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Distilling the History of Sketch Comedy in Podcast Form, With Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key

Find out about the new Audible Original series The History of Sketch Comedy from its two creators.

Keegan-Michael Key loves comedy. So does his wife, Elle Key. As they were hunting for projects during the early days of the pandemic, they hit upon the idea of turning their mutual affection for the artform into a show.

Today, Audible has released the new episodic podcast The History of Sketch Comedy, co-written by the pair, performed by Keegan, and directed by Elle. Over the 10 episodes of this Audible Original, we find out about both the evolution of the form and precisely what makes a comedy sketch work. Here, they share some of their insights.

Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key
(© Cathrine White)

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell me the origin story of the series.
Elle Key: My pitch to Audible was, "If Keegan-Michael Key was a guest lecturer at NYU and he was teaching a 10-part course on the history of sketch comedy, I think it would be a very popular class and he would get a lot of apples."

Keegan-Michael Key: I love to perform comedy, but I also love to learn about comedy. I'm into analysis, and why things are funny, and how this works, and the rhythm of that joke, and Elle was saying she realized that I have an encyclopedic knowledge of sketch comedy.

Elle: He knows more about sketch comedy than anyone I've ever met, and I'm a Jew who grew up in New York. I told him a joke at a meeting once —

Keegan: A good, old setup-punchline joke. Ba dum cha.

Elle: He liked the joke, and then it became a conversation about the turns in that kind of a joke. This is an example: "An old lady is upstairs and she yells down to her husband, 'Morty, why don't you come upstairs and make love to me?' And he says, 'That's fine, but I can't do both.'" It's simple and you get the premise, but then it takes a second.

We were breaking down jokes and realized that we liked the same kind of humor, and liked jokes that go in those directions. That was the seed of our relationship a little bit. Cut to a couple of years later and we're in quarantine, and I was like, "This might be a good time to write something. What if we can figure out how to take some of this knowledge that you have and share it with other people?" We thought it would be a nice thing to share.

Keegan: We just wanted to bring some light to people while were still in the midst of this. It'll entertain people, it'll inform people, they can share the sketches with each other, or act them out with someone. And we knew it would be something that we would enjoy doing, too.

(© Audible)

How do you distill an art form that has existed since the beginning of time, basically, into 10 episodes?
Elle: It wasn't easy. I think I intentionally underwrote it, in a way. Every episode has history, education, and a personal story. It's not just Keegan performing; there are things you can learn from it. Keegan was like, "These are the sketches for the subject matter that I want to hit on," and I set up guiding points for a structure, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, along with places where Keegan could go off and bring in the ways characters are created.

Keegan: You can get into character for a good five or 10 minutes. You can get into environment. It's almost like an acting class, all feeding back into the anatomy of how a sketch works.

Elle: And every episode ends with a "Hey, you can't do that!" moment.

What's that?
Keegan: A "Hey, you can't do that!" moment is whenever you see something that makes you laugh but is so inane, you have to say "Hey, you can't do that!" Elle hears me say that all the time when we're listening to comedy, whenever there's a weird turn. An example we use is, on The Carol Burnett Show, they did a parody of Jaws called Jowls. Harvey Korman and Tim Conway were both playing the Robert Shaw character from the movie, and they were comparing stories about sharks. And Tim Conway says, "I lost a girlfriend to the sharks. She jumped off the boat and was swimming for shore, she got about 40 yards in, and a Great White hit her. She would've made it, too, if she wasn't wearing her good luck ham." Those sharp turns that are a little silly or absurdist are my favorite things in comedy.

This sounds like it would make a great one-man show, for whenever theater reopens. Would you do it live?
Keegan: In a second I would do this live. We would figure out a way to 90-minute this thing, and if anyone can do that, Elle can. It would be so much fun to do it in front of an audience.

Listen to a clip below:

To hear all 10 episodes, click here.

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