Keegan-Michael Key and Kate McKinnon on Hugs, Bill Cosby and Meeting Their Political Idols

Kate McKinnon Keegan-Michael Key
NBC/Comedy Central

Any list of comedy all-stars wouldn’t be complete without Keegan-Michael Key and Kate McKinnon. They’re Emmy nominated for a third consecutive year — McKinnon for her fourth season on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and Key for the final season of Comedy Central’s “Key & Peele” — a true rarity for sketch performers. Variety got the pair together for a wide-ranging chat that spans hugs, meeting their political idols, and Bill Cosby.

You were voices in “The Angry Birds Movie,” but have you worked together in person?
McKinnon: No. And it’s the single biggest regret of my life. Now it’ll never happen. Something will be said in this interview that makes us turn away from each other.
Key: Did we meet at the American Comedy Awards?
McKinnon: We did meet on stage at the American Comedy Awards. Don’t you remember, we held each other for eight minutes at least?
Key: It felt like 80 minutes. It was only eight, but it felt like a blissful eternity.
McKinnon: And yet, not long enough.
Key: You’re right.
McKinnon: Did I ever tell you I went to see Second City early in my life and I saw you in one of the shows? I remember individual lines from the improv stuff you did after that were just the funniest things I’d ever heard. I said to myself, “That guy is going places.”
Key: Did you really see me perform? You’ve never told me that.
McKinnon: Yeah. Was it “Better Late Than Nader”?
Key: “Better Late Than Nader,” it was my put-in show. It was a show I came into, me and Jack McBrayer and Abby Sher. I had a lovely time. All that stuff in that show was great. I took over for David Pompeii. Where are you from?
McKinnon: Long Island. You?
Key: I’m from Detroit.
McKinnon: Different places and yet there we were in the same house, and you touched me.
Key: I did. We’re both huggers. I have two hug relationships in my life. One is with Kate McKinnon and the other is Kristen Schaal. So Kristen and Kate are gonna have to go in the steel cage. Someone’s gonna come off the top of the ropes with a chair.

Who’s the better hugger?
Key: Oh boy, we’re just gonna do it?
McKinnon: I think we all know the answer to that question.
Key: We all know the answer and I’m just gonna say it, even though I’ve had a smaller sample selection with Miss McKinnon. Right now I’m officially in trouble with Kristen Schaal.
McKinnon: I don’t want that. We’ll say Kristen Schaal. It’s fine, I don’t need to build myself up like that.
Key: She doesn’t need it.
McKinnon: I don’t want to put other women down.

What were you doing at the American Comedy Awards?
McKinnon: He presented and won.
Key: It wasn’t the one when Jordan [Peele] and I were doing Obama and Luther, right? It was the next one? It was the one where the comic who we all used to love and adore who now shall remain nameless was the honoree.
McKinnon: Yes, it was that one!

Oh no. Do you have a Cosby memory?
Key: Jordan hoodwinked me. He took a picture that had me and him in it, and I was shaking the Man Who Shall Remain Nameless’ hand. Jordan cropped himself out of the picture and then tweeted it.
McKinnon: Fun! This guy…
Key: “Fun experiment, but please don’t tweet it.” And then he did. I came out of it relatively unscathed.
McKinnon: Oh my God.
Key: That’s a hell of a zinger. He got me.

This is the third consecutive year you’ve both been nominated for Emmys. Are you used to it by now or is it still exciting?
Key: For me I would be remiss if I didn’t say there’s an extra bit of excitement this year because we’re off the air and sometimes that actually means something. Sometimes that actually means there’s a chance you might win. This is the first year I actually think about writing a speech maybe? More than anything I’d like my hair and makeup team to win, they’re astounding. I never thought this would happen in my life ever, so it’s always a lovely thrill. But this year there’s this thing of, “If we don’t win, this is it, we’re done.” This is the last chapter in this era for our show. It’s soon resigned to the annals of television history.
McKinnon: My show too has gone the way of the dodo. No, I’m kidding. I’m excited this year, the show is nominated and the writers are nominated. It’s such a feat to do sketch comedy, especially under a time constraint. How sketch comedy ever gets written and produced is such a marvel. I’m excited for the writers of our show. I’ve always loved the Emmys the most, because I think TV is so personal, it’s in your house. To me it’s the most exciting thing. It would never be anything other than, “Holy s—, I can’t believe this is happening.”
Key: I do want to say it is quite a marvel, especially doing what they do at “Saturday Night Live.” It’s such a difficult thing to have television happen period, but to have 74 minutes of programming that’s live every week, that’s new every week, it’s a miracle. It has to be the most challenging format on television.
McKinnon: I feel the same as you. I love your show. I could eat it.
Key: It’s a different art form. Unique to television.

