What if the most impressive post-sketch show career belongs to Key, not Peele?
Sure, it’s a hot take, but hear me out. Jordan Peele followed the Comedy Central hit “Key & Peele” by merely becoming one of the greatest film auteurs of his generation, whereas his partner, Keegan-Michael Key, took a more varied route, stealing scenes in “Hamlet” at the Public Theater and improvising bits on Broadway, singing in a movie musical, starring in a comedy series, doing prolific voice work in blockbuster movies, hosting a game show and being an absolutely stellar talk-show guest (his conversations with Conan O’Brien are hilarious). Measured by diversity of work and bounty of laughs, Key stacks up well, particularly after his new project, the Audible podcast series “The History of Sketch Comedy,” is released on Thursday.
The title doesn’t do it justice. Directed and co-written with his wife, Elle Key, “The History of Sketch Comedy” is far more eccentric, funny and personal than an Intro to Comedy class, although it is that, too. His 10 half-hour or so episodes cover thousands of years from the ancient Sumerians (who kicked comedy off with a fart joke) right up to Tim Robinson’s Netflix show “I Think You Should Leave.”
But this comedy nerd history is filtered through memoir, with Key relating stories of his budding fandom, training and rise from improv comic to television sketch artist. He follows talk about comedy from Aristophanes by saying he grew up “a chariot” ride from Greektown in Detroit.
Along with the way, he pauses to offer the kind of practical tips you might find in MasterClass videos. “If you are an actor in a comedy, you should be trying to make the crew laugh,” he instructs in the ninth episode. Key explains concepts taught in comedy schools like “heightening” or “the game of a scene,” and also breaks down the four main comedy-character archetypes, dating to the commedia dell’arte. Demystifying the art, he provides if not a formula, then a road map.
Yet the most ambitious role he plays is not as a comedy mentor or amateur historian, but as a performer. The heart of this series, an odd genre hybrid that reminds me of Al Pacino’s documentary “Looking for Richard,” is in the sketches. Instead of relying on tape from “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color” or any other beloved shows, Key performs them all himself, setting them up, playing all the parts.
It’s a feat to pivot from analysis to performance, let alone between Abbott and Costello and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. It’s also a risk. Can jokes from “Chappelle’s Show” still work if you take out Dave Chappelle? And considering the reputation that comedy doesn’t age well, will old sketches still make audiences laugh?
They certainly crack up Keegan-Michael Key, who pairs a fan’s gushing enthusiasm with the skilled craftsmanship of a seasoned pro who knows that laughter can be contagious. Obviously, there’s no way a podcast is going to prove that Sid Caesar’s physical comedy is unmatched, as Key argues, but it can make a strong case for Bob and Ray’s “Slow Talkers of America” routine. Key’s version of this classic, built on the frustration of a conversation with a man who takes extremely long pauses, is absolutely hilarious.
Key is generally a faithful interpreter, but his goofy, ingratiating sensibility inevitably offers a new take, warming up, for instance, the chilly absurdism of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” In his final episode, Key is particularly persuasive championing what he considers the pinnacle of the art form: The audition segment in “Mr. Show,” the great, innovative sketch series by David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, that hinges on an elegantly simple premise about the misunderstanding of when a scene begins. What makes Key such a superb interpreter is how alert he is to the subtle choices, the minor variations, that build pace and spin a setup into something dizzyingly funny.
Key delights in witty, formally inventive comedy, which shows up in his very fine discussion of British humor in the sixth episode. Along with the obvious examples — Python, “Beyond the Fringe” — he lavishes attention on an early 1970s TV show less well known in America called “The Two Ronnies,” which builds a whole sketch on misunderstanding names. He then explains how a famous sketch he did on “Key and Peele” about a substitute teacher shares the same tactic. It isn’t the only time he uses his own experience to illuminate older work.
There’s a poignancy to him remembering the first time he heard his stoic father laugh. Seeing him break up at Eddie Murphy doing a Stevie Wonder impression with Wonder at his side on “Saturday Night Live” made such an impression that Key described it as “the beginning of my sketch-comedy path.” His enthusiasm can veer into cloying dad humor, but his delight in forgotten artists is infectious.
It’s questionable whether Timmie Rogers belongs in this podcast (he’s more of a stand-up), but it’s still exhilarating to hear Key doing the mid-20th-century act of this trailblazer, the first comic to headline the Apollo and star in an all-Black variety show on network television, “Uptown Jubilee.” Rejecting vaudeville stereotypes and racist conventions like blackface, Rogers transitioned from a musical double act into a politically wry solo performer, making him a founding father of stand-up. Compared with fellow comic revolutionaries like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, Rogers tends to get short shrift in accounts of that era. But in performing his old catch phrase (“Oh, yeah!”), Key doesn’t just pay tribute. He offers a reintroduction.
“The History of Sketch Comedy” keeps an eye on comprehensiveness, including quick histories of burlesque and vaudeville as well as the Broadway revue (“a vaudeville show dressed in a tuxedo”). The podcast goes out of its way to name-check a dizzying number of television shows. So it feels churlish to single out an omission, but the absence of Tim and Eric stands out because their aesthetic is so influential, including on shows “History” examines, like “Portlandia.”
And yet, one comes away from this series not just entertained and informed, but also convinced. It has an argument, even if it doesn’t overtly state it. Sketch is a rich, deceptively intricate art, even if part of its power is in its simplicity. Fart jokes endure for a reason. In creating a de facto canon, Key proves that the best examples of sketch comedy can be triumphantly revived like classic works of theater. To put it succinctly, a necessity for the form: If Rodgers and Hammerstein, why not Nichols and May?