we did any of our digital shorts.

And in this one, we actually had the idea on a Monday, and the three of us were totally hesitant the entire week, and Justin kept being like no, it's great, just do it.

SAMBERG: He's very confident. And to answer your question, Gaga was 100 percent into it. Like we...

GROSS: That's a lot of work to do in a few days.

SAMBERG: Oh, yeah, that's why we...

GROSS: Because it's like your videos, it's like there's an edit every few seconds, and the scene keeps changing, and there's costume changes. It's a lot of work.

SAMBERG: I mean, the credit also to SNL and to their crew and their system that's built in to be able to pull something off that fast. You know, they had props and crew of, you know, people putting together sets overnight on a Thursday for a Friday shoot, constantly.

When we'd come up with an idea late Thursday night and be like OK, this is it, and then all these people have to be like OK, all the wardrobe and everybody and the wig department.

SCHAFFER: We need a horse head and a hot air balloon basket.

SAMBERG: Yeah, and it's - you know, you get so used to it that then you show up on Friday morning, and you're like where's our horse head. And they're like guys, you gave us the song at like 5 a.m.

TACCONE: Yeah, we're having a puppet master make it.

SAMBERG: Yeah, so it was - you know, it's an incredible machine to be a part of, and it's the only way it can really happen is to have hundreds of people all working towards this one goal at the same time because there's no choice because it's airing Saturday.

GROSS: OK, so this is "3-way" by Lonely Island, and it's from their album "The Wack Album," and we're going to hear Andy Samberg, Justin Timberlake and a little bit of Lady Gaga. She's more prominent on the video than she is on the song. So here it is, a cleaned-up version of "3-way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "3-WAY")

ISLAND: (Singing) Your mom says hi jinx. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, jam. Summertime in the city, and everybody's having sex.

(Singing) You know I just got a page from a girl that I met last week at the Pay-less Shoe Source. I also have a cutie to call who loves the way I knock on her boots. Well it's time to mack, let's handle that. In two to six hours, we'll meet back here and regroup. Now let's shoot.

(Singing) Roll up to her crib with some Bartles & James, hop off the bus with a Alize. Now hold up player, what you diggity-doing here? I should diggity-ask you the same, and she sang. Hey, boys I want you both. I hope that you think that's cool. Say word? I know most guys won't freak together, but she forgot about the golden rule, a huh, huh.

It's OK when it's in a three-way. It's not gay when it's in a three-way. With a honey in the middle there's some leeway. The area's grey in a one, two, three-way. Normally, I don't get down with dudes, but tonight is a special exception. So you're my best friend through thick and thin. Now it's time to make a triple connection. Lights off.

BIANCULLI: That was "3-way," featuring Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga. More with the new Lonely Island, who wrote that song, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's June 2013 interview, one of our favorites of the year, with the members of The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone.

GROSS: When you started working together when you were, what, in junior high school...?

TACCONE: Yeah, we were all in different sort of goofy music groups. I was in a group with two friends of mine called Strike Three because we had all been dissed by girls, so we had all struck out.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So did you do for-real music or comic music?

TACCONE: No, it was all jokes. We had joke rap music.

SCHAFFER: Yeah, me and my friends would record ourselves on, you know, little boom boxes with the record button on cassette and do like comedy raps that we had written in high school.

SAMBERG: I will say I wasn't a part of it, but I feel like I remember the first actual Lonely Island piece of audio, which is Akiva and Jorma recorded themselves over this skit from a Wu-Tang Clan album. And it's like this really intense...

TACCONE: It's very sad, actually.

SAMBERG: It's a bunch of - yeah, it's all the Wu-Tang and people on their block being like you, did you hear this guy Shaheem(ph) got shot, and everyone's like oh my God, no, and it's like really intense. And then Kiv and Jorm dub themselves over it going oh no.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBERG: Not Shaheem. Wait, is he the guy from - oh sorry, sorry, I interrupted, sorry. What were you saying?

