'Key & Peele' star Jordan Peele on meeting Obama, season 2
It's safe to say "Key & Peele" star Jordan Peele -- who attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville/Yonkers -- is having a cultural impact when his Barack Obama impersonation prompts the president to invite both stars of the Comedy Central show to meet him.
The critically acclaimed sketch-comedy series returns Wednesday night, and Peele told Newsday Westchester that meeting Obama with his "Key & Peele" cast mate, Keegan Michael-Key, was among the best experiences of his life.
"[Obama] was super-funny," said Peele, 33, of their brief rendezvous in Hollywood. "And then, about the impression, he goes ... 'Uh, check this out, because I do a pretty good impression of me, too.' He was killing us. He did not shy away from the comedy with us."
The meeting took place soon after Obama was an April guest on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," whose host told Key and Peele over Twitter that they might want to watch that night's show. On it, the president said someone on his staff showed him a clip of Peele portraying Obama, and Key as his assistant Luther, who says what the president is really thinking.
Peele said he couldn't believe what he was hearing. "For him to call us out was the coolest thing in the world," he added.
A few weeks later, they all arranged to meet in Los Angeles. "For 10 minutes, we got to hang out with him," Peele said. "One of the things he said to us was, he looked at my partner, Keegan, and said, 'Hey, I need Luther.' He said that to us. He said, 'I'll have to wait until my second term, but I need him.'"
Before they hobnobbed with heads of state, Key and Peele first rose to prominence as cast members on Fox's "MadTV." Peele's pitch-perfect impersonations -- including those of James Brown, Morgan Freeman and Forest Whitaker -- have always made an impression, but his take on Obama helped lead to an audition to play him on "Saturday Night Live." In the end, "SNL" cast member Fred Armisen would have that responsibility until September, when cast mate Jay Pharoah took over the role -- but Peele said he's happy with how things turned out.
"Everything apparently happens for a reason," he said. "It's great to be able to own what we're doing, as opposed to living under the thumb of producers for five more years."
That's not to say "Key & Peele" has always been appreciated as its own entity. When Comedy Central announced last year that Key and Peele were filming a sketch show with interstitial segments filmed in front of a studio audience, some viewers and critics drew comparisons to Dave Chappelle's iconic "Chappelle's Show" -- even before the first episode of "Key & Peele" premiered in January.
"That was a little bit daunting to be compared to Chappelle, because we're in New York, we're huge fans [of him] and we thought what he did was so special, especially for the times," Peele said. "It was just a big relief to see how we were received when ['Key & Peele'] came out."
Peele said he realized the show was gaining in popularity when the sketches involving "Obama" and Luther went viral.
He said another sign of the show's success became apparent when fans approached him with a catchphrase culled from one of his favorite sketches. In it, Key and Peele play friends who supposedly claim authority over their wives by calling them the B-word but wind up being too frightened to use that term in front of them. As the sketch progresses, they go to greater and greater lengths to hide from their wives whenever they say the word, literally launching themselves into the vacuum of outer space by the end.
"[Key and I] always have people come up to us and say, 'Hey, man,' and they look [to see if anyone else is] around, and they go, 'I said, b----!' " Peele said. "We also have tons of people come up to us, 'Hey, man, I watched the show with my wife. Man, that's become a joke between my wife and I, that now we tell, and that's actually brought us together.' We get that 95 percent of the time. And then the other 5 percent of the time, we get, 'Hey, man, I was watching that with my wife, and I laughed, and now I'm in the basement. What are you guys doin' to me, man?' "
Peele teased that the stakes for "Key & Peele" are raised in season two: "Fans can expect us to be funnier and farther over the top."
Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Peele enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied from 1997 to 1999. His undergraduate experience later would became a punch line on both "MadTV" and on "Key & Peele." During the first season of the latter, Peele, as himself, tried to tout his own rap credibility despite acknowledging his Sarah Lawrence College matriculation.
He acknowledged that the decision to go to college there isn't typical among peers, saying, "Any black male that went to Sarah Lawrence College has a unique and interesting story."
While at Sarah Lawrence, he met and collaborated with Rebecca Drysdale -- who'd become one of the "Key & Peele" writers -- as well as other campus comedians to create a comedy team called Judith.
"Over 10 years ago, I knew that this is what I wanted to do," Peele said. "I was fortunate enough to have that clarity."
After building the confidence to pursue comedy full time, he dropped out and moved to Chicago to study improv and sketch at the legendary Second City comedy club, where he'd meet Key. The rest is history, one that includes Peele's cameos in the "Weird" Al Yankovic music video for "White & Nerdy," a recurring role on Adult Swim's "Childrens Hospital" and a supporting role in the Paul Rudd movie "Wanderlust."
Throughout his journey, Peele has always relied on the support from his "No. 1 fan," his mother. But that's not to say she doesn't give her son performance notes.
"She's a real Obama supporter," Peele said. "When I do sketches about Obama, she's always scrutinizing everything so that I don't 'break some rules,' I think is the way she puts it. She's deeply concerned that I'm somehow going to bring about the downfall of civilization, doing comedy."
The second season of "Key & Peele" premieres at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday on Comedy Central.