NEW YORK -- As a comedy team, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are very funny.
As guys who both lay claim to biracial status (black fathers, white mothers), they share a state of informed in-betweenness that gives their comedy extra punch and extraordinary insight.
"Key & Peele"Airs at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays on Comedy Central
Race fuels much of "Key & Peele," their sketch-and-standup half-hour series airing at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays on Comedy Central. Straddling the great divide between white and black, they deliver a special brand of laughs, along with the occasional epiphany.
"There's been a lot of racial comedy over the years," says Peele. "But being biracial, mixed individuals, we realized there's been nothing from our perspective."
Even so, their mission isn't social reform.
"We're not trying to lead anybody toward any specific conclusion," says Peele, "except that, ultimately, race is an absurd thing."
"It always boomerangs back to culture," Key adds.
They are happy to show how.
The comedy of Key and Peele is clever, keenly observed and fearless. But never mean.
Consider their sketch set in the antebellum South. They play slaves who, placed on the auction block, grow increasingly indignant that no one is bidding on them, while all the other slaves are snapped up.
Then there's the sketch set in Germany in 1942, as a Nazi colonel looking for escaped Negroes finds Key and Peele hiding out -- in whiteface. With their nervous denials and foolish-looking disguise, they manage to convince their pursuer that they're not one of THEM.
Peele displays TV's best impersonation of Barack Obama in several sketches where the unflappable president is joined by Luther, his "anger translator" who channels, unfiltered, what Obama is really thinking.
For instance, after Obama calmly tells viewers that "Gov. Romney and I have different ideas on how to best help the American people," Luther (played by Key) screeches his unbridled version of the message: "I killed Osama bin Laden! And YOU strapped your dog to the top of your car!"
In person, Key and Peele are both affable, reflective chaps who genuinely seem to get a kick out of each other.
Key, the tall, hyper and bald partner, is 41 and grew up in Detroit. Peele, husky and more laid-back, is 33 and hails from New York.
They met a decade ago in Chicago, where Key was performing in a Second City improv troupe and Peele, then in the Amsterdam-based Boom Chicago comedy group, was visiting as part of a cast swap between Boom and Second City.
Needless to say, they found they had much in common.
Both soon found their way to Los Angeles where they spent several years in the ensemble of Fox's "Mad TV." Key also appeared on the sitcom "Gary Unmarried" and "Reno 411!" Peele performed on "Chocolate News" and "Childrens Hospital."
Then, earlier this year, they unveiled the first season of "Key & Peele," an ideal showcase for them to find the funny in issues that may or may not address race explicitly, but often use race as a way to score laughs.
"We love to show bravado, and then undercut that bravado," says Key. Example: two hit men are on a stakeout when one of them, struggling to maintain his gangsta toughness, announces he has just soiled his pants.
Does this sketch somehow demean the black race?
"We want the audience to think, 'They were going to do a hit, but he pooped himself!'" says Key, bursting into laughter. "That's not about being black, brother. That's just funny!"
In another sketch, Key and Peele play a pair of natty businessmen grabbing lunch at a soul food diner. As they place their orders, they slip into a duel of "competing blackness" to see who can think of the most "authentic" soul-food cuisine. The grand winner is Key's character, who orders up "a platter of stork ankles, an old cellar door, a possum spine and a human foot." With gravy.
A routine like that makes a telling comment on how people feel a need to claim, defend or reassert membership in one group or another. And this holds true especially when someone doesn't naturally identify with any group.
Sometimes the urge for membership can lead a person astray. In one sketch, Key plays a prison inmate who, being bald, seeks kinship with a group of likewise bald prisoners. But rather than accept him, they keep beating him up. No wonder. They're shaved-head white supremacists.
"You can talk about a comfortable WASP experience or a comfortable blackness," says Key matter-of-factly, "but we've never occupied either of those spaces."
All the better for their comedy to demonstrate how people modify their style in response to each person they encounter. Key and Peele are both splendid actors who, with the help of transformative makeup, adopt a seemingly limitless repertoire of characters, dialing in cultural traits with amazing nuance.
One sketch finds Key as a man with a cellphone speaking "white" to his wife about attending the theater. But when he's joined at a street corner by a glowering ghetto-looking dude (played by Peele), the man begins adapting with "blacker"-sounding lingo. Then the traffic light changes and Peele's character, out of earshot of Key, breathes relief in effeminate tones: "Oh, my God," he trills into his own cellphone, "I almost TOTALLY got mugged right now."
Key and Peele call it code-switching, and all code-switching, they say, is playing characters. They've been doing it all their lives.
"I wonder," Peele muses, "how much both Keegan and I were pulled toward a performing career -- where we're shifting personalities and doing different characters -- because we grew up walking a sort of racial tightrope."
"We've been doing some strange form of sketch comedy since we were very, very little," Key declares. "We just didn't know we were doing it."
Now they do it in a happy alliance.
"We both find the same things funny," says Key when asked to explain their creative process. "The biggest difference is our approach. I'm wholly physical, I have to act things out. I get overwhelmed when I approach things intellectually. But that's exactly the planet my partner comes from."
"I might say that you're a little bit more theatrical and character-based," Peele proposes, "while my sense of humor is a little bit more absurd." Then another way of saying it occurs to him: "I like choices out of left field. You like choices that are there for a reason."
"That's the best answer to the question," Key nods, pleased.
"That's good for us to think about," says Peele.
"That's nice for us to know," says Key.