Alum Keegan-Michael Key discusses career, approach to comedy and handling fame

John Patishnock
October 09, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State graduate Keegan-Michael Key has more than 50 acting credits on his resume, and also co-created and co-stars in the hit Comedy Central show "Key & Peele."

Key, a 1996 master of fine arts in theater graduate of the College of Arts and Architecture, visited with several classes this week to discuss his career and approach to comedy before attending the Alumni Fellows Award dinner Oct. 8. Key was one of 21 recipients of the Alumni Fellow Award, the highest award given by the Penn State Alumni Association.

Clips from Q&A with Keegan-Michael Key

Keegan-Michael Key, star of Comedy Central's "Key & Peele," was on campus in October to receive the Alumni Fellow Award, the Penn State Alumni Association's highest honor. Among his activities was a Q&A with Dan Carter, director of the School of Theatre, followed by questions from theatre students.

Michael Palmer

Before participating in the awards dinner, Key talked with the Alumni Association about how Penn State shaped his career, how growing up in Michigan influenced his comedy and how he handles fame.

Alumni Association: Welcome back to Penn State and congratulations on receiving the Alumni Fellow Award. How does it feel to be back, and what has the reaction been like from the Penn State community?
Keegan-Michael Key: It’s been tremendous and supportive, more than anything else, especially from the faculty that I remember; there were faculty members who retired but returned to campus and came to see me. It feels like putting on a wonderful, comfortable pair of pants; it’s like putting on your favorite pair of jeans, it’s great.

Alumni Association: How long had it been since you’ve been on campus?
Key: I can’t remember the year, but it was when I received an award from the College of Arts and Architecture, but I think seven years.

Alumni Association: You started your career with an improvisation theater group in your home state of Michigan. How did growing up in that area impact and influence your career and your style of comedy?
Key: I think there’s a Midwestern sensibility about comedy, in a manner of speaking, but I don’t know if I can quantify it. Also, we lived so close to Chicago, which is certainly one of the hubs of comedy in the United States of America, and that probably helped provide part of the sensibility that people get when they hear certain types of comedy. That’s something that’s been very important to me, and I think that had a lot to do with how I see comedy and look at comedy. But then Penn State changed it for me, because then I could look at in a different way, in a historical context, that I didn’t previously.

Alumni Association: What led you to Penn State?
Key: I was interviewing with schools and after I did that, my choice led me to here; it was mainly because I had a sense that the professors who were recruiting me, I felt like they were professors and that they weren’t actors whose career didn’t go directly to the path they thought it would go and decided to become professors. They seemed like people who loved to teach and had an adoration and respect for the craft. Then of course, I thought if that’s the case, they’re going to bestow that upon me.

Keegan-Michael key photo

Key displayed big-time energy with his gregarious personality, even obliging one student who asked for his autograph amid the Q&A. Key also spoke to the work ethic that’s needed in his profession, saying he routinely wakes up at 4:30 a.m. for a 15-hour workday.

IMAGE: John Patishnock

Alumni Association: When you’re not just an actor, but also a producer, a writer or a creator (such as with "Key & Peele"), how does that change your viewpoint while working on a project, and have you thought at all about directing?
Key: It’s funny, you’re allowed to weigh in on all the decisions, but I think the more important thing to do, is to find the stuff you can delegate to people you trust. Take care of the stuff that’s really important to you to make sure that you’re informing the voice of the show that you’re a part of, and then the other thing is there has to be things you can delegate to people who have a different lens through which they look. It’s almost more important to have people around you who you trust than it is to say, “I want all the power.” It’s better for you to focus on what you’re great at and let other people focus on what they’re great at. So it’s also about hiring the correct kind of personnel. I’ve thought a little bit about directing; I like producing, so that’s not on the forefront of my mind at this time.

Alumni Association: You were very approachable with students during your visit and someone who’s known you for 20 years said that you’re very grounded. How does that help you with your comedy and writing, and how you approach projects?
Key: I want to be able to pinpoint and take advantage of certain demographic phenomena. What I mean by that, is of course, if I spend time around “regular people,” then I understand what regular people find funny; because at the end of the day, you’re not going to get ratings if the only people laughing at your stuff is other writers (laughing), and writers have a pretty bizarre sense of humor that not all people share. What I know are figuratively called “the flyover states”: I try not to think of our country that way. I try to think about how people in Kansas have a certain type of wit. People in Florida have a certain type of wit. People in North Dakota have a certain type of wit, and I think what they find funny should be honored as much as anybody else. And since I’m from that part of the country, that’s always been important to me.”

Alumni Association: As your career has become increasingly more successful and you’re starring in more movies and television shows, not to mention appearing on the cover of Time and New York Times Magazine, do you sense that you’re more recognizable now than earlier in your career, and how do you handle fame?
Editor’s note: Not surprisingly, Penn State students recognized Key on campus and continually approached him, asking for photos; one student also asked for his autograph during an in-class Q&A session.
Key: Yes, there has definitely been a change. There’s definitely been a significant change, and it’s welcomed. I think it’s part of the territory, that’s the way it goes, so you may as well embrace it. Otherwise, you’re going to have a hard time, and you’re going to have to relegate yourself to a hermitage (laughing), you’re really not going to have a choice, so you may as well try to interact with people. Sometimes you interact with people, and you never know, you may find a new character.

Alumni Association: Right, like “Shawl Man." (Key obliged the autograph request from the male student, who was wearing a shawl in class. Key joked with the student, saying he’d keep “Shawl Man” in mind as a character).
Key: Shawl Man, yes! (He laughs and claps his hands).

To read more about Key's visit to University Park, visit The Penn Stater magazine's blog.

  • Keegan-Michael Key photo

    At one point during an in-class Q&A session, a student asked Key if he envisioned being where he is now when he was at Penn State. “Not in a million years,” Key responded, but he said he made the right decisions at the right time and challenged himself. 

    IMAGE: John Patishnock

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Last Updated October 14, 2014