TACCONE: It was just us being super lame.

SCHAFFER: There's so many members of the Wu-Tang Clan, you just, you can just slip a couple nerds in there, and you'll never notice.

TACCONE: These two nerdy guys who get railroaded into...

SCHAFFER: That's a part of the gang.

GROSS: So what were your mothers' reactions to you listening to rap music that - some of which was probably very sexist and some of which was probably, you know, very much, you know, bragging about violence? I'm assuming that your mothers were - I think all your parents moved to Berkley from New York in the '60s and '70s. That's what I read; I'm not sure if it's right.

SCHAFFER: That is correct.

GROSS: But I'm sure that they had, you know, an ethic that was kind of different from, like, the kind of sexist bragging on a lot of rap.

TACCONE: Absolutely, as do we.

SCHAFFER: We had to hide in our house like pornography, literally. Like something I hid them...

TACCONE: Yeah, absolutely, and my mother would go through and actually edit my tapes. Like she'd edit out the songs that were in any way - like, you know, I had a Fat Boys album that she edited, and I remember her hiding Run DMC's album "Raising Hell," which was one of my first albums that I had on vinyl, and hiding it behind this bookshelf, and I would have to go and sneak and listen to it.

And by today's standards, it's like - I mean, it's the most tame thing ever, you know, I mean...

SAMBERG: Yeah, I don't want to throw my parents...

SCHAFFER: My mom took away "License to Ill" because I did it like this, I did it like that, I did it with a whiffle ball bat, so - the first Beastie Boys record. And that was enough. She head that line and took away the whole record.

TACCONE: Little did they know that we were listening to, like, Too Short...

SAMBERG: I was going to say I have two older sisters. I have two older sisters, and Eazy-E and Too Short were on all the time. And I think because I was the youngest, by the time it got to me, and what I was listening to, they were kind of just tired.

(LAUGHTER)

TACCONE: Yeah, you had a distinct advantage. Both me and Kiva are the oldest child, so it was much harder for us.

SAMBERG: Yeah, also my dad got into rap. We'd like, bump the "Boyz n the Hood" soundtrack in the car on the way to soccer practice and stuff.

GROSS: So you all got on "Saturday Night Live" at the same time - Andy as a performer and writer and Jorma and Akiva as writers. Did you have a joint audition, or did you each audition separately?

SAMBERG: Auditioned separately. I had been doing a lot of standup, so I auditioned first, and then, you know, we had been writing for the MTV Movie Awards and Jimmy Fallon was the host, so he was there, along with Steve Higgins and Mike Shoemaker, who were producers at "SNL" and a bunch of "SNL" writers came with them.

And we got along really well with all of them, so Jimmy and Higgins and Shoemaker recommended us to Lorne. So I came in and auditioned, and it went well, and then they said, you know, these guys are best when you have the three of them together, you know, which was correct.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBERG: So they offered Akiva and Jorme to audition as well. Jorme did audition...

TACCONE: Yeah, which is the most nerve-racking thing I will ever do, and it's being beamed to like NBC West Coast, and Lorne and Tina are in the room. It's totally nerve-racking.

SAMBERG: And Akiva, who had no interest in being a cast member, opted to just have a writer's meeting. It went well enough that I got hired to the cast, and Akiva and Jorme both got hired as writers. But I think what they did not realize they were getting was two writers who also happened to be really good directors, and that was...

SCHAFFER: Thanks, Andy.

SAMBERG: You're welcome. It's part of the story.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBERG: You know, because when we were brought in, it was like...

SCHAFFER: We were not hired to make shorts.

SAMBERG: No, not at all. But, you know, the classic thing that we have always done, and I think Kiv is really the spearheader of that, is to be really proactive and to just, if you have an idea you like, go out and make it and then you don't have to explain to people why something is funny, you can just show them.