Sketch series received their own Emmy category last year, but you still compete against actors like Allison Janney and Andre Braugher. Do you think sketch performers should have their own category?
McKinnon: That’s interesting. I think in sketch the challenge is to try to be as grounded as you can while doing a panoply of different people. To me it’s crazy to be included in a group with those actual actors [laughs]. To me it’s a huge honor. I try to keep it grounded, but I don’t feel like I’m in the same league as that. But I’ll take it.
Key: I’d have to agree. It’s such a tremendous humbling thing. By saying, “let’s put these sketch actors into there too,” they’re allowing our subgenre to be added into that, it’s a lovely thing. But it is apples and pomegranates. That’s why we’re both honored. These other [nominees] have had this time to work on these characters and make them rich and full and layered. We don’t get to do that, and they still recognize us.
McKinnon: Yeah, well said! Thanks, guy. Seriously, it’s so incredible if you think about it. I didn’t really think about it until now.
Key: I didn’t think about it until you said it: Maybe there could be a different category. But that they would still recognize us is humbling. We both appreciate it.

Do you think of yourselves as actors or sketch performers? And is there any difference between the two?
Key: For me I always see myself as an actor first. The majority of my professional career — like 19 years of my 23-year career — has been sketch comedy, and yet it’s also been an interesting and wonderful and fulfilling detour. This was never the plan for me. I was going to be a Shakespearean actor who did regional theater, Shakespeare festivals, new works, Chekov. I’m a classically trained actor and that was the plan. Everything I learned in theater school is what I use and apply to sketch comedy. Like Kate said, you have to make every effort to make it as grounded as you can. That’s why it’s so difficult. Timing is important, you have to get the rhythm of the joke right — all that technical stuff has to happen, but you’re still trying to act like a natural human being.
McKinnon: Right. That’s a really good answer. I was interested in sketch. All I ever wanted to do is work at “Saturday Night Live” and here we are. That’s a tough question. Acting. Sketch acting. What is the difference? Is there a difference? I should’ve prepared a statement on this. I guess there’s not much of a difference except there’s more lines in acting [laughs]. There’s more dialogue.
Key: I will say this about Kate in particular. There’s a unique challenge to sketch acting. Everything heightens quicker. You get to the plot of the story within a page and a half, you have to execute the fun and games in two more pages, and then find a way to get out in another page. People think, “It’s only four minutes or six minutes, that’s simple.” It’s not simple. It’s hard. If you’re trying to keep all that intact and do that in four minutes, that’s a hell of a challenge. Kate does it with aplomb.
McKinnon: Aplomb!
Key: Hands down my favorite two syllable English word. Aplomb.
McKinnon: You’re throwing out a lot of good English words. Some I haven’t heard in a while, I love it.
Key: I’m in an SAT situation right now.

You’ve both found a niche in political satire — Keegan with Barack Obama’s anger translator, Luther, and Kate with Hillary Clinton. How close to reality do you like to play those kind of satirical characters?
McKinnon: For any impression it has to bear resemblance to the person, but it can’t just be an exact copy of them. It really becomes its own character. You have to imagine the desires and inner life of whoever you’re playing. For Hillary, I’ve spent many many hours contemplating her and her life — trying to figure out what is her deepest heart’s desire and go from there. It can’t involve any judgment. You have to find what you love about that person, and what tickles you about that person, and where you overlap yourself with that person. Then you can build a complete person who is fun to watch because it comes from a place of love and acceptance.
Key: With Luther, we’re pretending that he’s Obama’s id. It’s interesting because I’m doing what Kate’s doing, I’m finding a desire within the person. I do know having been with [Obama] and seeing just a flash — a moment — of genuine frustration on his part one time, we got it right.
McKinnon: Whoa, that’s awesome.
Key: To have confirmation and have him just go, “I’ll tell you what, these guys are ridiculous.” It’s funny. Jordan and I both do the impression, I used to do [Obama] when there was way less of him on TV. I take a less-technical approach than Kate does. For me, a lot of time it’s listening to other people. If there’s someone who sounds like that person, you listen to other people and try to make an amalgam out of other people to make your person. Sometimes that works.

