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Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key on their new book about the history of sketch comedy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's no recipe for sketch comedy. There might be a few shared ingredients. Take characters contending with contemporary credos or circumstances, plop in an unexpected, even outrageous element like calling bring out your dead in "Monty Python And The Holy Grail"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL")

ERIC IDLE: (As the Dead Collector) Bring out your dead.

JOHN CLEESE: (As Large Man with Dead Body) Here's one.

IDLE: (As the Dead Collector) Ninepence.

JOHN YOUNG: (As the Dead Body That Claims It Isn't) I'm not dead.

IDLE: (As the Dead Collector) What?

CLEESE: (As Large Man with Dead Body) Nothing. Here's your ninepence.

YOUNG: (As the Dead Body That Claims It Isn't) I'm not dead.

IDLE: (As the Dead Collector) Here, he says he's not dead.

CLEESE: (As Large Man with Dead Body) Yes, he is.

YOUNG: (As the Dead Body That Claims It Isn't) I'm not.

SIMON: ...Jack Benny's reply to your money or your life...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM")

EDDIE MARR: (As Holdup Man) Look, bud, I said your money or your life.

JACK BENNY: I'm thinking it over.

SIMON: ...The campfire indigestion scene in "Blazing Saddles."

(SOUNDBITE OF FARTING)

SIMON: Stir, laugh, scream, then scene. Keegan-Michael Key, the award-winning actor, writer and producer, and Elle Key, the award-winning film, television, commercial and theater director, have produced a new book, "The History Of Sketch Comedy." We spoke with them earlier this week and started at the beginning.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: We actually started the book with a lot of supposition about what would have been funny to the Neanderthals and to cavemen in general.

ELLE KEY: Probably pretty much the same thing - somebody falling down or slipping on a banana peel if they had bananas.

K KEY: Yeah, if they had bananas back then - or running away from a saber-tooth tiger, you know...

E KEY: Like you do.

K KEY: ...And stubbing your toe, like you do.

SIMON: What role did the court jester play, do you think, in the development of sketch comedy? Was this the whole idea of ribbing power to its faces?

K KEY: Yeah. I think that that's actually a real good way of putting it, Scott, yeah, is that the social element or the social-political element of pushing the envelope seems to - I'm not sure if it started with the jester, but the court jester certainly was one of the practitioners of it. You know, I mean, the only difference is that job security is paramount when you're a jester, because if you lose...

E KEY: Right. Nobody as a Comedy Central Roastmaster General is concerned about his life or safety, I think.

SIMON: One of the best lines ever, Jack Benny's response to your money or your life - I guess I didn't know until reading this scholarly history - it was the product of a feud.

K KEY: Yes, of a made-up feud between him and his contemporary, Fred Allen. It was Fred Allen who attributed him with this miserliness. And Jack Benny then just really leaned into it - I mean, really leaned into it.

E KEY: That's the story that we have read and tracked down, so we like to believe that that's the truth.

K KEY: Yes.

E KEY: And it's super fun. But we had a chance to talk to both Matt Damon and Jimmy Kimmel about their current feud, which if people don't know, it's a really, really silly thing that Jimmy Kimmel, just one day out of nowhere, just decided at the end of a show, say, you know, apologies to Matt Damon for running out of time. Matt wasn't even supposed to be on the show that night. He just thought it'd be a funny thing to say.

K KEY: And they didn't even really know each other that well.

E KEY: But he just said it over and over.

K KEY: He just said it over and over again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JIMMY KIMMEL: Sincere apologies to Matt Damon. We ran out of time for him tonight. We'll get him on the air again soon.

Apologies to Matt Damon. We ran out of time.

Unfortunately, we are totally out of time.

MATT DAMON: Yeah. It's f***ing. Ha ha. Oh, it's funny. G****** funny.

E KEY: It was a great bit.

K KEY: So then that makes Jimmy and Matt almost kind of a descendant of the Fred Allen and Jack Benny feud.

SIMON: They don't know what you're talking about, right? Didn't Jimmy Kimmel...

K KEY: Right, right.

SIMON: ...Tell you, well, I don't know. I've heard about it.

E KEY: He did. That is a direct quote from Jimmy Kimmel. I called him. I said, do you - would you be willing to comment on your feud with Matt Damon? And he's like, I think I've read about this, but I don't really know anything about it.

SIMON: I want to get you both to talk about the important role of, hey, you can't do that in sketch comedy.

E KEY: I came up with this idea to end the chapters with something that I've heard Keegan say many times, this idea of this thing is so ridiculous, whatever that just happened on the screen is so silly, it could end up being called I Can't Believe You Went There. So we curated ten different moments in sketch that are just really silly and ridiculous. Like, one of them is from "Fry & Laurie," where Hugh Laurie is sitting at the bar next to Fry, and he just says something like, (babbling).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRY & LAURIE")

HUGH LAURIE: (Babbling).

K KEY: Fry responds...

STEPHEN FRY: Now, that's a lot of nonsense, and you know it.

E KEY: Blackout. That's the whole scene. It's like - you go, what? You can't do that?

SIMON: Tell us about the importance of the blackout in sketch comedy. Is it kind of like turning a page?

