Key and Peele Are Improv'ing Their Way Through Four and a Half Hours of Super Bowl Coverage

All without saying the names of the players, teams, or the event itself, for legal reasons.
February 7, 2016, 2:00pm
Photo by Peter Yang/courtesy of Squarespace

Watching Keegan-Michael Key, 44, and Jordan Peele, 36, act feels a little like watching a pair of stage magicians at work. You know it's not real—and you can almost see the seams—but even after the trick is slowed down and explained, it still works on you. It's still magic.

Since their show, Key and Peele, premiered on Comedy Central four years ago, the duo has enjoyed critical adoration and the kind of popular, public adulation that produces genuine celebrity. They've got the Zadie Smith New Yorker profile and hundreds of millions of video views on YouTube. President Obama is a fan; your mom might be, too.

Though Key and Peele ended last September, the pair has been hard at work on various other projects, including a Fox show about a bullied cop, a feature film or two, voiceover work, and a stop-motion movie. Today, though, they plan to take on their toughest challenge yet: Improvising their way through four and a half hours of Super Bowl 50 coverage, in character as two dimwit commentators, without using the names of the players, teams, or the event itself because of NFL contract regulations. Oh, and it's also going to be streamed live.

It seemed like an impossible task, so, of course I got in touch with them to find out more. During the conversation, we talked improv, celebratory pelvic thrusts, and Madden. The comedy duo is stoked to make some magic this weekend—even though, as Peele said, "Any intelligence this weekend will be purely accidental, I promise you." Key took a more sanguine view: "We do really well when we're together," he told me. Either way, we've seen this trick before. I'm excited to see if it still works.

Watch an exclusive clip of Key and Peele's 'Real Talk' Super Bowl Coverage:

VICE: I watched last year's Super Bowl Special, and I thought it was hilarious and amazing. Can you give me an idea of what you're planning for this year, in brief?
Jordan Peele: So basically, these characters that we're unleashing are very much in the tradition of a type of scene that we just love to do as Key and Peele. They're really an opportunity for us to get together, improvise as these characters, and find the comedy as we go along. Whereas last year, we had a very strategically planned special, a satire on football, this year we decided to do something a little more reminiscent of sketches that we've done on Key and Peele, like "[Prepared for] Terries," or the valets. We call them "peas-in-a-pod" scenes.

Peas in a pod.
These characters are very eccentric, very positive guys who had the bright idea that they could do sports commentary on Sunday, and that that would be [legally] OK. And basically right before their big live feed, they find out that there are a ton of restrictions on what they can and can't say.

There's a sense also that it almost harkens back to television in the 50s. It's completely live, warts and all, and we're just gonna improvise through this live experience, which we're really, really excited about.

Do you have any historical commentator influences?
Keegan-Michael Key: Two people who I really like a lot are Cris Collinsworth and Jon Gruden, who you know, are commentating now. Cris Collinsworth, it's just his voice sounds like you're cooking bacon in a pan, and there's this crackling going on. There's something so interesting about his voice that I really enjoy. [With] Jon Gruden, the influence is more his attitude than it is trying to sound like him or impersonate him. He's like this guys who's like [_imitates voice_], "I'm a guy who knows... pretty much everything that's goin' on in the game of football..." [_laughs_]

Peele: As for the characters we're gonna be playing on Sunday, they're unlike any actual commentators—

Key: They don't really know how to commentate.

Peele: They're used to commentating on each other's football video-game skills, and they pride themselves on being the guys who are gonna give you the "real talk"––the type of commentary you're not gonna be able to hear in any official capacity. So that's their gimmick that they're coming in with, and then of course they realize, that they can't do that. Or else they would be sued.

"There's no tricks or smoke and mirrors here. We're improvising the set. For four and a half hours, we're improvising." —Keegan-Michael Key

Can you tell me, why football? What is it about sportscasting and color commentary that that is interesting to you guys, that draws you in?
Key: For me, I like watching commentators grow. There are some guys who start their career, and they're not very good at it. And then you see them grow into it. But other than that, it's watching this dynamic between [former] players. I love seeing players—I'll watch videos on YouTube of players who talk about, "Well, when I won my Super Bowl... blah blah blah." And another player, who never won the Super Bowl, you know? When you see the dynamic between those guys, that's just as entertaining to me as a game. You get to watch the shared history they had in their previous employment, which you don't get to see anyplace else.