So these guys went out and shot a video on their own called "Bing Bong Brothers" and brought it in and said, would you ever air this? And they were like, well, we're trying to break all of these new cast members so it would be confusing to put something on with you guys in it, but definitely continue to do these and bring them in because we always need pre-tapes to turn sets over during commercial breaks or when we're in an act break kind of a thing.

You know, we can run a pre-tape and that gives us more time to do costume changes and set changes, so we just started shooting them on our own. And the third one we made was "Lazy Sunday" and after that they were like, OK, you guys are a film unit. Keep going.

TACCONE: And Akiva was always our sort of our main director. Like I mean I kind of learned how to direct from him, and to edit as well. And so we would, you know, in the beginning it was always Akiva as the director, and I would be making a lot of the music for what we're doing, and then that sort of changed when I started doing some the "MacGrubers" and some other ones, and so I started doing shorts as well.

GROSS: Akiva, did you study videos so you could really make yours look authentic?

SCHAFFER: I was studying for it my whole life, not knowing I was studying for it. I was just obsessed with them. I didn't have cable growing up and I would go to friends' houses and just watch MTV, like honestly like - it was like I would have like sugar cereal and watch MTV because those were the things that were not allowed in my house...

(LAUGHTER)

SCHAFFER: I would just do it like a fiend. Like I wouldn't even care if they were home or they were asleep, I would just watch.

SAMBERG: For sure.

TACCONE: And Kiv's parents had, they like had his TV under lock and key, literally. Like there was a key that you had to - how did it work, Kiv? I mean you used to sneak up into their room and take the key...

SCHAFFER: It only lasted like a month, but there was a month where my mom like got out of some catalog like a thing where it's like, you know, where like somehow it locks the power cord or something, you know, kind of the equivalent today of like, you know, putting a password on people's iPads, which I'm sure they do, so that the kids can't play with their iPads. But it was a much more clumsy box that made it that you couldn't turn on the television.

SAMBERG: It's like a chastity belt for your cable box.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I want to squeeze in one more song from the new Lonely Island album, the "Whack" album. And this is an excerpt of "Diaper Money" and it's an excerpt because several of the verses aren't clean enough to play on the radio. But describe what the premise of this one is.

SCHAFFER: "Diaper Money" arrives in three suites, each represented by a verse from each of the three members. The first one is "Diaper Money," which is Akiva who has two young children, and it's sort of bragging about being a dad. The second one is Jorma, which is something I can't say, but it's about how proud he is to be in a monogamous married relationship with his wife.

SAMBERG: And the third verse is me bragging about how I've got an incredible grave plot lined up.

SCHAFFER: He's very excited about his coffin.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBERG: And how - I would say it's like a meditation on the inevitability of death.

SCHAFFER: Yeah.

GROSS: Accept that.

SCHAFFER: We're in a more mature place in our lives now.

SAMBERG: Like a hilarious meditation on that. It's, you know, it's about we're all in our mid-30s now, and we're all either married or engaged to be married and having kids or headed towards kids. And it's our reality, and we're like why not embrace it and make an anthem for that?

SCHAFFER: And sadly, this is our most mature work to date.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAPER MONEY")

ISLAND: (Rapping) I got that grave plot. I got that grave plot. I got that grave plot. It's right off the highway. Wobble-dee-wobble-dee-drop into my grave plot. You afraid of death? Well, I'm afraid not. 'Cause I got the bomb spot right off the highway. I did it my way. A very small percent of the time way. I got my coffin picked out. Styrofoam painted like wood. Tricked out.

(Singing) It's even got handles to lower me smooth, and my tombstone only has minimal typos. Grave plot. I got that grave plot. I got that grave plot right next to my dad. I got that diaper money. I got that wife to boot. I got that grave plot. I'm a grown-ass man.

BIANCULLI: That's The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone. Terry spoke with them in June. It's one of our favorite interviews of the year. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. We're determined to end the year laughing, so we're continuing our holiday week series with some of our most entertaining interviews of the year with a duo behind the "Comedy Central" series "Key & Peele," Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

A lot of their comedy is about race. Perhaps, because they're biracial, they're perfectly comfortable satirizing white people and African-Americans as well as satirizing everybody else. Both Key and Peele have a white mother and a black father. The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum describes their biracialism as a "Golden Ticket to themes rarely explored on television."

