The couple's new book covering sketch comedy’s evolution includes essays from Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks and more
In their new book, The History of Sketch Comedy: A Journey Through the Art and Craft of Humor, the husband and wife break down everything there is to know about a sketch, which they define as “a short scene that has characters, a premise, and some sort of comedic escalation or heightening.”
Mixed in with historical examples of the art form’s evolution dating back to the Sumerians of 1900 BCE are personal anecdotes from Keegan-Michael told with the wit he brought to Mad TV, Key & Peele and Schmigadoon!
In addition to material covered in their award-winning podcast of the same name, the book includes insights from such comedy titans as Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ken Jeong, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, John Oliver, Tracy Morgan, Jim Carrey and Keegan-Michael’s longtime collaborator Jordan Peele.
As Elle tells PEOPLE exclusively, she feels no guilt in picking which of the interviews she conducted were her favorites. “If I say Carol Burnett and Mel Brooks and anyone else who's in the book hears this, they might be OK with that!”
Married since 2018, the pair also discusses how they approach working together as both romantic and professional partners.
PEOPLE: You two have worked together plenty, but never on a book. What were the challenges or surprises in undergoing that process together?
ELLE KEY: A lot of the work in the book is inspired by and follows the format of the podcast. When I put the podcast together, people asked me if I was going to do research and listen to a whole bunch of podcasts. And I said, “I kind of just want to make our own thing and really just use both of our loves of comedy as the through line.” And I hope that that comes through, that Keegan is so knowledgeable and so talented and so excited about sketch comedy, that even though I was a fan before I met him, I became a super-fan after. And with our combined love of comedy, math and the science behind what makes sketches funny, I thought maybe if we do this the right way, other people would agree.
How did the then added component of these guest essays from comedy greats come about?
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Well, Elle doesn't do anything halfway. The publisher asked her for a few quotes and then she just went out and got 35 interviews from some of the best names in sketch comedy. But that's the way she operates.
Elle, was there a favorite interview of those 35?
EK: Carol Burnett was a huge inspiration for me, I guess partially because she's so brilliant and partially because it's one of my first memories of seeing people do what I later learned were sketches. They did these elaborate scenes of costumes and they cracked each other up, and it just seemed like so much fun. You want to be part of that group, you want to be there. So the fact that Carol was willing to get on a phone with us and talk to us for an hour about sketch comedy was incredible.
The book details some of Keegan’s creative roots, from Bugs Bunny and the Muppets to Monty Python and, of course, Jordan Peele. Elle, who or what were your comedic inspirations?
EK: I was a kid who grew up around New York City, and my family being Jews who told jokes certainly had a big influence on me. To this day, if I hear a funny joke, I'll call up one of my uncles or my dad or my mom. We kind of have a shorthand for jokes. As a matter of fact, Keegan and I will hear a joke, I'll call my dad and I'll give my dad the punchline, and my dad will then tell the entire joke because he's already heard it… I was really lucky in the late '70s and early '80s to see Alan King and Jackie Mason, Robert Klein, a lot of standup acts at the Catskills.
I've surrounded myself in my life with really good, hard joke tellers, and I think I've brought Keegan onto the fold. There are a lot of people who do work in comedy, and it's very, very hard to make them laugh when they're not at work. So one of the challenges when Keegan and I first started figuring out how to work together was, I knew if Keegan laughs at something, it was really good. It's the same with Mike Myers or Jim Carrey, that trying to tell someone who works in comedy a joke is a very brave task.
A compendium of specifically sketch comedy is quite distinct. Do you think that sketch is treated as its own medium or art form with enough recognition?
KMK: I think that there is more room for us to see it as its own art form. It does all different types of comedy a little bit of a disservice if we just kind of lump them all in together. I think that standup comedy is its own art. Sketch comedy is its own art. Comedic movies, a movie that is funny, is its own art. So we kind of wanted to shine a light on just sketch.
EK: Our hope is that people will put a bookmark in something or put the book down and go, "I don't know Mr. Show, what is Mr. Show?" And maybe find a whole new appreciation for sketch performers that they'd never heard of before.
Many, for example, now just think Bob Odenkirk is a dramatic actor.
KMK: Right, exactly! Or Hugh Laurie.
EK: Or Gary Oldman. Over the last few years, Gary is one of the people that I will now call when I hear a new joke because he loves a hard joke.... When I told Gary that I was interviewing all of these amazing people for the book, Gary said, "You haven't asked me." And I said, "Well, it's a book on sketch comedy." And he said, "I love sketch comedy. I know everything about sketch comedy." For anyone who's reading this, if you have a comedy and you want to give Gary Oldman a call, you might have a chance.
In the process of writing this and in general, how do you two separate or blend your personal versus professional lives?
KMK: How do we blend them? They're pretty blended. But our relationship started professionally. And then as we were trying to find something to work on together, and we started a production company together, later on love blossomed.
EK: "Love blossomed." That was very charming. That was very cute. I like to say that we were working together and he didn't want to leave.... People keep saying, "Oh God, it must be so challenging to work with your husband." And I say it's the other way around: “It must be really challenging to marry your producing partner.”
We have found that when we do work together — because maybe 50 percent of the projects we do separately and 50 percent we do together — the ones that we do together seem to work out even better.
Lastly, Keegan, what’s the latest on your collaborations with Jordan Peele? It seems every couple of projects you work together on something really different.
KMK: Yeah, it happens rather randomly that we'll find something that resonates with both of us and then we want to do it. It just happens to have happened that way, it's not planned that every year or so we do something. We're always having conversations about what to do next.
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The History of Sketch Comedy is out now wherever books are sold.
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