Do you think you guys have grown as commentators since you've been doing it?
Peele: You think we could be commentators?

Well, what I'm asking is, you guys have been playing commentators on TV for a while. I was wondering if you feel like you've grown into those roles in the same kind of way.
Peele: You know, I think we could do a pretty good job.

Key: I do, too.

Peele: Keegan knows much more about the sport and the patterns and the history of the game. I've learned everything I know about these sports through video games, so [_laughs_]. But yeah! I think we could.

Key: Oh, I think we could give it a real run for its money.

Peele: I think we, Keegan and I, would be better than Lee and Morris, who are the characters we're playing on Sunday. They're not... they're not going to be very good.

So Jordan, you said you learned everything you know about sports from video games? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Peele: Well, I really started becoming a football fan in the last five years, and a lot of it was because of [the video game] Madden. At one point Keegan invited me to his fantasy league. He says, "All right, you want to jump into this fantasy league, that's gonna be the best education you can have." And I was actually, surprisingly, prepared, just because I knew all the stats that are in the game, for all the players. So I just had this almost encyclopedic knowledge of all the, uh, intangibles, and the throwing accuracy...

Who are your favorite football players right now? You each get one.
Key: On the offensive side of the ball, I'm a wide receiver guy, and I'm from Detroit. So the answer's supposed to be Calvin Johnson. But I'll tell you who it is: Antonio Brown, from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who I think is just a real hell of an all-around athlete. I always look at an athlete and think, Would he be able to play on the other side of the ball? Would he be able to excel on the other side of the ball? And so I'm always a big fan of really good athletes. And I just find Antonio Brown so exciting to watch. His speed, his acceleration, the way he cuts, the way he runs. He can return balls.

Peele: I would say Von Miller. Mostly because he's a great guy, and he gave us a shout-out, and got penalized for doing the pelvic thrust after a sack.

I want to talk about your language a little bit. I feel like your sketches are very smart, and there's a lot of wordplay that I think people miss. Do you guys plan to fold that kind of intelligence into the event this weekend, when you're doing this casting live?
Peele: Any intelligence this weekend will be purely accidental, I promise you.

[_Laughs_] OK.
Peele: Yeah, but just to follow up, it's gonna be one of the most free, fun, ridiculous, silly pieces of comedy we'll have ever gotten to do, so we're very excited.

Key: When we tell you it's improvised, Bijan, there's no tricks or smoke and mirrors here. We're improvising the set. For four and a half hours, we're improvising. So, please tune in, cause we don't know what's gonna happen.

Are you nervous about just doing it from the seat of your pants? Flying by night?
Key: This is a dream come true that we didn't even know we had. The thing is, I think we excel when we're together. And like Jordan said before, some of our favorite sketches, the things we've enjoyed the most in life, have been when you kind of lock off the camera. We have a mild idea of where we're gonna go, and then we just start talking. And that's exactly what's gonna happen on Sunday, and we have found a lot of success with that in the past. We have sketches that have cost a lot of money, and have taken a lot of time, and are very precise, and there's this choreography, and those have been amazing.

But then there have been equally amazing sketches that have been fun to perform and execute, that have been really off-the-cuff, and flying by the seat of our pants. And there's an extra kind of, amount of energy and fun to those.

Peele: If there's anything I'm nervous about, it's that whenever we do this kind of thing, we're desperately trying to make each other laugh, and there's no breaks. So we'll undoubtedly have to crack up during this thing, and I think our strategy is just going to be: stay in character and let the character laugh. But that's gonna be the biggest challenge.

Bijan Stephen is an associate editor at the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter.

Key and Peele's Real Talk live commentary will air for the duration of the entire Super Bowl on squarespace.com/realtalk.