Key and Peele met when they were part of the improve scene. They worked together on the sketch comedy series "MADtv." Terry spoke with Key and Peele last month and started by playing what maybe their most famous sketch - which went viral on the Internet. It introduced the character of Luther, President Obama angered translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KEY & PEELE")

JORDAN PEELE: (As President Barack Obama) Good evening, my fellow Americans. Now, before I begin, I just want to say that I know a lot of people out there seem to think that I don't get angry. That's just not true. I get angry a lot. It's just the way I express passion is different from most. So just so there's no more confusion, we've hired Luther here to be my anger translator. Luther?

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Luther) Hi.

PEELE: (As Obama) First off, concerning the recent developments in the Middle Eastern region, I just want to reiterate our unflinching support for all people and their right to a democratic process.

KEY: (As Luther) Hey, all y'all dictators out there, keep messing around and see what happens, just see what happens, watch.

PEELE: (As Obama) Also, to the governments of Iran and North Korea, we once again urge you to discontinue your uranium enrichment program.

KEY: (As Luther) Hey, Mahmoud, Kim Jong, I think I done told both y'all 86 your (bleep), or I'm going to come over there and do it for y'all. Please test me and see what happens.

PEELE: (As Obama) On the domestic front, I just want to say to my critics, I hear your voices, and I'm aware of your concerns.

KEY: (As Luther) So maybe if you can chill the hell out for like a second, then maybe I can focus on some (bleep), you know.

PEELE: (As Obama) That goes for everybody, including members of the Tea Party.

KEY: (As Luther) Oh, don't even get me started on these (bleep) right here.

PEELE: (As Obama) I want to assure you that we will be looking for new compromises with the GOP in the months ahead.

KEY: (As Luther) And you know these (bleep) gonna say no before I even suggest (bleep).

PEELE: (As Obama) Now, I know a lot of folks say that I haven't done a good job at communicating my accomplishments to the public.

KEY: (As Luther) Because y'all (bleep) don't listen.

PEELE: (As Obama) Since being in office, we've created three million new jobs.

KEY: (As Luther) Three million new jobs.

PEELE: (As Obama) We ended the war in Iraq.

KEY: (As Luther) Ended the war, y'all. We ended a war, remember that?

PEELE: (As Obama) These achievements should serve as a reminder that I am on your side.

KEY: (As Luther) I am not a Muslim.

PEELE: (As Obama) And that my intentions as your president are coming from the right place.

(As Luther) They're coming from Hawaii, which is where I'm from, which is in the United States of America, y'all, OK? This is ridiculous. I have a birth certificate. I have a birth certificate. I have a hot diggity, daggity, mamase mamasa mamakusa birth certificate you dumb-ass crackers, so...

(As Obama) OK, Luther, rope it in.

KEY: (As Luther) Yeah, dial it back, Luther, damn.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for being here. So let's start with the sketch that we just heard. How did you come up with the idea for the Obama anger translator?

KEY: Well, we knew we wanted to do something with Obama because we actually felt that Obama was kind of responsible for us even getting a show in the first place because there is this biracial person who might, you know, have to ride the divide between two different races.

And we weren't sure exactly how we wanted to do it, but we kind of went through a bunch of ideas, and then we decided - Jordan has a really amazing Obama impersonation.

PEELE: Oh, thank you for saying that, Keegen.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: And we know we're frustrated when a person like Joe Wilson had screamed during that State of the Union address, and he was like - you lie - to the president. And we were like, the president can't react the way millions of Americans right now are going - oh God, he can't say anything, he can't rail at this man, he can't get upset.

What if we had a surrogate who could get upset for him? And that was what - that's how we kind of - that was the embryonic stage of creating Luther, so that he'd have somebody who could translate him when he's having like an internal fit of pique, but could do it externally for him.

