Keegan-Michael Key was born and raised in the Motor City, where he attended the University of Detroit. He then pursued and graduated with a Master's degree in Fine Arts at Penn State University. Other theatre credits include: "eBay of Pigs," Keegan-Michael's tenth revue on the Second City-Detroit stage, "My Children! My Africa!"; "Detroit Stories;" "My People, My People" with Malik Yoba of Fox TV's New York Undercover; "Measure for Measure" and Aristophanes' "The Birds," which he performed on tour in Greece. Keegan is one of the founding members of the Planet Ant Theatre in Hamtramck. He is also the author of the interactive play "Big Mama's Wedding," and contributed additional comedic material to the play "Moms Mabley: The Naked Truth." Keegan is an instructor for the Second City Training Center, he has taught at the Mosaic Youth Theatre, and he occasionally does improvisational workshops at Wayne State University.
While the producers of "MADtv" were discussing Keegan-Michael Key in their LA office, the Second City Chicago actor was doing his own reconnaissance. He went back to the receptionist and chatted with her while he waited, because for Key, one of the true tests of a work place is whether or not he gets along with the administrative staff.
It's unlikely he would have turned down a spot on the nationally-televised comedy show if he hadn't found he liked Gloria, a "sweet lady" from New York, but Key, in his own way, auditions the administrative staff because "they really help the thing go round."
Gloria was just one of the friendly people Key met that July day in the show's offices, and when they offered him a seven-episode contract joining the program mid-season, Key signed on. "I sense that they want to work with me and they want to nurture me."
It was a surprise to Key that they were even interested. When the show's executive producer came to Chicago on a Saturday night scouting talent he was actually looking for women, so Key, who has performed on Second City's e.t.c stage for the past four years, didn't think anything of it. When Key's agent called Tuesday morning to say the show wanted a meeting, "it came out of the blue, completely out of the blue." On Thursday he flew out to LA and, he says now, speaking by phone from California, "it all just turned out the right way."
He was introduced to the producers, they moved the conference table back, and he ran through some of the characters he had performed in his years with Second City Chicago and, before that, Second City Detroit, and then he did some impressions. After he'd showcased his material, they asked him to read with a writer. Then they simply asked him to leave the room while they discussed him.
When they invited him back in, they offered him a contract to sign. Instead of taking him over to audition for Fox Network executives, they said they were just going to sit tight and slot him in mid-season. "One of the reasons I was so happy about getting the job was that it was really, really casual," the 32-year-old said. Key now plans to split his time between Chicago and LA, where he is scheduled to start work this month.
The next step for him at "MADtv" is to meet with the show's writers, present his ideas and characterizations to them, and try to forge a working relationship with the people who pen the show's sketches. He'll go to his first table read Jan. 20 and could possibly be on the air that weekend. By May 1 the show's producers will let him know if they're going to option his contract. If they do, he'll be signing up with them for the next four years.
For Key, landing at "MADtv" is a surprise, although he admits that of course the program was on his radar. "You're always going to have eternal discussions about 'Saturday Night Live' and 'MadTV,'' he said. "It's hard to work at Second City, certainly in Chicago, and not think about that."
However, if you'd told Key 10 years ago that this was where he'd be in 2004, he probably would have laughed at the joke. Although he did improvisation at University of Detroit, he was more interested in classical Greek works, Shakespeare and commedia dell'arte when a graduate student at Penn State. He thought it would be great to get work after graduating performing only commedia dell'arte and absurdist theatre, a goal he concedes his professors used to giggle at.
In 1996 he planned to go to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, but he had given a friend his word he would perform in his film. That sent him back first to his hometown of Detroit, and it was there that he joined Second City. When his friend, Joshua Funk, moved on to Chicago, Key was invited to audition for the Detroit ensemble. He began performing with the company there in 1997. Funk was also instrumental in getting Key to perform at Second City Chicago too, Key said. "I believe that everything I have at Second City, he's the blessing that was put in my life, he's responsible."
While working at "MADtv," Key would like to see them do more classically comic scenes. One of his favorites from the show is a scene from last year in which a guy trying to win a golf tournament misses the final, easy putt. He does so again and again and again. Until the No. 2 player ends up winning the tournament. When the award is presented, the expected winner chases his opponent around the green trying to reclaim his prize. It was ostensibly a silent scene in the vein of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, but Key says, "I love how it escalated and grew."