You both had a chance to meet the real people too. Kate, you had to play Hillary in front of Hillary. What was that like?
McKinnon: She’s incredibly gracious and charming and sincere. She just took me in her arms, or maybe I took her in mine — probably that, because I was so excited I got to meet her. She was so wonderful and has been such a peach about the whole thing. She’s actually quite a good comedic actress, she really nailed the sketch at the first read through. We were all so impressed and relieved about that. It was one of the greatest days of my life and very surreal, to teach her a song. You don’t want to have to meet someone you’ve admired for decades by teaching them a song, which is what I had to do. The minute she came in the building we had a music rehearsal, and I had to correct her pitch on the melody she was singing. You don’t want to have to do that, but we all do what we have to do.
Key: That’s amazing.
McKinnon: What was your time with our president like?
Key: He’s also very gracious and warm, extremely tactile, a big hugger. Warmer than I thought he would be, which seems hard. He’s as genuine as he comes across. He was just lovely to me and Jordan both. Both he and Hillary have a sense of comic timing. When we did the Correspondents Dinner I couldn’t believe how stone-faced he could be on set. When we rehearsed he said, [in an Obama voice] “We gotta take this seriously now. Don’t break.” I was like, “Break? Why does he know our lingo?” Then we did a couple lines and he giggled. But when we were on stage it was “lights camera action” and he was superb. You can tell he’s a lovely person who understands people. Both him and her, they’re regular people. I guess it’s different when you’re not born a billionaire. Oops, did I say that?
McKinnon: What was that in reference to? Me?

Speaking of Donald Trump, Keegan, do you have any regrets your show ended before he came on the scene?
Key: No, I don’t have any regrets, because I’m not quite sure what we would do. It would be a fun challenge, but I’m trying to figure out how Jordan and I would approach it. Also we felt we were ready to be done. There was a sense of attrition to the entire process. We were 100% happy and comfortable with our decision, and we didn’t know any of this was going to happen. But it proves we’re comfortable with our decision because we’re not very “aw shucks” about it.

Kate, with everything that’s happened over the summer, including the conventions, do you wish “SNL” was on now to tackle it?
McKinnon: Yes, in fact just the other week I was watching some of the DNC with Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly who write all the Hillary and Bernie stuff. I said, “I wish we were at work right now.” Then I went home and said, “It’s, OK” [laughs]. But yes there is a tremendous sense of, “I want to be commenting on this!” I’m excited to get back.

Was there a DNC moment you wished you could’ve done something with?
McKinnon: After [Hillary] finished her speech, there were some pyrotechnics and she made a wonderful face of extreme surprise and joy as she saw that. I don’t even want to — I’m just glad I watched. And also there were some of the greatest orations of the 21st century, so that was exciting too.

Is it possible to do an impression of someone you don’t like?
McKinnon: I personally have never done it. I’ve tried and I can not do it. If there’s nothing that I can find that delights me then I just can’t do the impression.
Key: I’m the same way. It goes back to Kate’s answer, there has to be some redeeming thing I can latch onto. If the desire a person has is anathema to me, or the desire is something I find maybe disgusting, it’s harder to tap in. I’m not supposed to say that as an actor, because you’re supposed to fall in love with the character. But you can make up anything you want for a fictional character. If you’re watching a human being behave in a way that’s despicable it’s a hell of an obstacle. I’ve never attempted it, I would probably have a really hard time.

Has anyone ever brought you a sketch and you felt like you just didn’t know how to play the character?
Key: It didn’t happen on our show, we had much more control of the subject matter. We would tackle a subject and say, “Let’s make sure we’re punching up and not hurting the victims of the sketch, make sure the victim is a protagonist and wins in some way that’s still fun.” At “Mad TV” there were a couple things but it’s so long ago I can’t even really remember. For me if it’s a fictional character, part of the fun is to play a despicable character and find what you love about them.
McKinnon: There’s usually something. If all else fails, give them a funny accent and that’s fun.

Any parting thoughts before we wrap?
Key: Kate, I had no idea it was your dream as a young person to be on “Saturday Night Live.” It makes me so happy that your dream came true. The same thing you did to me at Second City in 2001, I did the first time I laid eyes on you. “Yep, there she is. There’s the next one.” And I’ll say something else, I haven’t had that expression I had when I saw you since I saw Jim Carrey on “In Living Color.” It was one of those “who’s that guy?” “who’s that girl?” moments. To hear it was your dream came true, you won the Olympics of Comedy. You got the gold medal.
McKinnon: Wow. Are you single?
Key: No.
McKinnon: I feel the same way. When I saw you it was like, “How is he doing this?” Not to mention that it was improvised, it was so unique and over the top and singularly comedic but also incredibly grounded. It makes sense to me to hear you’re a classically trained actor. There’s a command of the instrument that could only come with classical training.
Key: As you can see, we despise each other. I’m actively trying to find a project to work on with Kate.
McKinnon: I literally have too. Wouldn’t that be wacky?
Key: We’ll figure it out soon. I’ve got a good feeling.