PEELE: This was also in the peak of the birther movement and things like that. So there were all these little issues that we felt were going unaddressed by Obama because I think, you know, the way we've described it before is that he couldn't come off like an angry black man, especially early on. So you know, what Luther says kind of is - are things that ring true to us, and we feel like, we felt like it was giving the truth a voice in a lot of ways.

KEY: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: So you use some obscenities in your sketches, and you're on Comedy Central, as is "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show." And they bleep those words on their shows. So how come you can say them and they can't?

KEY: Gosh, I feel like we are bleeped.

GROSS: Oh, you know what?

KEY: Yeah.

GROSS: I've heard some of it on the Internet, so maybe you're not bleeped on the Internet.

KEY: That's what it is, Terry, yeah, yeah. Yeah, we definitely get bleeped on the air.

GROSS: Oh, because I've heard some of it on TV and then catch up on the Internet. So I bet that's it.

PEELE: There have been a couple of episodes, I know at least one in the first season, where we got a TV-MA rating. So we could get away with saying some things that, you know, we felt like were essential to get the joke.

KEY: Yeah, like sometimes we talked to the network, we're like guys, in this particular episode, can we get a penis dispensation so that we can say this word?

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: So we can say that word or this word - it's like - so yeah.

PEELE: I think if we had our druthers, we would be unbleeped every episode.

KEY: Yeah, every episode, every sketch, yeah.

PEELE: But, you know, we do find it very interesting. I mean, the network enjoys the edginess of their programming and of our show, but then there's these kind of sometimes feel - you know, what feels like silly guidelines that - of certain words that you can't say. It's such a strange, strange thing when you look at what the boundary of acceptable and not acceptable is on television.

You know, we shoot people in the head in just about every episode...

KEY: Yup. Yup.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: You know, we can't get away with saying certain words.

KEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Jordan, when you met President Obama, which I know you did, did you get some insights into how to perform him?

PEELE: I would say so, yeah. I think I walked out of there a little bit more confident with my impression, and I actually did it for him at one point. He says, you know, I do a pretty good me myself, he said something like that.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: But, you know, the - he's - he is a close talker. He's a touchy guy. Like he will...

KEY: He is a very tactile individual.

PEELE: He will touch you on the shoulder and, you know, kind of, you know, so that big brother or father figure kind of way. And you really do feel sort of shepherded by him. And he's very funny. So I think I - I think after meeting him I was inclined to turn up the - just the humor of him, that he has a sense of humor. And again, I think that is also something he, in the beginning of his presidency, he couldn't really explore and couldn't show.

You know, he had to be almost a one-dimensional, stoic leader during that first election.

GROSS: Are you going to bring out the anger translator to talk about Obama's anger at the Obamacare website?

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: Well yeah, I think we - that may happen, and we may - we're planning - we're cooking something up right now to do about the ACA. But otherwise, I think Luther is - I mean, I think Luther is raring to go. He's like (As Luther) who the hell - man, come on. Who doesn't want health care? Go ahead, break your leg then. You know what? Even better. I'm gonna come over there and break your leg for you.

PEELE: (As Obama) All right, Luther.

KEY: (As Luther) And then we'll see - OK, sorry, sir, I apologize sir.

PEELE: (As Obama) Keep it together.

KEY: (As Luther) People is crazy. People is stupid.

PEELE: (As Obama) People is crazy.

KEY: (As Luther) And I'm gonna say it right now, mostly white people, stupid. Young white men, 26, get your act together.

PEELE: (As Obama) All right, well, let's rope it in. Let's not make it racial. Let's not make anything racial, ever.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's fabulous.

PEELE: (AS Obama)

KEY: (As Luther) I apologize, sir. I apologize.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and together they're Key and Peele. They have their own sketch comedy show on Comedy Central. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, and together they're Key and Peele. They have their own sketch comedy show on "Comedy Central," which is called "Key & Peele." A character you do, Keegan, that I really love is the substitute teacher.

KEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is a teacher who's taught in an inner-city school for, like, 20 years, and now he's teaching in like a middle-class school that it's like somewhere at approximately 100 percent white.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: That's right.

GROSS: And I want to play the first of these sketches that you did with the substitute teacher...

KEY: Sure.

GROSS: ...and then we'll talk about the character some more. But first, just like physically describe how you look in this sketch so we can get an image in our minds.

KEY: Well, I think what you're dealing with is a guy who has a real kind of military persona about him. He's very rigid and a little haggard yet still aggressive. He's got a really - his hairline is really far back. He's been balding probably since his 20s. And he has a very kind of tight - like a - this isn't the - the best way to describe is like a high and tight kind of moustache. So he looks like he might have been in the Army or something or an MP.

And he wears a short-sleeved, drab shirt and like a twill tie and just looks - he just looks all business, like he's ready to rumble.

GROSS: OK, so this is the substitute teacher, performed by my guest Keegan-Michael Key.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey(ph)) All right, listen up, y'all. I'm y'all's substitute teacher, Mr. Garvey. I taught school for 20 years in the inner city, so don't even think about messing with me. Y'all feel me? OK, let's take roll here. Jayquellen(ph)? Where's Jayquellen at? No Jayquellen here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) Do you mean Jacqueline?

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK, so that's how it's gonna be. Y'all wanna play. OK, then. I've got my eye on you, Jayquellen. Bellakay(ph)? Where is Bellakay at? There's no Bellakay here today? Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Blake) My name is Blake.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Are you out of your damn mind? Blake? What? Do you want to go to war, Bellakay?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Blake) No.

KEY: Because we could go to war.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Blake) No, no.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) I'm for real. I'm for real. So you better check yourself.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's really great. And...

KEY: I love it's Bellakey(ph), Bellakay, he's got two different pronunciations.

BIANCULLI: Jordan, do you want to describe how you end the sketch?

PEELE: And then yes, at - I believe Garvey says Jo-Nathan(ph), and then...

KEY: Is it Timothee(ph)?

PEELE: It's Timothee, yes, yes, yes. Maybe at one point it was Jo-Nathan, but...

KEY: It was Jo-Nathan at one point.

PEELE: But yes, he says Timothee, and then, you know, me the first black student we've seen, sort of emerges from behind a white student - Pre-sent. And then it's over.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: It's a pretty absurd little piece of heightening.

KEY: We went back and forth on pre-sent, too. We're like should he say - is that too silly?

PEELE: Is that too silly? Pre-sent.

KEY: Is pre-sent too silly?

PEELE: Nobody says pre-sent.

KEY: Everybody knows - but we just decided to go with it anyway. We had here, heray(ph), heree, pre-sent and just good old-fashioned present.

PEELE: But somehow it works.

KEY: Somehow it works, yeah.

GROSS: So when you were in school, did you have - were there a lot of students in your classes that had names that their parents had obviously creatively made up from scratch?

KEY: Oh yeah.

PEELE: Yeah.

KEY: Oh yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Keegan's from Detroit, and I'm from New York, and...

KEY: So the answer to that question is yes.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Yeah. I had...

GROSS: What were some of your real favorites, like of the real names?

KEY: There were literally in my neighborhood, there were two kids - now this is kind of an urban legend. Jordan and I both know this legend. Everybody knows this legend in kind of African-American lore. There's always somebody in your neighborhood named Orangejello or Lemonjello. And that's spelled - O-R-A-N-G-E-J-E-L-L-O.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: So, you know, that's - and then...

PEELE: Right, which - I mean, if you really, you know, dig deep into it, you know, especially when talking about African-American culture...

KEY: Sure. Sure.

PEELE: ...it's got, you know, names have such a deep history, you know, just from being - having our names taken away in the first place.

KEY: Right, exactly, right.

