You might be wondering why Keegan Michael-Key (@KeeganMKey) — known for his Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele and his time on MAD TV — is the latest subject for an Onward State 10 Questions post. What you didn’t know is that Key is a Penn State alumnus, earning a Masters degree at the School of Theatre in the early ’90s. I had a chance to catch up with Key to talk about his show, his memories of Penn State, and more.
Onward State: When, if ever, will MAD TV return from hiatus?
Keegan Michael-Key: MAD TV will not return. There are those rare occurences where there’s a lot of fan support for a show and they’ll bring it back, but its been off the air for five years now so there won’t be a return there. But there will more than likely be a return of a particular popular character at the Penn State show at the York campus.
OS: You and Jordan Peele were pitted against each other during casting on MAD TV but ended up both being selected. Why do you guys work so well together and what do you think that they saw in you two?
KMK: I think that what happened is that they saw that we worked really hard and that we wouldn’t stop working until something is perfect. They saw that we worked really well together because we both try really hard not to stop until something is right, and throw it out if it isn’t there. I think the executive producers at MAD TV saw that and wanted to keep us both around. At one point, there were four African American people on the cast, and the writing on the wall was that they only wanted two, so me and Jordan were lucky to have made a good impression on the executive producers during casting.
OS: What is your favorite sketch that you and Peele have done so far on the show?
KMK: I think probably our first sketch on the first show — a sketch called I Said ‘Bitch’, about two husbands that are afraid of their wives. That’s the first sketch that really popped for us when we wrote it. It involved both of us equally and its really fun to do. It’s the first sketch that really triggered for us what we wanted our voice to be with the show. Other than that, the big hit from this season is the football players and all the names. We got to play 16 characters each and put on funny wigs and stuff.
OS: Who was your favorite MAD TV character to play and why?
KMK: Coach Hines. I think that because I was really allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. The scenes existed solely as an excuse for Coach Hines to have a playground, and there was a certain amount of freedom that I had with that character that I didn’t have with any other. It allowed me to stretch myself both physically and comedically. And everybody says that they had a coach like that in high school.
OS: What was your time at Animal Planet like and are you happy to have moved on to more creative comedy?
KMK: I was doing Planet’s Funniest Animals at the same time that I was on MAD TV. It was fun and it was a job. It helped me understand what direction I really wanted to go. The best thing is that it allowed me to move on.
OS: Did you guys ever consider doing any sketches related to the Sandusky scandal? What were your thoughts on the situation?
KMK: We had never thought about doing it and I never said anything but the crew was always very respectful of not making Sandusky jokes around me because it was a very sensitive subject to me and all Penn Staters. There’s nothing really off-limits for me and Jordan as long as we can make it funny. If we tested a scene and nobody laughed, we wouldn’t put it on television. The other thing is that the Sandusky scandal is still fresh. There is an old saying that tragedy plus time equals comedy, and there hasn’t been enough time yet.
It was such a monstrous, monstrous thing that he did. He’ll never provide comedy for people. I think we all just want to forget about this monster and leave him where he is. I really hope that he can come to some kind of realization or get some kind of help. We were one of the last schools in this nation that was completely free of anything negative. We were a Camelot.
My wife and I, we wept after hearing about all of the things coming out. Things just started to avalanche on top of themselves, you know, JoePa died. And that first game after he passed was very emotional for me. But I know the character of my alma mater and we will recoup. Penn State is an amazing world class research university with amazing students and amazing professors, but we are not a football school.
OS: What was your time Penn State like and do you have any good college stories from Happy Valley?
KMK: Because I was a grad student, one of my favorite stories has to do with teaching. I spend a lot of time with undergraduates. Three of the best years of my life were spent at Penn State. I love the environment, the student body, and I loved teaching there. I really enjoyed teaching classes. I once had a student that was a football player and he was doing a scene in class and I watched him learn and comprehend something in the moment. He didn’t think he knew the lines to the scene and I had him react to another student and all of a sudden the lines just blurted out of his mouth. I won’t forget that until the day I die and that wouldn’t happen at any place but Penn State.
I studied as much as I partied if not more so. I do have some stories from my time at Penn State, but I don’t think you’d want to publish those.
OS: What from your studies at Penn State has been helpful in the current success of your acting career?
KMK: I think a lot of the stuff that I learned in my movement classes were always very important to me. One of the things I learned best at Penn State was object work and mime because in the improv world we don’t use sets. You have to make up the objects in space. And that’s what I’m known for as a physical comedian. A lot of that training came from Penn State. That was always the most invaluable stuff to me. Also the classical work — being able to annunciate from working on Shakespeare and the classics at Penn State.
OS: What advice would you give to a college student looking to break into the acting industry?
KMK: There’s a professor as Penn State named Charles Dumas that told me to do as much as you can do without double-booking yourself. When you’re in school, do as much as you can possibly do, because this is a very volative business with 85-86% unemployment. The best way to learn anything is to practice it, to do it. Don’t get bogged down about what to call your theatre company. While you do that busy work, read scenes with each other.
Its all about experience, because eventually the lab experience has to transfer over to practical experience. Make sure that you’re doing plays in school. One of the best things about Penn State when I was there was the Outlaw Playwrights that the undergrads put together, where they would write stuff, test actors, and perform plays every Tuesday in the Arts and Architecture Building. You would do these shows, classes, and all of this other stuff and just never stop working.
They say that if you want to become an expert at something, you have to do it for 10,000 hours. You have to do things for years and years to get a sense of proficiency inside of yourself. There was a Carmelo Anthony commercial a few years ago where he talks about practicing the same shot over and over again, and at the end all of these players appear around him and suddenly its a game, and he says, “I’m not nervous, I’ve done this a thousand times.” And that’s the same for anybody — doctors, athletes, and actors.
OS: And lastly, as is Onward State tradition, I have to ask you: if you were a dinosaur, which one would you be and why?
KMK: I would definitely be a velociraptor because I’m kind of quick and hyper as you can tell by my rate of speech. I wouldn’t be one of those slow, lumbering dinosaurs. I’m one of those guys that’s always on attack mode.