When writer-director Elle Key was formulating her 2021 podcast about the history of sketch comedy—titled, fittingly enough, The History of Sketch Comedy—she had an unusually potent resource at her disposal: her husband, MadTV alum and Key & Peele co-creator Keegan-Michael Key. “I pitched the idea to Audible as, ‘If Keegan-Michael Key were to teach a 10-part course on the history of sketch comedy at NYU, it would be a very popular class,’ ” she says.
It turned out to be a pretty popular podcast, too, taking home a 2022 Webby Award for writing, and this October, Chronicle will publish a book under the same title written by Elle and Keegan, with some help from their famous friends.
“The History of Sketch Comedy is a pretty ballsy title to begin with, but we tried to fit everything we possibly could in 300 pages,” Elle says of the production process. The result combines crash courses on the roots of the format (some, but not all, pulled from the podcast), line-by-line analyses of effective sketches, and quasi-memoir sections centered on Keegan’s experiences as a comedy junkie turned industry heavyweight. Interspersed throughout are whimsical illustrations, bits of trivia, and, most notably, 35 interviews with comedy legends from Carol Burnett to Chris Rock.
“The publishers asked if there were a few people from the comedy world we could get anecdotes from to use for the book,” Elle says. “And I guess it’s fair to say I’m an overachiever.”
In embarking on a project like this, the couple agrees, a shared comedic sensibility is a must. “It’s hard to make me laugh, but Elle genuinely makes me, like, guffaw,” Keegan says. But their tastes aren’t always perfectly aligned. “She has an encyclopedic knowledge of good, old-fashioned jokes, with a set-up and a punchline, which was not part of my upbringing. ‘Jokes’ like that weren’t really told in my house.”
Elle is more succinct: “He’s not a New York Jew, is what he’s trying to say.”
The History of Sketch Comedy may be the couple’s first book together, but it comes after seven years of collaboration across TV, film, and audio helped them develop a comfortable shorthand that’s evident on the page. “Elle says I’m her favorite actor to work with, and she’s my favorite director to work with,” Keegan says.
“Unless Francis Ford Coppola is listening,” Elle adds, unable to resist another punchline. “Then he could also be Keegan’s favorite director.”
Elle Key and Keegan-Michael Key will be in conversation on Wednesday, May 24, 4:30–5 p.m.
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