PEELE: Since we were renamed, and, you know, now it feels like, you know, it feels like 80 percent of African-American population have, you know, has, you know, named Washington or Jefferson or some, you know, some president or slave owner's name. And, you know, I almost wonder is this, like, is this part of a way of taking back the principle of naming your - I might be going too far into this, but naming your kids something of your choice.

GROSS: We were talking about your substitute teacher character, Keegan, and I want to play another sketch with that substitute teacher, the guy who taught in an inner-city school for 20 years and now is in a middle-class, predominately white school teaching as a substitute.

And this sketch is really funny. It's the same group of students as we heard in the one where he's taking attendance and everybody has an - and he's mispronouncing everybody's names because he's used to unusual names. So this sketch starts with one of the students asking a question to the teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SKETCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Mr. Garvy?

KEEGAN MICHAEL KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) What is it, A-aron?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Some of us need to leave a few minutes early today.

KEY: (Mr. Garvey) Oh, oh is that so? And what, pray tell, is the reason for this premature exodus?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Yearbook photos. We have to leave 15 minutes early to meet up with our clubs.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) All right, you know what? That might work with other substitute teachers, but I taught in the inner city for over 20 years. Now y'all want to leave my class early so y'all can go meet up at the club. Ain't none of y'all old enough to go to the damn club, ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Mr. Garvey?

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Son of a bitch. Did I stut-t-t-t-ter?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Aaron) Just then? Yes.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) I'm gonna throw you out that damn window. What, Jayquellen?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) Mr. Garvey, we're telling the truth. We have clubs at this school. We have clubs for special interests.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Oh, OK. What the hell club are you in, Jayquellen?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) Future Leaders of America.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) OK, OK. How would you know if you gonna be a leader in the future? Is there a stargate in your bedroom? Can you travel through time, Jayquellen?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As Jacqueline) No.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) Then sit the flip down.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Keegan-Michael Key as a substitute teacher, and Jordan Peele, do you want to explain how you end the sketch?

PEELE: I believe Timothee raises his name, and Mr. Garvey says, you know, he calls on Timothee, you know, what club do you have to go. And Timothee says, you know, I've got to go pick up my daughter.

KEY: (As Mr. Garvey) You're excused.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I'm wondering, Keegan, did you model that on a teacher that you had?

KEY: Actually, he is modeled on a guidance counselor that I had in grade school. And I went to a predominately black grade school, Catholic grade school in Detroit, and so that kind of aggression came from this particular guidance counselor because, you know, we had really fantastic kids at my school and super-smart kids at my school and a lot of kind of roughhouse kids at my school.

And he was - it's that same energy, and Jordan really honed in on this energy when the sketch was being written, which was the one thing that never leaves him is he's always ever-vigilant. He's hyper-vigilant about the misbehaving. And, you know, there's lots of perhaps social underpinnings as to why he believes every student behaves that way, blah, blah, blah.

But yeah, he was based on this one guy who the attitude of him, the tone of him is based on this one guy.

GROSS: You both have white mothers, African-American fathers. Was it ever an issue of like which group you were going to fit into - if you're going to identify with the white students or the black students? Or were there groups within the schools you went to that were multicultural enough that you didn't have to worry about like choosing a team?

KEY: Yeah. For me the, I think the reason I went into theater, ultimately, was because that was one of those multicultural groups. Because you identify with other people that share similar passions to you, so it didn't matter how much melanin was in their skin. It's just that clan is born out of love and passion as opposed to born out of some sense of obligation to belong to a certain group. So for me, that's what salvaged my life, I think, in high school for the most part.

PEELE: Yeah. It's such a loaded question I think for both of us. But I really do feel like, growing up, you know, I was lucky enough to be in, you know, a great town and great schools that had a certain amount of diversity. And so, you know, this is all, all of this goes into our work.

And I think both, you know, like Keegan was saying, I think the reason both of us became actors is because we did, you know, a little, a fair amount of code switching growing up, and still do.