K KEY: It is kind of like turning a page. That's a really good way of putting it. I think that they're there to change the pace of a comedy revue, that's very often where you'll find the blackout, is in either a burlesque show or a comedy revue, where there's longer scenes and then maybe some kind of stand-up performance and then a song. And then all of a sudden, the blackout is a short, dramatized joke. So it's usually a sketch that only lasts for about 30 seconds, if not less. And it helps keep the audience on their toes. And it is. It's a bit of a page turner.

E KEY: And they're used it burlesque, and they used it on "Laugh-In," like, when someone would open a window, say a bitter joke or talk to someone else and then shut the window, right?

K KEY: Yep. Yep. Yep. I think they...

E KEY: Shut the door on someone.

K KEY: Yeah. They utilize the blackout really well on "Laugh-In."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN")

DICK MARTIN: Goldie. His great-grandfather was a centenarian.

GOLDIE HAWN: I hope he lives to be a hundred.

K KEY: We still use it today. In fact, we see it a lot today. The blackout is very prevalent on TikTok when you see small little comedic bits. So it's something again, another piece of - another kind of technique of comedy that's endured through the times.

E KEY: Was that - George Burns and Gracie Allen, is that a blackout, or is it too long?

K KEY: No, that's a blackout. It's certainly a blackout.

E KEY: Do you want to hear a blackout? We could give you...

SIMON: Yeah, please.

E KEY: ...A little blackout...

K KEY: Sure. Yeah.

E KEY: ...And give Keegan an opportunity to work on his George Burns impression.

K KEY: Here we go. (Impersonating George Burns) Do you like to love?

E KEY: (Impersonating Gracie Allen) No.

K KEY: (Impersonating George Burns) Like to kiss?

E KEY: (Impersonating Gracie Allen) No.

K KEY: (Impersonating George Burns) Well, then what do you like?

E KEY: (Impersonating Gracie Allen) Lamb chops.

K KEY: (Impersonating George Burns) Lamb chops? Could you eat two big lamb chops alone?

E KEY: (Impersonating Gracie Allen) Alone? No, not alone. But with potatoes, I could.

SIMON: (Laughter).

K KEY: (Laughter).

E KEY: Blackout. I think - does someone have to say, and blackout?

K KEY: (Laughter).

SIMON: Oh, wow. Look, I vowed to myself not to ask you what makes something funny, but let me work it in in another way. What makes something not funny? What makes a bit fall flat?

K KEY: What makes a bit fall flat? Sometimes - one element would be a lack of commitment. So I think one thing that you have to do is you must commit to the bit, and that is something that very often has to be an ingredient of making things funny. Another thing is if a person stays at the same level and they don't heighten or explore the concept that they're talking about, then the comedy stays in one place and doesn't go anywhere. And if it doesn't go anywhere, you don't get more laughs.

E KEY: I guess something that's a really, really long setup that doesn't have the the balance. Like, if you made some sort of graph of this is how long the setup is, the punch line better be good. Like, it better balance the setup time. But there are some people who take pride in, like, telling a 10-minute joke, and then the punchline just doesn't work. That's rough. There is comedy jail, which is different than pun jail, right?

K KEY: Yes. That's different than pun jail. Correct.

E KEY: Every now and then, Keegan will warn me that whatever pun I've put out there is pretty close to getting some kind of ticket.

K KEY: Yes. I'm just giving you a warning right now.

E KEY: Give a warning.

K KEY: I'm giving you a warning right now.

E KEY: Thank you, officer.

K KEY: But, yes.

E KEY: Thank you, officer.

K KEY: But you may get a ticket later if another pun...

E KEY: If you keep that...

K KEY: ...Like that comes out. Yeah.

SIMON: Mel Brooks tells you in this book he couldn't make "Blazing Saddles" today. Do you agree? And is that a loss?

E KEY: It's funny. He actually goes on to say that he probably couldn't have made it back then had he not had final cut. Even back then for his director deal, he was given final cut, which for people listening, means that whatever version that he edits and puts together of this movie is the version they have to distribute. And if the studio was in charge of cutting the movie, it would have been a very, very different movie, even back then.

SIMON: Well, what about the general proposition? Have we become hypersensitive?

E KEY: I think one of the things that Keegan and I have spent a lot of time working on and actually fighting for on different projects is that we try to use comedy to be inclusive and uplift. And I think a lot of times, especially now, people sometimes use comedy to be mean. Not to get too heady, but it's, what's the consciousness behind where the joke is coming from? Is it coming from trying to bring joy, or is it coming from trying to get people to laugh because they're uncomfortable? But there is a way to make fun where you're not punching down.

K KEY: That consciousness piece is well said, Elle.

SIMON: There are a number of performers in the book who tell you one way or another, comedy saved me. I wonder how you relate to that.

K KEY: I think that comedy is for people, whether they be in the business, the industry itself, or just in regular life. I think it's interesting that comedy is a salve for the soul, that laughter really is a healing element that we have in the human condition, and that's kind of how I respond to that.

E KEY: I happen to be Jewish, and I grew up in a house where people told jokes and had hard jokes, and it was just part of our family and our culture. And I think it also is a way of dealing with some challenging times. There certainly are plenty of jokes and tough situations to help bring some levity and joy.

SIMON: Keegan-Michael Key and Elle Key. Their new book, "The History Of Sketch Comedy." Thanks so much for being with us.

K KEY: Thank you for having us, Scott. This was wonderful.

E KEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ryan Benk