The way the show handles parody is fantastic, he says, adding that "the no-holds barred freneticism that they have," makes the show a perfect fit for him.
But just don't expect Key to be seen in any scenes that require him to swear, be prurient or make scatological jokes. The comic actor is a born-again Christian and sticks to his beliefs even in his comedy. At Second City his co-workers were very supportive, he said, "I'm not running into the room and waving a flag and proselytizing, and I think that helps the situation," he said with a laugh. Plus, he says, he's learned the truth behind the adage necessity is the mother of invention. "I have to think of more innovative ways to be funny."
That innovation has paid off. He's not only making a living as a comic actor, he's also being recognized for his work. Key has won a Jeff Award and was listed last year as one of Crain's Chicago's Top 40 under 40. Key is gracious about both acknowledgements. "They're both equally important because it just shows how the city just embraced me," he said. "How can a community be so large and so kind?"
Key is quick to say he's going to miss working at Second City Chicago, where he performed in e.t.c. revues such as Pants on Fire and Curious George Goes to War, played a villain in the mainstage children's show Big Bad Wolf! (vs. Lord Underwearface von Schtinker), and endured a grueling 24-hour improv-a-thon last month.
One great part, he says, is "the collaborative process with the other cast members." There were days, he admits with a disclaimer that he doesn't recommend doing this, when he'd be on-stage doing a scene and be struck by this sense of awe, "How did we ever write that? Where did that come from?" And knowing that all the work he did at Second City lives on in its canon of material is pretty exciting too. "No one can never take away from you that you wrote it, this eight piece organism," he said. "The best thing is, and this typically happens, you cannot remember who wrote the scene and when you do remember who wrote the scene, it wasn't you. You usually bask in the creativity of the others."
He agrees with the assessment of returning Second City alum who have said, "This is the best job you'll ever have in terms of camaraderie."
Even after he signed with "MADtv" he continued to feel the love, he says. "They always were so supportive of me. Never did I feel a current of jealousy or anything like that. It was just really great to have that kind of untainted support."
Second City's Kelly Leonard says he's sad to see Key go but he's "been in the gig long enough to know [Second City] can't hold onto these guys forever."
Key's talent is abundantly obvious, Leonard said. "He's brilliant. He literally leaps off the stage as a performer. Keegan just has it all, and it's on display for everyone."
He said it was a "no-brainer" to bring such a talented individual to perform in Chicago, but he was just as pleased to learn what a good person Key is off-stage too. "Dignity will not leave a room if he's in it," Leonard said. "You don't behave improperly around him, because you would feel so bad, because he's such a generous spirit. That level of good-naturedness combined with that much talent, it's lethal, there's no getting around it."
What won't Key miss while he camps out in LA? Although he's lived in the Midwest his entire life, he doesn't think he's going to miss the cold. And he's excited about the idea of going to work at the same time as other normal people. Working nights always meant there was something impending, he always had someplace he had to be later that day. Plus, he says, "I really believe that God made the world so that things happen in the day."
Unfortunately, though, he's finally going to have his nights free and work on the same schedule as his wife, but she's a dialect coach and professor at UIC Chicago and isn't making the move to LA with him this winter. "It's just too bad that 'MADtv' isn't in Chicago."
What advice does he offer aspiring improvisers?
"Here's the thing that I guess I've noticed. It's not good, it's not bad, it's just in regards to being hired; if you're out of sight you're out of mind, because people are busy and it's really that simple to me.
"If you want the work, you have to make a lot of effort to get out there and have people see you so that there's sort of strange pedestrian comfort to people seeing you," he said. "Then one day, magic happens, and they say 'Oh, I love [that actor]."'
The way Key looks at it, giving credit to his wife for the insight, is that his job is to audition. When he gets the part, that's the vacation. "You have to find a way to look at it as your lifestyle," he said. "You're legally hustling and peddling and that's your job."
One reason he's so "completely overjoyed" to be working at "MADtv" is that "it's a paid audition for future work." He says, "We're all Tarzan swinging from one vine to the next vine."
Keegan is a freshman castmember on MADtv this year after spending several episodes as a featured player the previous season.