There is these identity questions and, you know, all I can say is my mother was very good in that she helped me feel like I was a special person, like I, you know, I didn't need to go any farther than, you know, who I was and what I liked in order to find my identity. But yeah, clearly there has been, you know, a huge imprint that it's made on my personality and my art and my craft.

And I think the most trying part it involves how I speak. That's always been the part that I felt most insecure about.

GROSS: What do you mean?

PEELE: Is that the world has wanted me to speak differently than I speak. You know, I speak like my mom; I speak like, you know, like the whitest white dude; I speak like a Def Comedy Jam comedian doing an impression of a white guy.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: That's how I've, you know, sort of grown up. And I even remember, you know, when I was a kid every now and then you'd come upon somebody who would sort of question how I spoke, whether or not I was trying to be something I wasn't. It cannot be a coincidence that I decided to go into this career where my whole purpose is sort of altering the way I speak and experiencing these different characters.

And I think maybe sort of proving in my soul that the way someone speaks has, you know, nothing to do with who they are. People have, you know, everybody has different accents, everyone has different affectations, everyone is still human. So yeah, I've always - I've been very lucky to have a family who, you know, has welcomed me and not been hung up on anything racial, almost, you know, overlooking the fact that there was a racial difference.

But I can honestly say I do feel like I missed out on some lessons from, you know, of what the African-American experience is like growing up. I - my father passed away in 1999. I knew him up until about six years old. I mean, I could've used some advice from my dad of, you know, how to deal with somebody who's accusing you of being shady in a store.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

PEELE: I would've liked to hear those things.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and together they're "Key & Peele." Their sketch comedy show is on Comedy Central. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guests are Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele and together they're "Key & Peele." They have their own sketch comedy show on Comedy Central. Did both of you do a lot of, you know, characters or impressions when you first auditioned for "MadTV"?

KEY: I did more characters. I mean I had a lot of characters kind of in my bag from Second City.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

KEY: And so there were some characters that had been incubating at the Second City in Chicago. And so, you know, when you're at Second City, Chicago, kind of the unspoken thing is, is everybody is kind of - you're doing you work and your making your art and you're having a good time and it's really a kind of fertile time in your life.

But there's that thing in the back of your head that saying, boy, you know, "SNL" might come calling, or "MadTV" might come calling. And so you're kind of like, I would just catalog characters that I liked performing and that also that audiences seem to enjoy.

GROSS: Jordan, what's some of the characters you developed early on that you could tell us about?

PEELE: I was much more impression-driven in my audition. And one of my impressions was, I did Ja Rule. I did an impression of Ja Rule showing off his crib in "Cribs."

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: And then on the other, you know, I went all the way to the other side. I did an impression of John Malkovich ordering a pizza, which - in which he does not want any of the extra bells and whistles. I just want a pepperoni pizza, please.

(LAUGHTER)

KEY: Hit her with some Morgan.

PEELE: I did Morgan Freeman, of course. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: Yeah. Yeah. I'm Morgan Freeman. I don't remember what the context was, you know, but as sure as the black dots all over my face, I did this impression. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

PEELE: I was part of this group called Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, where - and that's where I met Seth Meyers, Ike Barinholtz, Jason Sudeikis, some really amazing comedy performers. And we did sketch and improv there, in just a slightly different format than Keegan would've been doing at the Second City. But we had one short - what's called short-form improv game where the audience would shout out impressions, and then they would shout out locations.

And we would literally, just on the spot, whatever impression - celebrity they gave us and location, we would have to become that celebrity in that location. And so I think, in that process, you know, I demystified the art of the impression for myself. And, you know, I think it's something that a lot of people think is magic, but is, you know, just like anything else. You can learn to do it and get better at it.

GROSS: We are, I regret to say, out of time. It's been so much fun to talk with both of you. Thank you so much.

KEY: Oh, thank you, Terry.

PEELE: You, too. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who star in the Comedy Central TV series "Key & Peele." They'll be back with new episodes in 2014. Their visit with Terry last month was one of our favorite interviews of the year.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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